A Colorado Springs Fire Department battalion chief on the Waldo Canyon fire: the blaze that defied all logic. Interview by Lindsey R. McKissick
How do you explain the fire to people who weren’t inside the relief efforts?
It’s like a wedding reception: Unless you were there dancing, having a good time, listening to the music, living in the passion of the moment, it’s hard to explain.
When you first heard about the Waldo Canyon fire, where were you?
I’m on an incident management team and I’m the battalion chief here. I was up on the High Park fire with our Type 1 team. It was a beautiful sunny day. I got out on an area road and I could see the header on the smoke column all the way down the Front Range. It looked like a thunderstorm, but I knew it was fire smoke.
You got to the scene and realized the Waldo Canyon fire didn’t fit the normal characteristics of a wildfire. The smoke column, which is usually up in the air, had been sheered off by a thunderstorm, and the smoke column collapsed on the city. It was superheated with ash and debris. It was heavy smoke.
Is there a specific event that sticks out when you remember the fire?
The most significant negative was when I had to drive up a street alone. I had the air conditioner on. The glass in the truck was getting so hot I couldn’t touch it. I drove up the road looking down these tubes of fire. The streets were on fire. I was fighting to look down those streets because I thought for sure I was going to see one of our engines burned over with firefighters. I didn’t want to see that, I didn’t want to find that. Luckily, I didn’t. That was terrifying.
Many of the pictures showed just one house on an entire block that was spared. How does the fire decide?
The wind eddies blow around. If you have ever been playing softball when a thunderstorm comes, the guy out in left field may not have any wind on him, but all the infielders are eating dust. It was just a little air pocket that saved that particular house.
When did you know the fire was anchored?
There was a key house. The fire was moving up the hill on both sides of the street. It was a major boulevard called Flying W Ranch Road, and if the fire had gotten into the next neighborhood to the east, we were going to have real control problems. This engine from Lake Tahoe just pulled up out of nowhere. It was a little divine intervention, a little luck or something. This green engine with forest service guys, me, and a couple of guys in a utility truck from Colorado Springs got together to save this house. If that house had started to go, it would have started a chain reaction we couldn’t have stopped.
Had you planned for a fire in Waldo Canyon and the surrounding neighborhoods?
It’s an area we had pre-planned for, for a lot of years. If the fire had behaved like most fires, where the column stays airborne and the fire front slowly moves toward you, you have a chance to set up your perimeters and anchor points. You can prepare for that. To know what just happened in that neighborhood, you almost start to second-guess what’s going on—people burning to death, firefighters trapped, all the worst-case scenarios that are a possibility are going on right in front of me. We just reverted back to, “Go to work.”
You can keep training firefighters, but what’s most important for the public to know?
We have to warn the public. Public information is one of the biggest things. People don’t heed the warning. They have to help themselves. They are going to have to start taking the responsibilities on themselves in all environments. Wildland is one of them.
How do you explain the catastrophe the fire victims have endured?
These were just innocent civilians that had a really bad weather day and it turned into an experience similar to war. There was an expectation to come home and have dinner, hug their kids, and walk their dogs. By the middle of the afternoon, they realized that they weren’t coming back, they were never coming back. All these pieces of these people’s lives, their history, their lives moving forward, were just cut so fast. I don’t know how you would prepare for that.
Six months have passed; does the burn area ever catch your eye?
I look at it every day when I come to work. The time I drive to work, as the sun comes up in the east—it illuminates that whole burned side. You can’t help but look at it. I can see the beautiful red earth tones that you couldn’t before because of the trees. It’s changed the look of the land forever.
Is it a scar?
Well, I don’t know. We had some successes. The statisticians say we saved 80 percent of the houses. In my mind, a lot of people lost their homes. That was much more significant than what some statistician said we saved. I look at it like a large loss.
Could it happen again?
There was some unprecedented weather leading up to that event. We’ve had a long drought. We’ve had extremely dry, hot temperatures and windy days. There was a dry spring with no snowpack. The stars were lining up for this one. But if it happened once, it sure could happen again.