In June 2002, southwestern Colorado was suffering from a prolonged drought, and the conditions around Lake Vallecito—an idyllic summer cabin community about 18 miles northeast of Durango—were particularly dry. After a spark of unknown origin started a small fire on June 9, it quickly jumped a county road and raced across the valley. Low humidity, high temperatures, and dry, dense vegetation, meant the valley’s moisture content was equivalent to kiln-dried lumber, according to an article in the Durango Herald.
By nightfall, the Missionary Ridge fire had charred 6,500 acres, and gradually spread to almost 73,000, destroying 46 homes and tragically killing firefighter Alan Wyatt. Driven by strong winds, the fire behaved erratically, keeping area residents on constant alert. During a three-week period, more than 1,200 area homes were evacuated, and many of the community’s vehicles, stored on the dry lakebed on the valley’s northern side, were burnt after a rare, fire-generated tornado swept down from the mountainside and across the lake.
The fire’s scope, intensity, and devastation were difficult to comprehend, but the community countered the shock by rallying together to assist the families displaced by the fire and to support the more than 4,000 firefighters and volunteers who bravely battled the flames. To help express the community’s appreciation, local David McGinnis organized a moving tribute to their efforts. He collaborated with Chad Haspels, a Pagosa Springs-based artist, to create a series of 14 unique carvings out of the trunks of some of the 200-year-old Ponderosa pine trees killed by the fire.
These sculptures, which stand about 18 feet tall and weigh about 2,600 pounds apiece, feature poignant, flame-crowned carvings that honor the fire crews and recognize the wildlife affected by the flames. One sculpture, located at the Blue Spruce Trailer Park, features a firefighter gently cradling a raccoon named Rocky, who was rescued from the forest after the flames consumed both of her parents. The following winter, Rocky visited residents’ houses almost every night in search of food.
Another carving, located in front of the Vallecito Country Market, depicts a chainsaw-toting firefighter from Oregon. Haspels created this piece to commemorate the assistance of the many fire crews who came from out of state. Outside the Rocky Mountain Store, the “Rebirth of Vallecito,” the last of the 14 pieces to be carved, depicts the hopeful return of the sun, animals, and trees to the area.
The most memorable of all the sculptures is the memorial to Alan Wyatt, the man who died while fighting the fire. Located near the lakeshore next to the Vallecito Community Center, this sculpture was carved into the still-rooted trunk of a large tree whose top was snapped off by a thermal vortex created by the fire. Based upon a photograph, Wyatt’s image is eerily realistic and depicts the hero with his firefighting helmet clutched to his heart. It’s a touching tribute to the bravery of Wyatt, the crews who battled the terrifying flames, and the remarkable resilience of this and the many other Colorado communities who have been affected by wildfires.
Visit: The carvings are scattered along the roads around Lake Vallecito’s northern and western shores. Several of them are tricky to locate, so it’s best to obtain a Tour of Carvings brochure from the Durango Area Tourism Office before you head there.