While sitting around my house on Day 11 of the 416 Fire and not being able to leave because of the mandatory evacuation order (if you leave, you can’t return), I have been reflecting on the fire and events around it. Ground zero for the fire is very near my house, and I was the second person on the scene. I tried to put it out, but it got away. The events that followed gave me a new perspective about a lot of things.
Being at ground zero you meet a lot of people, mostly wildland fire people. And they, to a person, are wonderful. The Type 2 fire management team set up its Southern Division headquarters in the meadow next to us. For the next six days, I was exposed to what was happening. The Southern superintendent, Cody Rose, out of Rapid City, South Dakota, was very open about what they were doing and why they were doing it. What a gentleman! I cannot say enough about the job he and his team did.
Many will say, “Why didn’t you leave? You were in the way,” or “They had to worry about you and could not do their duty.” Well, on the first day, I worked with the National Forest Service fire investigators to show them where the fire started, the events surrounding it and the names and contact information of those who first saw the fire and reported it. Also, our subdivision has only one way in and out. I showed the safety personnel where to access an emergency exit in the event the way in was blocked by fire. They marked the exit and widened it for hot shot crew trucks. There are other things I did to assist the firefighters, but this reflection is about them.
On Day 1, there must have been 30 hot shot crew trucks in our subdivision. They were from all over the West. After I had refilled my sprayer tank I was up on Mitchell Lakes Road trying to contain the south end of the fire when two California hot shots came by and told me to leave as a slurry bomber was coming in. I left.
I saw that bomber fly no more than 80 feet above the tracks laying down slurry. That pilot was both awesome and crazy. Think about a full-sized commercial airliner flying 10 to 20 feet above the trees down a slot dropping the load. Wow! Heart-stopping. Over the next six days, I saw these guys doing equally difficult drops and always putting their loads spot on.
But my real admiration is for the hot shots. Over the last 11 days, I have met these fantastic men and women. Usually in crews of 22, they work 14 days on and have two days off to do personal business, wash clothes, etc. I told Cody that whatever school they send these guys to for interpersonal interactions, we need to send the whole country to it. Especially politicians. Meeting so many hot shot crews gave me an appreciation for their hard work, lifestyle and life on the road.
Cody and his team put together a fantastic strategy to deal with the fire. They could not put boots on the ground in the rough terrain surrounding us, so they built fire lines up the sides of the hills to the fire. Then they – the Snake River Hot Shots – conducted back burns to prevent the fire from coming down the mountainside to threaten us. When they set the first one, it was a tremendous conflagration behind our houses. They had Idaho City hot shots positioned every 10 yards along the railroad tracks looking opposite the fire, watching for spot fires jumping the tracks.
I asked Cody how they avoided flash or heat burns. He smiled. He did say that he now understood how the fire had spread so rapidly and gotten away from us on Day 1.
Many hot shot crews have one or more women on their teams. There is one thing a female hot shot can do that male hot shots seem to struggle with: calm wives. During the first back burn, an Idaho City female hot shot calmed my wife when no one else could. She explained what was going on, what would happen and basically got my hyper-nervous wife relaxed. I couldn’t do it, neither could a couple of male hot shots standing with us.
Speaking of the Snake River Hot Shots, they are incredible at setting back burns. On the second burn, they started high with the burn and slowly brought it down against the wind to the track level. This reduced the hot flame front you get by starting at the bottom and letting it burn up the hill or with the wind. The strategy worked as most of the ponderosa pines and junipers survived the burn.
Once the two back burns were completed, our subdivision was isolated from further 416 Fire danger. Of course, someone could still toss a cigarette or lightning could start a fire here. But the remediation that my neighbors and I have done should keep the fire hazard down.
It is not all about hot shots or fire management teams. I need to also thank the fire crews who have come from near and far and helped in our subdivision. The Montrose pumper and firemen were parked in the neighbor’s driveway during the back burn. Hugh and his truck from Eagle were stationed here for several days, the guy from Elk Park protected us at night and the Arvada people did likewise.
These city firefighters brought their trucks and firefighters to help us out in a time of crisis. Hopefully, Durango reciprocates.
On Day 7, things had pretty much cooled down in our area. The fire was exploding elsewhere, and the fire crews were redeployed. On Day 9, Cody and his team were replaced by a Type 1 management team. They will see this monstrous fire through to its completion – and make a lot of friends doing it.
Now on Day 11, it seems like I am on Devil’s Island – a paradise (except for the smoke) and still unable to leave. I know that it may be days before the evacuation order is lifted. Staying here was a purposeful decision that I don’t regret. I have grown immensely during the last 11 days.
And I thank all of these wonderful firefighters for their help, work and assistance.
Cres Fleming is a former chemist who retired to Durango with his wife, Shirley, in 2000. A self-described “railroad nut,” he writes and lectures about railroad history and volunteers at Fort Lewis College and at the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.