Engine 2, our older brush truck.
It is 5:39 a.m., and the computer-generated voice on the telephone is saying, “We need a response to Bishop’s Castle — report of a structure fire.”
I pull on my jeans and scamper down to the garage. “Structure fire”—that means bunker gear, and so on go the heavy rubber boats, bulky pants with their suspenders, helmet, and the rest. The radio is crackling as the other volunteer firefighters check in with the sheriff’s dispatcher.
Ten minutes later I am behind the wheel of the second engine leaving the station, red and blue lights flickering in the darkness. No one else is on the road. The lights bounce off reflective road signs, rocks, and snow — it’s my own private rave, minus the music.
The castle, for so it is, perches at the far edge of our 110-square-mile service area, which is mostly forested mountains. In a slow, top-heavy vehicle, it is at least a 40-minute drive, up a canyon, over one divide, down the other side (watch your speed on the switchbacks!), up over another, down again, and up a long pull to the destination ridge.
Firefighters confer in front of the castle, which is untouched.
On the scene, I see that the hand-built stone castle is untouched, as is its gatehouse (complete with portcullis.). The fire has destroyed a two-story stone-and-wood house built in the early 1960s and now used mainly as a gift shop (lots of swords) as well as a small adjacent cabin.
The first department there had come a shorter distance, maybe 20 miles (all uphill), but now the fire is knocked down and they are out of water. They are outside their service district, but have come under the principle of “mutual aid.” Nevertheless, they arrived too late to do more than spray the ruins.
So we take over, supplied by a county Road & Bridge Dept. water truck — all the messy work of moving debris to extinguish fire underneath or inside it, knocking down parts of the porch roof that were still actively on fire, spraying down some fir trees that were slightly scorched, doing what we had to do.
Metalwork on the towers shows Jim Bishop’s artistry.
And Then Things Got Mythic
Bishop’s Castle (or Bishop Castle) has nothing to do with warlike prelates. It’s more like a Renn Faire setting without a fair. (That happens up north, closer to the Denver-plex.)
It is the work of one man, Jim Bishop, a Pueblo maker of ornamental ironwork, who has worked on it off and for 40 years. (You can read the history here.)
The style is not medieval-defensive but romantic fantasy, all arches and soaring towers, complete with a giant dragon’s head on top.
Through the death of a son in a tree-felling accident in the late 1980s, through serious illness suffered by both him and his wife, Phoebe, through disputes with all levels of government, he has persisted.
People love it. They love Jim’s story with its whiff of outlawry. They like the by-donation admission too. They shoot bazillions of photographs and put them online. They come from out of state to be married there. They buy swords and daggers in the gift shop — or did until Wednesday.
I posted some photos on the fire department’s Facebook page, and they got hundreds of comments, nearly 1,500 shares, and allegedly reached more than 147,000 readers. People love the castle.
Even in a democracy, there is something about a castle. If you crave a “safe space,” there it is. Is it the archetypal family home, where the parents are the benevolent monarchs?
Jim Bishop is a little rough around the edges. Just search “YouTube for “Jim Bishop + rant.”
I walk past one of the extra buckets for his skid loader, on which was painted, “YOUR SCUMBAG COUNTY” — and then the rest of the inscription was painted over in a different color. Someone trying to protect his reputation?
A sheet of plywood at the gatehouse was daubed with a rant that began, “Fire bans violate human rights!” The sheriff had imposed one a few days earlier, when we were having one Red Flag Warning after another. Had the fire happened five days earlier, before the snow, it might have jumped the highway and gone who knows where.
As we work, the undersheriff and a deputy are looking around. The deputy says that the people who reported the fire were “hinky.”
He is intrigued by a set of car keys lying on an old generator, and points out a set of tracks that go up to a propane grill behind the castle, walked around, and then came back down. He thinks someone might still be in the area. “Watch your six,” he advises.
That was comforting. And then we do hear two far-off rifle shots, and it is not hunting season.
But despite the deputy’s efforts to create a scenario where the fire was started by some sort of “transients” warming themselves at a different propane grill on the gift-shop porch, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation arson team that came later gave their opinion thus: “Probably electrical.”
I don’t know how this fits with the romantic-fantasy castle image, but there is something “hinky” about that area. Maybe it needs a feng-shui treatment. Maybe it’s just Jim Bishop’s sometimes-chaotic energy.
Even though visitors park right on the highway in plain sight, every summer there are reports of car break-ins. Since no one lives nearby year-around, the criminals must be driving up there themselves and parking there too. Yet they are never caught.
That stretch of highway seems to attract every cut-rate Bonnie and Clyde who want to “head for the mountains” — and it eats motorcycles — but those are other stories.
I am still learning the energies of these mountains.