As giant plumes of smoke rose over the northern edge of Colorado Springs last week, Schriever firefighters knew the call was coming.
The Schriever Fire Department received the call for mutual aid during the afternoon of June 12 and by early evening it had a crew on scene of what would turn out to be the most destructive wildland fire in Colorado history.
To date, Schriever sent eight crew rotations to help save lives and homes and in the heavily-wooded Black Forest neighborhood during a five-day period. Nineteen Schriever firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze, with many pulling two 12-hour shifts.
Capt. Mark Dodson and firefighters Nate Moon, Kevin Smith and Steve Liedensperger were the second crew on scene the morning of June 13. Their assignment: Protect homes and structures from the fast-moving fire, which by that point had already burned thousands of acres and hundreds of homes.
They arrived at 6 a.m, carrying hand tools, fire rakes, chainsaws and water hoses.
Moon described the experience as non-stop action for 12 straight hours. Though the Schriever crew knew what it was getting into, Dodson was surprised at the amount of fuel in the area.
“We were positioned on the southeast corner of the burn area, near Meridian and Ayer Roads,” he said. “We estimated there are about 40 homes in that subdivision and most of them were surrounded by six to eight inches of dry, dead pine needles.”
Despite the desperate situation, the crew remained calm.
“At that point, you have to depend on your training and experience,” Dodson said. “We cut fire breaks [used fire rakes and other hand tools to dig trenches] around properties and sprayed water on flames that had moved close to homes.”
With winds pushing flames in their direction, the Schriever crew worked in tandem with two Denver engine crews. The groups moved from yard to yard, digging fresh fire lines, widening existing lines and cutting limbs from surrounding trees.
“This tactic is usually effective… except out there that day,” Dodson said. “With the wind gusting, we found we had to attack flames sooner in some cases. Nine times out of 10, we would leave a house, move to another one, and by the time we went back, we would find the fire had jumped our first line. The only times I really got nervous though, is when we pulled up to a house and saw flames right up against it. That happened a couple of times. So we had to pull our hoses to keep the house from going up.”
Extreme heat, smoke and wind worked against them, but their biggest challenge that day was the sheer number of homes in danger. Good decision making became paramount and their ability to adapt and adjust to given situations proved pivotal.
Water is a valuable resource in a scenario like this. Though crews were forced to douse flames as they moved dangerously close to some structures, firefighters relied on fire lines and water from home owners’ garden hoses and sprinkler systems. They used water from their truck as well, which they filled up from hydrants and water-supply trucks.
“We kept driving around this neighborhood, and at one point, it seemed like every yard was on fire,” Moon said. “All we could do was try to get there in a timely manner and cut our fire lines. Then we just kept coming back through to make sure they were working.”
Dodson and Moon believe none of the homes burned in the subdivision that day. Upon reflection, both relished the opportunity to assist in fighting the blaze.
“There’s no way you can replicate this type of fire during training, simply because of its magnitude and the dynamics presented by the situation, so it was invaluable experience for all of us,” Moon said.
“We were tired and our feet were covered with blisters, but it was satisfying when we left that evening,” Dodson added. “Everywhere we went, people were applauding and thanking us. It was nice, but the most satisfying part was knowing somebody was going to be able to come back to their home and that they could see how close the fire came to engulfing it.”
Dodson and Moon went back for a second shift Saturday and Schriever firefighters remain on-call, ready to support the community as it continues to fight the blaze.
News reports on Wednesday indicated the Black Forest fire is 85 percent contained, has killed two people, burned more than 500 homes and 1,400 acres.