Injured firefighter at peace with events during Lake Christine Fire
Tom Dunlop came out of retirement July 7 last year to fight the Lake Christine Fire out of a sense of duty to the valley where he has lived for so long.
He was injured when the bulldozer he was operating rolled over on the steep slopes of Basalt Mountain, but the Bureau of Land Management determined he didn’t qualify for coverage of his roughly $65,000 in medical bills.
“I’m frustrated more than angry,” Dunlop said this week.
Dunlop, 74, served 17 years as a volunteer firefighter and emergency first responder with the Snowmass Wildcat Fire Department and was retired from duty at the time of the fire. His experiences included helping on the Storm King wildland fire 25 years ago and the Coal Seam fire. He also was a heavy-equipment operator who was certified to work on wildland fires on federal lands.
In the chaotic days after the Lake Christine Fire broke out July 3, 2018, Dunlop was recruited to drive a dozer to construct fire roads and fire breaks on Basalt Mountain. He reported to incident command established by the federal firefighters in El Jebel on July 7 and was given an assignment with a fellow local heavy-equipment operator, Mark Drummond.
Dunlop spoke about the experience while giving a victim-impact statement Monday in the sentencing hearing for Richard Miller and Allison Marcus, the couple convicted of starting the fire.
“I was behind the first dozer heading down slope towards an area that had burned earlier, known as going into the black, a safe zone,” Dunlop told Eagle County District Judge Paul Dunkelman. “Almost to the bottom, the right corner of my blade hit a large boulder mostly submerged in the dirt. My dozer lurched hard right and flipped forward. The movement was instantaneous, giving me no time to apply the dozer breaking system.
“The last thing I remember before being rendered unconscious was my backpack, fire shelter, two water canteens, a gallon jug of water and a container of dozer fluid flying past my head in the cab,” he continued.
The dozer landed on its tracks and kept moving in reverse toward a ravine. Drummond saw what was happening, raced his rig to catch Dunlop’s and jammed his blade into the side of Dunlop’s dozer to stop it.
A member of the Prescott Hotshots, who were working the fire nearby, jumped into the cab, turned off the ignition key and unbelted Dunlop. The decision was made that Dunlop had to be airlifted out. The Prescott Hotshots cleared a landing space for a helicopter a quarter-mile away and he was flown to Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs. Dunlop was treated for two days and nights for injuries that included a large laceration on the back of his head, a traumatic brain injury and various bumps and bruises.
“If I hadn’t had that (seatbelt) on, I probably wouldn’t have lived,” he told The Aspen Times.
Most of Basalt Mountain is national forest but small swathes are administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Dunlop said he and Drummond were passing through both agencies’ properties during their work. Where his dozer rolled happened to be on BLM land, it was determined later.
The BLM conducted and released an official report on the incident. It found that the dozers were working in “challenging” terrain at the time of the accident, but that the operators had scouted the area prior to driving down. The dozer that Dunlop was operating wasn’t the best option for the terrain but that type of machine is “not uncommon in the wildland fire environment,” the report said.
Dunlop was familiar with the dozer, highly skilled and was wearing all required personal protection equipment, the report said. He met the minimum training requirements for a contract equipment operator, it continued.
The incident management team assigned the dozers to their task, the report said. At the time of the accident, an emergency equipment rental agreement had been negotiated with dozer owner Cleve Williams, but it hadn’t been signed.
The narrative on the accident said Dunlop’s dozer rolled twice. Dunlop said eyewitnesses — Drummond in the other dozer and nearby firefighters — told him it rolled four times.
The report found no specific fault for the accident.
All parties agreed that the hotshot crew did a remarkable job of tending to Dunlop’s injuries on site and realizing he needed to be evacuated.
“I’m just grateful to everybody that helped,” Dunlop said.
A representative of the U.S. Forest Service visited Dunlop in the hospital and told him his medical care and loss of hearing aids in the accident would be covered by the agency. Later, Dunlop was told it was determined that the accident occurred on BLM land and he would need to talk to that agency about covering his medical costs.
While recovering from his injuries during the summer of 2018, Dunlop was also inquiring with BLM officials about coverage.
“I never knew when I would lose my balance to the degree of having to grab a railing, touch a wall, find a seat or lay down,” he said in court. “The last piece of dozer window glass was removed from my scalp May 24.”
That date coincided with a decision by the U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of the Solicitor that Dunlop’s federal tort claim for his medical expenses was denied.
“The claim does not demonstrate tortious conduct on the part of any employees of the United States,” the notification said.
Dunlop said he initially feared that he and his wife would face the daunting financial burden of covering the $65,000 bill. His personal insurance ended up covering it. He has lost $300 out of pocket.
A BLM spokesman said via email that it was an unusual case.
“When he asked the local BLM office how to pursue getting his medical bill covered, we looked into what options he had through the federal system,” said BLM spokesman David Boyd. “Unfortunately, Mr. Dunlop was not a federal employee, so he was not eligible for federal compensation benefits. He was also apparently not signed up as a volunteer firefighter with any fire department.”
Dunlop said he is concerned that the federal regulations could disqualify skilled volunteers who are retired from duty from participating in emergency firefighting efforts. Or, worse, they could result in parties in his situation being stuck with their own medical bills.
Despite his injuries, lost time and stress of getting his medical care paid for, Dunlop said he isn’t angry with Marcus and Miller for starting the fire. They didn’t do it on purpose, he said.
“They just didn’t use good judgment,” he said. And their poor decision to shoot tracer ammunition at the Basalt shooting range impacted thousands of people, he added.
Dunlop said in court that their sentence for 45 days in jail was probably appropriate, though he wondered if society would be better served if they were starting their 1,500 hours of useful public service this summer.
He suggested the defendants be required to work one day on Basalt Mountain for every day of the roughly 120 days the fire burned.
“They can be assigned to work with trained restoration crews from the USFS, BLM or local authorities,” Dunlop said. “I do not want the defendants to be injured by working in unsafe conditions.”
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Kevin Warner started his career with the U.S. Forest Service as a wilderness ranger in 2001. Now he’s taking over the key position as Aspen-Sopris District Ranger.