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Hotshot Crews Fight Fires With Fire to Turn Tide

Strategy: The elite teams burn out areas of untouched terrain along a perimeter to slow the spread of a blaze and speed its containment.

June 24, 2002|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAKE GEORGE, Colo. — Here under the full moon of a warm Colorado night, it is hard to remember that the fire whispering along the ground is a killer. It crackles through the juniper bushes, glows orange in the belly of fallen logs, fondles the bottom of the trees and presses on without climbing them.

John Gale picks his way through the luminous forest without need of a headlamp. "Don't step on the ash piles," he advises, placing his heavy boot between two burning mounds of brush. "You could step into a hole without a bottom."

Only a few hours before, nobody would have stepped up and dared this fire, setting gasoline torches in the unburned brush to nudge it along. But fires often change their mood at night, they lay down flat in the brush, and you can nudge them like tranquilized bears.

By dawn Sunday, Gale's hotshot firefighting crew had helped spread the fire through a large portion of Division W--inside the southeastern flank of central Colorado's 137,000-acre Hayman blaze. The burnout operation widened the dead zone within the man-made perimeter, helping assure that the main fire--if it woke up again in the morning, if a hot afternoon wind blew it into anger--would not be a threat here. There would be nothing easy left to burn.

The weekend marked a clear turning point in a blaze that set records for Colorado Rocky Mountain wildfires. On Saturday, firefighters were looking at daunting low humidity and rising winds--the kind of weather capable of unleashing a firestorm on the woodland communities nearby.

By the time Gale and his Le Grande, Ore., hotshot crew went back to camp Sunday morning, fire managers were pronouncing the blaze 67% contained. The weather had not been as bad as expected; thousands of firefighters working furiously on its flanks had closed a perimeter around all but the Lost Creek Wilderness on the western edge; Saturday night crews had managed to burn out a large portion of the unburned terrain along the perimeter and had begun mopping up still-smoldering pockets.

"It got hot, the relative humidity went down, the winds came up--and we held our ground," Rick Floch, an operations chief, told crew leaders at the 6 a.m. briefing Sunday.

Thousands of evacuated residents motored back into their neighborhoods, boxes of clothes and papers dangling out of car trunks and windows. About 2,200 people--including those from the remote communities near where the Le Grande hotshots were working--remained under evacuation.

"I can tell you one thing: I will not leave again," Lana Berry, a resident of the Tranquil Hills neighborhood, said as she stood in her driveway Sunday morning for the first time in four days. "They cannot legally drag me kicking and screaming from my home. When I see the flames, I'll leave."

Fatigue is growing all over these small towns, nestled in the heart of wildfire country, 8,500 feet up in the Rockies. More than 115 homes have been destroyed, 2,425 firefighting personnel have been working--often around the clock--for 16 days, and some residents have been out of their homes for almost as long.

"Folks are going to be moving back into their homes, and they're going to be surprised, disappointed and grateful for what they find. You need to recognize the emotions," incident commander Steve Frye told crew leaders at the morning briefing.

"The landscape, the view-shed are not any longer what they moved to this area for. And it's really important for us to help them make the transition over the next few days.

"You're going to run into people doing things you won't believe, in places you can't imagine," Frye added. "This is not a time to be cavalier."

As the blaze begins to wind down, probably no one is more tired than the crews, like Gale's, who are the national interagency fire system's elite, best-trained troops.

The Le Grande crew--14 men and six women--started the fire season May 20 with two weeks of annual training and were dispatched the day they completed it to a series of lightning fires that had consolidated into a single major blaze in Minnesota.

They fought that fire for nine days, came home to Le Grande for a day, then were dispatched to Colorado.

For much of this week they have been working night shifts, hacking a line around the blaze with their shovels, helping occasionally to protect homes from advancing fire. On Saturday, they began work at 6 p.m., got off at 5 a.m. Sunday, slept and then headed back up to the fire line at 2 p.m. Day shifts usually run 16 hours.

Fatigue turned to anxiety on Tuesday, when a fire they had been flanking for hours suddenly changed direction and advanced toward them, cutting them off from their trucks and forcing them to retreat into a cleared-out safety zone. With no way out, they had to sleep in the safety zone, an area previously blackened by the blaze, while the fire raged on its edges.

"That evening when we got chased into the black, that was an eye-opener for a lot of these kids," said Gale, 41. "They hadn't seen fire behave like that."

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