Fire-fighting at center of storm
June 14, 2002
After answering a call for aid to fight what seemed to be an innocuous wildfire Saturday, Basalt firefighters found themselves in the center of the battle to save West Glenwood Springs.
Department spokesmen stressed Thursday that they engaged in a handful of many battles that firefighters from around the West Slope fought to save the town last weekend, and they didn’t deserve to be singled out.
But their compelling story provides an important glimpse into just how hairy the situation became and how multiple acts of heroism – combined with good fortune – prevented the disaster from becoming worse.
The underground fire from the abandoned coal mine in South Canyon ignited grass and brush at about 12:45 p.m. Saturday. A call for mutual aid was sent from Glenwood Springs to Basalt an hour later.
Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson and volunteer firefighters Greg Bailey, Bob Guion and Cleve Williams responded in two smaller engines best-suited for wildland fires.
While planning fire-fighting steps in South Canyon near the turn for the dump, a call came in that two Garfield County Sheriff’s deputies were trapped with some evacuees. A Basalt truck was sent up the canyon because it was the smallest and most maneuverable.
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A convoy of vehicles came whizzing down, escaping the heat of the fire. Basalt’s firefighters realized this was no ordinary wildland blaze. Thompson knew they had to hightail out of the area when he got out of the engine to help guide its 180-degree turn and encountered superheated air out in front of the flames.
“It felt like an oven,” he said. “I couldn’t take a full breath.”
Thompson believes that he could have pulled the vinyl off the fire truck had he tried.
“We knew what was coming. We knew it was a firestorm,” he said.
Guion said it was apparent the fire was gaining energy.
“This thing’s going downhill. It’s a little freight train at that point. When it hit I-70 it sounded like a jet engine,” he said.
Basalt and firefighters from Glenwood, New Castle, Rifle and an interagency federal team evacuated the dump and moved kayakers and other boaters away from the put-in at the Colorado River at South Canyon. Half of the firefighters headed west to the Canyon Creek neighborhoods to prepare evacuations. Another group that included Basalt regrouped in extreme western West Glenwood Springs to prepare residents of the Ami’s Acres campground for evacuation.
Thompson said the firefighters saw the fire ripping across a ridge on the south side of Interstate 70 and the Colorado River. West of West Glenwood Springs, spot fires were spreading north of the river on the shoulder of the interstate.
While firefighters were planning to douse those hot spots, all hell broke loose. Wind-blown embers and the superheated air torched the hillside above the firefighters.
“The fire was ahead of us, over our side and behind us,” said Guion. “We were more or less ringed by fire in Ami’s Acres, but there was no fire in Ami’s Acres.” (The campground and multiple RVs parked there managed to avoid damage, to the disbelief of firefighters and the owners.)
At that point, Thompson called on the command center to evacuate West Glenwood Springs. Right before the hillside went up in flames, Thompson measured the wind speed and found it at 24 mph. After the “fire front” blew through, he estimated the winds at between 40 and 60 mph.
Guion said there was a 10- to 15-minute period where he was uncertain if the group of firefighters would be able to leave Ami’s Acres. The various departments combined on a plan to pull the engines in a circle with a few remaining civilians protected inside, just as wagon trains defended against Indian attacks.
“We were reluctant to drive back into West Glenwood,” he said. “We could see a wall of flame but we didn’t know if that was 100 feet or 1,000 feet.”
Ultimately, they decided they could roll out. When they rounded a knob, heading east, they found Carbondale’s Engine Four and crew fighting what was probably the first structure fire. That was at the intersection of Highways 6 and 24 (the frontage road) and Mitchell Creek Road. Fire was impinging on additional structures in and around the Robin Hood Mobile Home Park, ultimately one of the hardest hit areas.
Basalt’s firefighters were ordered to start the evacuation of neighborhoods higher on the hillside from the mall. Once they made the rounds through numerous streets, they teamed with a crew from Gypsum to try to save structures on the edge of the fire line, at the intersection of Mitchell Creek and Donegan roads.
Meanwhile three additional trucks and 14 more firefighters from Basalt joined departments from throughout western Colorado in fighting the flames.
Guion and Thompson insist there is little that the valiant teams could have done if the fire front had continued to march east. Instead, the firestorm shot up the Mitchell Creek drainage.
“I think we should be careful about congratulating ourselves that we’re all heroes and that we stopped a fire front,” said Guion. “I think nature helped stop that fire front.”
The north-south running Mitchell Creek acted as chimney that “sucked” up the fire, Thompson explained.
“We didn’t have a whole lot to do with where that fire went,” Thompson said. “We had a whole lot to do with putting the houses out, and you could say we were viable after the fire front had passed.”
The aftermath of the firestorm left several homes in and to the west of Robin Hood in flames, as well as trailers in Storm King Mobile Home Park, to the northeast of Robin Hood, and along Mitchell Creek, to the north.
The veteran firefighters agreed that the Coal Seam fire could have regained momentum and blown east into Glenwood Springs if the engulfed structures and vegetation hadn’t been put out. But the big boost in the effort, they stressed, was that the fire let up long enough to let firefighters douse the flames.
“Where we did a lot of good is when we realized that the fire front wasn’t advancing any more that we advanced to get to the fire,” Guion said. “We went to the fire instead of waiting for it.”
The Carbondale and Glenwood departments in Robin Hood prevented it from spreading into the Chevy and Ford dealerships and into the mall. Firefighters from Basalt and elsewhere prevented fires from spreading to 54 trailers in Storm King. Damage was limited to six units.
Crews from Basalt, Gypsum and the feds ran up and down Mitchell Creek Road from its intersection with Donegan to the Glenwood Fish Hatchery to save what they could. In roughly a half-dozen cases, flames had already reached homes, Guion said.
The firefighters from Basalt who responded were: Greg Bailey, David Dushkin, Bob Guion, Tim Herwick, Frederick Jax, Gary Leslie, Tony Maddalone, Tom McCarthy, Steve McKenney, Stephen Sanders, Robert Sardinsky, Flint Smith, Scott Thompson, Thomas Vanderburg, Jack Wheeler Sr., Cleve Williams and Vonda Williams.
Thompson said the fire scene was chaotic enough that individual engines and crews, totaling an estimated 130-some firefighters, were undertaking efforts as they saw best. They saw structures threatened, and they acted independently in their own sectors.
“The really amazing thing to me is, with all the risks the firefighters took, I’m not even hearing of a sprained ankle,” Thompson said.
Guion said local residents need to realize that it was the personnel in their local departments that banded together to remove the risk of the fire. And that risk was removed before most federal teams arrived at the site.
“Who saved Glenwood was Glenwood, Carbondale, Basalt, Rifle, Burning Mountain [New Castle], Gypsum, Eagle, Vail, Aspen, Snowmass,” Guion said. “The local community saved the local community.”