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Firefighters See Fate's Fickle Side

Nature: As the largest wildfire in Colorado's history rages, flames cut an imaginary line: That on one side is destroyed, all on the other is spared.

June 22, 2002|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTCREEK, Colo. — There is no official name for the line in the dirt that divides the rambling timber house--clean and unscorched--and the smoking, charred remains of forest just 10 feet away, the line where the fire burned and smoked and raged, and then simply turned and moved elsewhere, sparing the house.

Many would call it the line of sheer chance. How else to explain what a firestorm kills and what it passes by? Here at the Mountain Communities Volunteer Fire Department, these were lines of war--the place where dozens of firefighters stood in or near their own neighborhoods, hacked out fire lines, hosed down woodpiles, hauled out brush, and dared the largest wildfire in Colorado history to take their own homes.

By Friday, two sides of the fire station were ringed with a line of scorched earth, and volunteer firefighters from all over the timbered hill communities near here fanned out into the canyons, stamping out still-smoldering ash piles, cutting down trees that nursed fire deep inside them, and driving by their own homes to see which had been saved and which had not.

"We actually thought we lost our home the first time. It was pretty emotional. Then, the fire came back, and by that time, it was, 'OK, you're either going to take my house or you're not. Just get on with it so we can get on with doing our jobs,' " said Mary Reeder, a volunteer paramedic supervisor and the mother of a preschooler, who was on mop-up duty Friday.

The 137,000-acre Hayman fire--still raging along a 100-mile-long perimeter--passed through these communities twice in the last week. Each time, volunteers and professional firefighters from nearby Woodland Park, Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs put up a ferocious defense, sometimes fighting to save a house as a 150-foot-tall wall of flame sweeping through the crowns of trees roared over their heads only a few feet away.

They set up firebreaks around homes, hosed down houses as a firestorm that sounded like a freight train marched on their backs, sometimes dropped and ran for their lives when the fire got too close, came back and fought for the same house again when the firestorm started to move on.

"One of the statements that's been made is that firefighters were running. It made it sound like some were heroes, and some weren't. No, that's not the way it was. I know, because I was one of those who ran," said Mike Dannenberg, who strategizes housing protection for the Northern Rockies National Incident Management Team.

"The house we got chased out of, one tree torched, another tree torched, and within seconds all the trees torched. Yeah, we ran. We didn't even have time to unplug the hose from the engine. We took off dragging the hose, because of the heat of the thing," Dannenberg said. "But I want to tell you that the firefighters up here were some of the bravest firefighters I've ever seen. They were protecting their neighbors' homes, and in some cases their own homes."

When it was over, at least two firefighters had lost their homes. Reeder, who had dropped off her 3-year-old daughter with her husband's parents and came back to work, returned to her house after the fire passed and found the line of fire within 30 feet of the side door.

Alex Henson, an 18-year-old volunteer, watched as his parents were evacuated from the neighborhood and stayed behind to fight with the department. He dropped by the house with a video camera shortly after the fire so he could tell his parents of the family's fate: The shed is gone, he said, but "the house is fine."

Henson said firefighters spent most of the first week of the fire preparing the Westcreek neighborhood's 60 or more houses for the inevitable approach of the fire, making sure as much brush, wood, and other fuel as possible was cleared away. Then, on Monday, as the fire began to burn along the ridges behind the fire station, they gathered around the station and waited. When burning ashes rained down on the station house and the fire roared less than a quarter of a mile behind them, they climbed into the trucks and drove down to a staging area.

"It was the most intense fire I've ever seen," said Tyler Lambert, a professional station captain from the Northeast Teller Fire Department who has been volunteering his days off on the wildfire. "It was moving fast. It came from Sheep Nose to Trail Creek--two miles--in 15 minutes."

In nearby Turkey Rock Estates, a combination of volunteer and professional firefighters mounted a daylong stand against a massive firestorm that swept through Tuesday. In some cases they fought house to house as it roared through the wooded drainage.

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