Firefighters praised for battling wildland blaze | AspenTimes.com

Firefighters praised for battling wildland blaze

ASPEN”When all hell broke loose last month and the County Road 100 fire threatened 150 midvalley homes, Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson was in the hot seat.

Thompson had been appointed as the director of field operations by Carbondale Fire Chief Ron Leach, who was overseeing all aspects of the emergency response as the incident commander. Thompson was in charge of positioning scores of firefighters and their equipment as well as developing the firefighting strategy.

It required split-second decisions because swirling winds that gusted up to 50 mph made the fire unpredictable. The fierce winds allowed the fire to jump both the Roaring Fork River and Highway 82. Flames licked houses in the Mayfly Bend, Aspen Equestrian Estates and Ranch at Roaring Fork subdivisions.

By all accounts, Thompson was a model of calm under fire. Anyone listening on a police scanner heard him giving long sequences of commands in a confident and calm voice from the time he arrived on scene, shortly after noon, until the danger eased that evening.

The fire charred 1,000 acres of grassland and cottonwood forest and singed four houses, but no homes were destroyed or lives lost.

Thompson was honored Tuesday night by both the Carbondale and Basalt fire districts for his performance. Leach told an audience of about 45 Basalt volunteer firefighters attending a monthly meeting that they were “blessed with a great fire chief.” Leach also thanked the volunteers for answering the call to aid their neighboring district.

The County Road 100 Fire was in Carbondale’s district, but the magnitude of the threat forced Leach to seek help from Basalt. The districts have a mutual aid pact that allows them to call on one another when a crisis warrants it. They have a long history of cooperation ” and Leach stressed he doesn’t take that for granted.

Numerous fire departments from Gypsum to Grand Junction sent fire crews to Carbondale. Basalt played a critical role, along with Carbondale, because they answered first and with the most people.

The Carbondale fire department treated Basalt’s volunteers to a barbecue Tuesday night. Woody’s Rolling Smoke BBQ from Marble wheeled into the El Jebel fire station and fed the crowd.

Firefighters have an unwritten code to accept thanks as a team rather than as individuals. But the Basalt Fire District’s Board of Directors singled out Thompson for his efforts. Board president Ed Van Walraven read a proclamation that honored the department’s volunteers and paid staff for their work on the fire.

“Our chief, Scott Thompson, provided incredible judgment in his role as field operations commander, coordinating an ever-changing mix of resources and personnel flowing in from all of the neighboring districts,” the proclamation read.

Thompson downplayed his role and steered praise to the department’s volunteers and paid staff. Leach said Thompson also did that the night of the fire.

“I thanked Scott about 100 times that night,” Leach said. “Every time he said ‘Thank our volunteers.'”

Thompson told his staff and volunteers that he was proud of their performance. He said he witnessed a lot of one-on-one conversations during the heat of the blaze among firefighters quickly calculating their next moves and best strategies. “That shows a lot of experience,” he said.

In an interview Wednesday, he expanded on his thoughts and explained why he was just one of many people that deserve credit.

“It wasn’t me. I was giving direction on where to go and where to place fire trucks based on my experience,” he said. But the volunteers had to make critical decisions that afternoon on how to save houses, he noted.

“If they weren’t making me look good, I wouldn’t succeed as a fire chief,” Thompson said.

Thompson has been the Basalt fire chief since 2000 and he has been with the department since 1984. He also worked for several years as a Pitkin County deputy sheriff. He unfortunately has been the first person to respond to deadly airplane crashes and bloody car accidents.

“The more stuff you see, the more stuff you experience, the more you’re able to adapt,” Thompson said. “A lot of people have taught me a lot of things.”

Even so, his calm voice belied the butterflies he felt inside during the firefighting effort. “I had the adrenaline rush just like the firefighters,” he said.

He revealed that good timing also factored into the firefighting effort. The fire spread to the periphery of Ranch at Roaring Fork so quickly that the one engine patrolling there was overmatched, Thompson said. Two additional engines were en route from Basalt and were directed to the subdivision just in time to help prevent the loss of homes.

Back at the Basalt firehouse after the blaze was under control, some of the firefighters were “hooting and hollering” because they knew they played a role in saving homes, Thompson said. That is rewarding because firefighters usually get the call when a structure is already engulfed.

“They literally were seconds from losing houses,” Thompson said.

Staff and volunteers recognized

The proclamation signed by the Basalt Fire District’s board of directors honored volunteers and paid staff for their roles at the fire as well as firefighters who stayed at the station on April 15 in case of other calls. The administrative staff was credited with answering a multitude of calls from the public and assisting the firefighters from the office. Those honored were: Laura Anderson, Brian Benton, Christine Benton, Michelle Bevington, Brooke Bishop, Matt Bunn, Heath Chidree, Chris Cohan, David Cramer, Brian Davies, Scott Garcia, James Garner, Holly Goldstein, Bob Guion, Bryce Halverson, Bill Harding, Jason Hegberg, Bob Helmus, Steve Howard, Michael Hutton, Ken Jammaron, Karen Jammaron, Jennifer Lemke, Gary Lutzeier, Sean Matta, Bill McEnteer, Kevin McLaren, Richard Neal, Eduardo Noriega, Jerry Peetz, Erick Rock, Lloyd Strobeck, Duane Vasten, John Vasten, Doug Weiser, Garrett Wickre, Cleve Williams, Marlen Wolfe and Ralph Zukowski.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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