Community rallies around firefighter who lost home in flood

The house of Jacob Dickes washed 30 feet downstream.
Photo by Colleen Dickes

Boulder firefighter Jacob Dickes was tired — even before the three-day shift he spent rescuing others from the flood that would threaten his family and take his house.

On Wednesday, Sept. 11, the day that the flooding started, Dickes, a member of the Boulder Rural Fire Department, had just finished the annual 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb in downtown Denver, an event in which firefighters in full gear climb dozens of flights of stairways in the CenturyLink building to honor emergency personnel who responded to the attacks on the World Trade Center that day in 2001.

If that grueling climb wasn’t enough, over the next 48 hours, the torrential downpour prompted flooding that kept Dickes busy responding to calls — even while his own wife and two small children had to evacuate their Lyons home to escape the rising waters. And now that his home has been washed downstream, his fellow firefighters and community members are raising money to help him rebuild.

Fellow Boulder Rural firefighter Aaron Kirby lauds Dickes for working to evacuate others when his own family and house were threatened, and he says Dickes is deserving of the $14,640 that has been raised so far at a page,

“Jake has been phenomenal in his attitude,” Kirby says. “I mean, he’s just been a shining beacon of hope and happiness, and I haven’t seen a down moment with the guy. He’s really an inspirational figure for everybody.”

The fire department seemed to agree, since the members voted to donate $5,000 from their discretionary Boulder Rural Firefighters’ Fund to Dickes.

One of Dickes’ fellow firefighters, Ian Cofrin, set up the page to collect donations for the family, and the drive is well on its way to its $30,000 goal. Cofrin works at the Longmont Fire Department but volunteers at the Boulder Rural Fire Department with Dickes.

“Jake is an outstanding guy, he’s one of the best firefighters I’ve ever worked with,” Cofrin says. “He was like a mentor to me when I first got started. He’s one of those guys who would bend over backwards helping other people out. He’s constantly training, he’s a very self-motivated guy, he’s always got a positive attitude. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in a bad mood. He’s a friendly, light-hearted guy who is rocksolid.”

Cofrin, who says the last day to donate is Dec. 1, set up the fundraising Web page about a week after the flooding.

“I heard what happened, and I couldn’t think of any other person who’d be more deserving of something like this,” he says. “You’ve got people you know and work with that you donate a few bucks to because you feel bad for them, but this is the kind of guy … he’s family.”

Dickes says that as the waters were rising the night of Sept. 11, he was keeping close tabs on the situation in Lyons via radio, and staying in close touch with his wife, Colleen.

“I was concerned about water getting into my crawlspace,” he says with a laugh. “I was like, honey, you might have to get out there and build a little dam around our crawlspace door.”

At around 1:30 a.m., when he heard officials questioning the stability of a couple of dams above Lyons, he told his wife to pack up their 3-year-old daughter, Taylor, and 1-year-old son, Gavin, and drive up to her parents’ house on Blue Mountain Road. They made it out safely, bringing only an external hard drive and some important documents, like passports. At that point, Dickes says, the roads were just wet, but an hour later they were under two feet of water, according to a neighbor.

He spent the rest of the night, and the next two days, helping others. Dickes’ crew responded to flooded basements, fire alarms triggered by power outages and soaked electrical systems, sewage coming up through toilets. They even rescued some people from the tops of their cars and houses.

The next day, Sept. 12, Dickes’ father and brother, both Lyons residents, went to check on his house.

“Water was lapping up against my windows, and my windows are about six feet off the ground,” Dickes says. “We had talked about this before. We always knew we would possibly encounter floods at our house. We just didn’t think it would be September, and not this magnitude.”

When Dickes finally got some time off on Saturday, Sept. 14, he went to Lyons and was let back into town only because he was wearing firefighter gear. His captain, Rob Kaplan, says that when he went into Lyons, Dickes was wearing a wildfire pack stuffed with crucial supplies for his family: diapers.

What he discovered when he returned to inspect his house was a jaw-dropper. Apparently, when the home was constructed in 1959, the builders never tied the floor joists to the foundation, so the floodwaters literally picked up and relocated the entire structure.

“My whole house just lifted up and moved 30 feet, and then it was stopped by the tree in my front yard and the tree in my neighbor’s front yard, and then it just settled back down again,” Dickes says. “And in a way, that may have been a blessing in disguise, because if the house had been tied to the foundation, it probably would’ve ripped and had a lot more destruction. We were able to salvage a lot of stuff upstairs.”

Later that day, he was reunited with his family in Lyons.

Dickes and his 3-year-old daughter Taylor at the Boulder Rural Fire Department’s spaghetti dinner in September. | Photo by Colleen Dickes

“It was great, it was crazy, just a surreal feeling to hug my kids after something like that, to hug my wife, and of course she broke down,” Dickes recalls. “Then she said she wanted to go see the house. That was hard, that was a hard couple of hours, because a lot of our life was in that house, and it’s just all gone. … We had spent the last five years ripping out every piece of that house, remodeling it. We put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into that house, and it was weird to see it all gone, just like that.”

Still, he and his wife have been trying to maintain a positive attitude for their kids, “not looking back and always moving forward,” as Dickes describes it. “There’s nothing we could do to prevent this, it’s just Mother Nature, and she’s gonna do what she’s gonna do.”

To add insult to injury, his truck was sideswiped by a hit-and-run driver late that night, while the family was staying with a relative in Longmont.

“There was so much destruction to my life in those last couple of days, you couldn’t even be upset about it, you just had to laugh,” he says.

And then assistance began to pour in from the community. Longmont Ford gave him a truck to use while his was being repaired. Then his fellow firefighters and others stepped up.

“We have had nonstop help from everybody we know and hundreds more that we don’t,” Dickes says. “It’s unreal, how many nice people are still out there.”

He says Cofrin asked him for permission before he launched the online fundraising effort.

“I was hesitant to it because I never thought that my family or myself would be the charity case,” Dickes says. “It’s really cool to see how much people want to help. And within the fire service community, there’s no exaggeration when they say it’s a brotherhood, they mean it. And you don’t even realize it until you need it. … They’re definitely my second family.”

Dickes, who is currently renting a two-bedroom apartment for his family in Boulder, says he hopes to put the donations toward a down payment on a new house.

“And then, definitely, there’s the small stuff,” Dickes adds. “My daughter’s birthday is coming up, so we want to provide her with a normal birthday party, a normal Christmas.”

Kaplan, his supervisor, agrees with the other firefighters that no one is more deserving of the assistance.

“For a captain, Jake is what I’ve always hoped to have sitting behind me as my firefighter,” Kaplan says. “When he’s at the station, he’s fun, he’s hilarious, he has an amazing sense of humor. But as soon as that bell goes off, he’s all business.

“He loves to teach people, and people love to be taught by him,” Kaplan adds. “He is the quintessential dude who will give you the shirt off his back.”