Longtime valley resident survives after bulldozer rolls three times while fighting fire
Longtime Roaring Fork Valley resident Tom Dunlop survived a harrowing incident while helping fight the Lake Christine Fire on Saturday when the bulldozer he was operating rolled three times down a steep slope.
Dunlop was airlifted off a section of Basalt Mountain to Valley View Hospital after the accident late Saturday afternoon. He suffered a concussion, a deep gash to the back of his head, and various cuts and bruises. He was released from the hospital Monday night.
“The bottom line message for me is ‘seat belts save lives,’” Dunlop said from his home south of Glenwood Springs on Tuesday.
He said the cab was fully enclosed and he was wearing a helmet and seat belt. Many heavy equipment operators are reluctant to wear seat belts, he said.
Dunlop believes he was knocked unconscious during the first roll of the bulldozer and his helmet got knocked off. He apparently hit his head hard enough on one portion of glass to break it.
Ironically, the bulldozer was owned by Cleve Williams, the Basalt firefighter who lost his house the night of July 4 in the fire while he was part of a team trying to save it.
Williams worked extensively on the dozer July 4 and 5 to cut fire lines on the ridge between El Jebel and the Basalt State Wildlife Area. His dozer remained under contract for the firefighting effort after Williams and his family took a break after their house burned down. Dunlop was recruited to operate the heavy machinery.
He was working with another dozer operator to cut fire lines on steep, rocky terrain on Basalt Mountain above and east of Spring Park Reservoir. They were asked if they could head straight down the slope to tie into an area that had already burned, known as going into the black.
“It was rocky as a son-of-a-gun,” Dunlop said.
He followed the dozer of the other operator when an edge of his dozer blade encountered something “that wasn’t about to move,” he said. It spun the rear end of the dozer around and it started to tumble down the steep slope. Dunlop said it happened so fast he was unable to put down the blade or take other action to stop the movement.
The bulldozer landed on its tracks but the harrowing episode wasn’t over. Dunlop was unconscious in the cab but somehow the transmission was knocked into reverse, so the heavy equipment started moving. Mark Drummond, the other dozer operator, moved quickly to get ahead of Dunlop’s rig and he used his blade to bring it to a stop.
Firefighters were working in the area and got Dunlop out of the machine. A hotshot crew cleared a space for a medevac helicopter to land a short distance away.
Drummond, a friend of Dunlop’s, alerted his family about the accident. His family went to the home of Dunlop’s wife and they took her to the Glenwood Springs hospital to unite with Tom.
“I was covered in soot and blood. It wasn’t a pretty picture,” Dunlop said.
The Bureau of Land Management is investigating the accident.
Dunlop has asked the BLM and U.S. Forest Service to retrieve his helmet and leave it just as they find it. He wants to use it in a safety training session he performs with Pitkin County Public Works. The damaged, bloody helmet will make a point better than anything he says, he figured.
Dunlop said he had no regrets about volunteering to help with the firefighting effort. At 73 years of age, he said he is too old to work on structure protection or some other field position. He volunteered for years with the Snowmass Village Fire Department. He has operated heavy equipment at various points in his life, most recently with Pitkin County Public Works. Prior to working with public works, he was longtime environmental health manager for Pitkin County.
“It’s hard to say ‘no’ when somebody needs help,” he said about the firefighting effort. “It’s what we do in the valley — people helping people.”
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An unwelcome but familiar weather pattern in the Aspen-area mountains has created conditions that are once again ripe for avalanches. The early, ample snow in October was followed by dry periods. That resulted in a poor foundation for the snowpack. Steep slopes on north to east aspects pose the greatest threat.