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Thursday, December 30,2010

People of the Year: Boulder County's wildland firefighters

By Jefferson Dodge
It had been a quiet, relaxing Labor Day morning for Bruce Honeyman, chief of the Sunshine Fire Protection District. He was reading the newspaper, wearing his favorite comfy sweat pants and orange Crocs, both of which his wife hates.

Then the alert came. A small wildfire had been reported in Fourmile Canyon.

Honeyman jumped in his car wearing what he had on, drove to the fire station, left his car there and responded to the scene in a fire truck.

It wasn’t until the afternoon of Tuesday, Sept. 7, after 30 straight hours of fighting the inferno that consumed his house and scores of others, that he finally returned to the station to retrieve his car, which had been spared. He drove to meet his wife and son after changing back into the sweats and orange Crocs, the only clothes he had left.

Honeyman recalls his wife looking at his attire and asking, “Of all the things to survive the fire, why would it have to be those?”

* * * *

In our annual Person of the Year edition, Boulder Weekly decided to honor the county’s wildland firefighters for their efforts to combat the Fourmile Canyon fire, the most damaging in the state’s history in terms of property lost, and the smaller Dome fire that threatened the outskirts of Boulder on Oct. 29.

While we primarily interviewed chiefs of the fire districts most affected by the Fourmile fire, they stressed that the honor should not go to them, but to the county’s rank-and-file firefighters — both volunteer and professional — as well as the slurry-plane and helicopter pilots and other firefighters from outside the county who responded to the flames. Not to mention the support staff who fed them, kept them hydrated and kept their tanks fueled. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the outpouring of support and donations from the surrounding community.

In the accounts that follow, we talked to the chiefs and other key leaders of the Fourmile firefighting effort about their recollections of the blaze, lessons learned, reactions from homeowners and images imprinted in their minds.

Almost to a person, they agree that the county is fortunate that no one died in the aggressive fire that claimed about 170 structures and more than 6,000 acres.

* * * *

Honeyman first heard about a structure fire in the 6000 block of Sunshine Canyon Drive at around 4 p.m. on Sept. 6, the day the fire started. His address is 6101 Sunshine. But he told himself that such second-hand reports are sometimes inaccurate.

“You kind of hope against hope,” he says.

But the next day, after arriving at the incident command center at Boulder Reservoir, he heard that his home was likely among the 50 that had been lost so far in Sunshine Canyon.

Most of the fire chiefs interviewed for this story agreed that the strong, swirling winds and the dry conditions made it a fierce blaze that was virtually unstoppable once it got going.

“There was nothing anyone could have done to stop our house from burning,” Honeyman says. “But it’s different when your own community is burning. When you know the people it’s happening to, it’s more immediate.

"We couldn’t save our own homes, but we could save someone else’s home. We just kept going because we knew we could make a difference in other people’s lives.”

While the fire chiefs say a few residents who lost their houses to the fire have lashed out at firefighters for not doing more to save their homes, they are far outweighed by the number of residents who have expressed support and appreciation.

Honeyman recalls one of the first community meetings after the fire, where people said things like, “Thanks for doing what you could do. Glad you are safe.”

“It’s an amazing thing to have only the clothes you are wearing,” he says. “It’s like having a big reset button pushed. … It’s given me a visceral understanding of what happens to many people in this world. We’re still really struggling, not financially, but emotionally. And a lot of people are much worse off than we are.”

* * * *

Brett Haberstick, who succeeded Honeyman as Sunshine fire chief a few weeks after the Fourmile fire, says that while his community has been going through the common stages of grief, the fire has also brought Sunshine residents together as they support each other.

“We continue to get people walking up to us and saying thank you,” he says. “Naturally, there’s been some anger on the part of residents who lost their homes. But we’re moving past that.”

One of the main images of the fire that sticks out in his mind is the frozen pine needles — needles frozen not from cold, but from heat. Haberstick says there are areas where all of the sizzled pine needles point in the northward direction the fire was traveling, frozen because the intense heat and speed of the fire evaporated moisture from the needles so quickly. He says the wall of fire was 200 feet high in some places.

“A fire like that, you protect life and deal with what happens afterwards,” Haberstick says. “The thing that sticks out for me is that nobody died.”

Asked what, if anything, could have been done differently, he explains that the Fourmile fire has spawned improvements to organization, response patterns, relations with neighboring fire districts and planning for equipment.

“But you can never prepare completely for something like this,” he adds.

* * * *

Chris Finn, chief of the Gold Hill Fire Protection District, says images from the Fourmile fire continue to haunt him.

“I can’t sleep at night still,” he says. “I was run off by fire three times that day.”

He describes what firefighters call “trigger points,” life-threatening situations in which you have to give the order to completely pull your firefighters out of an endangered area.

Finn says the first of the three trigger points on that first day occurred at the top of Emerson Gulch, at Dixon Road, when he pulled his crew out of the area after the fire threatened to loop around behind them, blocking their escape route. The second came as a firefighters were performing a backburn to save the main lodge at Colorado Mountain Ranch.

“You get in a situation like that and you have to make choices,” Finn says. “You look at this big, beautiful, 100-year-old building and you say, ‘We’re going to save that.’” But they had to retreat when the fire grew and blocked one of the last two exit routes for the 10 to 15 fire trucks on the scene.

The third trigger point occurred in Gold Hill, as their four exit routes dwindled to one.

“There were flames coming at us that we could not see the top of,” Finn recalls, adding that as they left Gold Hill, he worried it would be the last time he would see the town standing.

Then, as they were making their way down Lickskillet Road, their last way out, Finn says he saw the smoke change directions, indicating a shift in the wind, and that gave him hope that Gold Hill might be spared. Sure enough, that change in the winds was enough to allow the first air tankers to begin dropping red slurry on the fire, after they had been grounded all day due to the conditions.

