By Michael Golembesky
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — It was just after nightfall on the first day of the Black Forest Fire when the first handcrew from Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station’s Fire and Emergency Services personnel arrived to support. The dense forest was ablaze and the sound of propane tanks exploding in distant neighborhoods could be heard, signaling to the firefighters that it was going to be a long and dangerous night.
Operating under a mutual aid agreement, the CMAFS Fire Department was able to provide specially-trained firefighters within hours of the fire igniting. Looking north from Cheyenne Mountain, the firefighters had a clear view of the initial smoke plume rising into the sky.
“We knew we were going,” said Matt Backeberg, CMAFS Fire Department fire inspector and former active duty Air Force firefighter.
“By 8:30 (p.m.) we were on the line with an assignment,” said Chris Soliz, CMAFS Fire Department assistant chief of training and former Air National Guard firefighter. Soliz led the first handcrew from CMAFS into the Black Forest fight.
The first handcrew from CMAFS consisted of nine “red card” certified firefighters armed with shovels, axes and chainsaws.
“A ‘red card’ means we have specific training to support these kinds of events,” said Soliz. “It’s something we are very proud to have.”
Even with this certification, the Black Forest Fire presented unique challenges.
“There were some small fires burning on the ground, and then you rolled past a house where the cars are completely melted and burnt to the ground, then you would roll past a couple of houses that were on fire and then you get to your assignment and you are finally able to start doing some work to help stop it,” Soliz said when describing the scene as they headed into the fire zone.
“We were trying to save every house that was immediately going to be impacted or taken over by the fire — that was our mission,” said Elias Kunishige, CMAFS Fire Department firefighter and former Air Force firefighter.
“It was pretty scary to be in an area that was full of smoke and it seemed like every corner you came around there was fire going in different directions,” Backeberg said about their first assignment.
Many of the CMAFS firefighters helping in Black Forest were also veterans of the Waldo Canyon Fire from one year ago.
“When we were at Cedar Heights during Waldo it was a very defined fire front with the fire coming at us from an unpopulated area. There was a road and a neighborhood, the road is where we were at. You get down into Black Forest and you are in the neighborhood, there is fire on all sides, there was no defined fire front, there was just multiple fires everywhere,” said Jesse Feldhauser, CMAFS Fire Department firefighter and former Marine Corps firefighter.
“Black Forest Fire was a dangerous mix of wildland fire fighting and conventional structural fire fighting,” Feldhauser added.
“I sent Matt out ahead of us to see where the fire was and what it was doing while we were working on the houses,” Soliz said when talking about the handcrew’s actions while working their assignment.
“In a wild land fire you would normally have people on peaks that are watching the fire, seeing which direction it is going. They can talk to you on the radio and tell you which way the fire is advancing. Putting me on lookout allowed the crew to focus on cutting the fire line, mitigating the property and not having to worry about where the fire was because that was my job. If the fire started coming towards us, it was my job to let the crew know, ‘hey, we might need to get ready to move out of here,’” Backeberg said when recalling his responsibilities on the fire line.
The size of the fire was daunting, and the firefighters relied on their training to get through.
“In some areas there would be crown fires where the fire was 20 or 30 feet, like a wall of fire,” Kunishige said. “But we had our role — everyone did their part it helped us gain ground on the fire.”
Throughout the fight about 25 members from CMAFS worked rotating 12-hour shifts for five day before being released from the scene of the fire.
While the job was daunting, the support from the community shined through. In one evacuated neighborhood, the firefighters noticed the lights were still on inside of the High Forest Ranch community center.
“They had cooked food, set out batteries, Gatorades and anything you could think of. They did this while waiting to be evacuated so it would be there for us if we were going to have to be working in their neighborhood, said Feldhauser. “There was a sign on the door, ‘please come in and take what you want and thank you for protecting our neighborhood.’”
The firefighters emphasized that contributing to the fight was part of being a good neighbor.
“We live in this community,” Soliz said, “and it is important to us to help protect that community.”