As you’ve probably heard in the news, Colorado has been suffering a lot of catastrophic fires this year. A few of them have hit too close to home.
Last Monday, lightning started a fire on a ridge that starts less than a mile east of our house. Luckily, the ridge is about two miles wide, and it was on the other side.
Downwind and uphill is a good place for a fire. It was hard to get to, but my local fire department got there thanks to an ATV or two, and got it under control before it could spread too much (and while my wife and I were away for the day).
Then on Thursday I heard Ridgway’s fire department dispatched to a fire even farther east. That’s pretty much on the edge of their district, and in a place I can see from here, so I went outside and looked.
Sure enough there was a huge plume of smoke, but it was from the other side of the ridge — which puts it outside of our county, in Forest Service land about 20 miles from here. Turns out the Bureau of Land Management was already on it, and Ridgway turned back to keep watch on their own district.
(Click any photo to see larger.)
But Those Were Nothing
The really startling one was Friday, when a fire 50 miles south near Creede, Colo., really blew up, doubling from 7,000ish acres to 15,000 acres in a few hours.
The smoke plume dwarfed a mountain range dotted with 14,000′ peaks. Yikes.
The forest service joined these last two fires and a couple more in this region into one “complex” for planning and suppression purposes, called the “West Fork Complex”. As of today, the fires all together are considered the “most threatening” in the state, and the “highest priority” in the country.
Together, 117 square miles are burning. But we have it easy locally, in that we’re not directly threatened by any of it. Still, it’s pretty uncomfortable because we’re surrounded by forests where even the living trees are considered dryer than kiln-fired lumber, and the winds are stiff every day.
So yesterday evening, I was writing this week’s True when I heard a dispatch for Ouray Fire Dept. (Ouray is our County Seat). The report was for a fire at a building at a mine that was recently deactivated; people still work there.
The report was that the structure was fully engulfed, with flames threatening trees. That sounds like something to get excited about, but when you’re “in the biz,” you don’t get excited by the initial dispatch: people driving by things often blow what they see way out of proportion, since often they don’t really understand what they’re seeing. “Huge inferno” turns out to be small campfires or bonfires all the time, so I wasn’t concerned.
Not until I heard the update. It wasn’t reported by a passerby, but rather Ouray’s former fire chief: I know he knows what he’s doing, and how to size up a fire. He said flames were 100′, and the fire was spreading.
OK, now I’m a little concerned! But also, since I’m the county’s “radio guy” and I know the area well, I know that there’s no radio coverage in that part of the mountains, several miles up a steep dirt road into a narrow canyon. Structure fires are dangerous. Wildfires are dangerous. Put the two together in a narrow canyon packed with bone-dry trees and the potential for catastrophe is high. If a firefighter gets into trouble, or the fire goes completely out of control, all he can do with his radio is talk to the other firefighters nearby — dispatch will never hear a thing, and won’t know to send help.
So I shot up there — a full half-hour even with lights and siren — and parked on a high spot where I could talk to dispatch, and to the fire chief, and spent hours relaying. Because of the danger, I brought in an ambulance for standby, since we were so far out of town, I wanted medics there in case of injury. If a firefighter was hurt, it otherwise would have taken the ambulance 15-20 minutes to arrive. With them parked next to me, it would instead take 2 minutes. Happily, they were never needed.
Getting the Job Done
I was grateful to see “the troops” arrive. Not just nearly the entire Ouray Fire Dept., which was ahead of me, but two tankers and a brush truck from Ridgway Fire Dept. behind me. About 15 more from the Bureau of Land Management.
Even some firefighters who work as miners at the next mine up the hill came to help. They got there the only way they could: by walking down. It was past 10:00 p.m. before they all finally got it fully contained. One of the firefighters told me that the wind died down in the nick of time: the fire nearly broke through the lines. The forest around there is federal too, so the BLM took over, letting us locals go home to bed. A BLM crew stayed there overnight to ensure it didn’t flare up again.
When the ambulance crew arrived, they told me how nervous the town was. When the fire department is paged out to a call, an air-raid-type siren blows, so everyone in town knows something is up. There were about three pages for this one to get more and more help, so that siren blew again and again. Then the sirens on the firetrucks. Then the sirens from Ridgway’s firetrucks, and the BLM’s. And a BLM helicopter flew in to check things out. And many could probably see the smoke up there. Yeah, you bet the folks in Ouray were nervous! But their firefighters came through for them.
All in all, it was truly cool to see them do the work they love to help the community avoid an utter catastrophe. They beat the odds, which weren’t in their favor with current weather conditions. I won’t really relax until our monsoon season kicks in and it starts raining in earnest, which usually starts around the second week of July.
When I posted briefly about this on Facebook when I got home, a bunch of people called me a hero. Hardly! The firefighters, mostly volunteer men and women, did the hard work. All I did was provide convenience and a safety margin — I let them know someone had their back so they could concentrate on the job.
Did you know that most firefighters in the U.S. are volunteers? About 69 percent of firefighters in America are; about 71 percent of all fire departments, mostly the smaller ones, of course, are exclusively staffed by volunteers (plus 16 percent that are “mostly volunteer” — they may have a few paid staff to be on call more, or help train the others). Now that’s heroic!
Sure, it’s important that they have a lot of support so they can do their jobs, but that’s hardly heroism. After working all day and then spending about 5 hours on this fire, I didn’t get home until nearly midnight, and I was so pooped that I didn’t even try to finish writing: I left it for this morning. Imagine how much more tired the firefighters were, who actually had to work with hoses and shovels in smoke and heat!
It was one heck of an evening for all of us.
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Notes: First, sorry for no photos of the mine fire: I wasn’t on the scene since I needed to be elsewhere to relay communications, and the fire was obscured by hills and trees in between.
Second, I’ve been asked by many what I thought was the cause of the mine building fire. I have no idea. I wasn’t there, there was no speculation relayed to any of the support people like myself, and it takes careful investigation to determine the cause of fires when the start isn’t obvious (say, someone saw the lightning strike!)
I won’t create rumors. I’ll probably find out later, from the local newspaper!