Finn’s crew was refilling its tanks with water at Left Hand Creek when salvation came.

“All of a sudden, we see the tanker,” he says. “It put a line of slurry on the south side of Gold Hill on its first run. One guy’s deck, half of it was blackened and half was red. That house was seconds away from burning.”

Finn and his crew returned to Gold Hill and held the line that had been set by that first slurry drop.

“Two weeks later we got the pilot and his crew up here and got them drunk,” he says with a laugh.

Mike Tombolato, chief of the Rocky Mountain Fire District, says that wind shift and first slurry line saved the day.

“That brought such a big relief compared to what we’d gone through all day,” he recalls. “We were able to cheer a little bit.”

In addition to the wind shift and the slurry bombers, Finn says the fact that neighboring Indian Peaks Fire Protection District responded to the fire “is a big reason why Gold Hill is still here.”

Indian Peaks Fire Chief Norm Bowers, whose district borders Gold Hill, says the initial call that went out for the Fourmile fire was understated.

“We were called out to a ‘small wildland fire,’” he recalls. “That’s what the tone said.”

* * * *

Bret Gibson, as chief of the Fourmile Fire Protection District where the fire started, was the de facto incident commander during the first couple of hours of the blaze. As with any kind of fire call to volunteers, he says, the initial phase is “organized chaos,” as firefighters respond from the grocery store, their kids’ soccer game, or wherever else they happen to be. Then, depending on where they are driving from, they decide via radio which members should swing by the station and pick up the trucks on the way to the fire, Gibson says.

“When I arrived at the scene of the fire, it was an ‘oh shit’ moment,” he recalls. “I realized we had a rapidly developing situation.”

Soon, he says, his concern switched from trying to stop the fire to trying to save the lives of residents and firefighters. He went from an offensive approach to a defensive approach, and called for evacuations of surrounding homes, many of which were occupied because it was a holiday. At one point, he was asked how far the evacuations should extend.

“And in my head, I was thinking, ‘All the way to Boulder,’” Gibson says.

He says local firefighters had talked for years about how the area’s worst fire was one that had not yet happened, one that would start in the canyons of Fourmile.

“It was going to be one of those unfightable fires and you just get the hell out of the way,” Gibson says.

“They used good common sense and realized getting back to their families was more important than trying to save another home,” Tombolato says of the firefighters. “They gave everything they could but their lives, thankfully.”

Within about two hours, realizing the size of the inferno they were dealing with, Gibson turned his incident command duties over to the Boulder County Sheriff ’s Office.

Finn describes it as a matter of resources.

“The fire gets to a certain point and we call them because they have a bigger checkbook than we have, and then they call the feds because they have an even bigger checkbook,” he says.

At one point during those first few hours, Gibson says, he and three companions were feared dead because they had lost radio contact with the rest of his crew.

He notes that the reverse-911 calling system is not perfect, and there were homes that the firefighters could not access to give the evacuation order, so in some cases they just hoped that people saw the smoke and got out.

“The mere fact that nobody died is a true blessing,” Gibson says.

* * * *

According to Gibson, one striking image of that day was “the contrast in the sky. Everything west of us was crystal blue, Boulder County sky, and you turn your head 10 degrees and you have deep, black, ugly smoke of an intense, dangerous wildfire. You have embers coming down and burning the paper in your hand and starting little fires around you, and you know that everything east is going to experience this fire.”

The other thing that sticks out in his mind is his arrival at the command center at the Boulder Reservoir.

“The way they were looking at me was with that deep compassion, that deep concern,” Gibson remembers. “It’s a little like seeing yourself in the mirror, but there’s no mirror. That’s an image that hurts. They look at you with that ‘Are you OK?’ look.”

He also mentions the look in the eyes of the firefighters who were heading into the fire, just as he was coming out.

“That emotional handoff, it’s all by eye, it’s unwritten and unspoken,” Gibson says. “A lot of these people didn’t know where their family members were.”

When asked about lessons learned, he lists communication first.

“You can’t have 500 people try to talk at once,” he says, referring to the first firefighters responding to the scene. But he adds that communication with the displaced residents could have been better, too, even if it’s just to report to them what you don’t know yet.

“It was difficult to convey to people why they couldn’t go home,” Sheriff Joe Pelle told Boulder Weekly. “People were angry with me.”

Gibson acknowledges that a few people have asked why he couldn’t save their house.

“But for each one of those, I’ve had a couple hundred smile at me or give me a thumbs-up,” says Gibson, whose vehicle is easily recognizable to the community. “One guy threw a $20 bill through my window as he drove by.”

Tombolato, who is deployed to disasters around the country due to his expertise and experience, says firefighters feel guilty when homes are lost.

“They’ve been entrusted to protect their community, and it’s a lot of burden to carry,” he says, recalling the 2002 Walker Ranch fire, after which he wondered how he could look his neighbors in the eye. “I was terrified, because I felt so responsible for not letting people’s homes burn.”

Several of the fire chiefs lauded the job that Sheriff Pelle did in managing the fires, in part thanks to a new emergency response team that was used for the first time in the Fourmile fire.

Pelle, on the other hand, gives credit to the firefighters, calling them “selfless.”

“There were people who had lost their homes and were still out there fighting the fire,” he says. “Most of us would get paid to do that job. These guys are volunteers, they lost a lot, and they were still working hard for their neighbors.”

The fire chiefs agree that the fire taught people about what’s really important in life.

“Family and community — without that, what are you?” Finn asks.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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Great to see this recognition of these heroes.  

Have a happy and safe New Year!

Wife of a retired 40-year aerial wildland firefighter.






Great story and what a wonderful place to live with all these wonderful people you are all so blessed!