July 04, 2012 News » Cover Story

Inside the nightmare 

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that weeks after the fire, the city settled on 345 as the number of homes most likely destroyed, as opposed to the 346 originally announced.

It happened so fast. In a matter of hours on Tuesday, June 26, the Mountain Shadows subdivision went from bucolic suburb to war zone, engulfed by the vengeful Waldo Canyon Fire.

In one day, the historic wildfire grew thousands of acres after a column of heated smoke and ash, visible for miles in every direction, collapsed on the city's northwest side.

By now, we all know what it wrought. Two people died in the fire, at a house in North Mountain Shadows. At least 345 homes were destroyed and hundreds more were damaged. Even if the blaze — 17,920 acres and 70 percent contained as of press time — didn't burn another structure, losses could top $170 million for the homes alone, based on an estimate using property values from the El Paso County assessor. (Fighting the fire has cost another $12.3 million.)

The tolls could have been much higher but for the heroics of hundreds of firefighters who stood their ground against the blaze, even using garden hoses at times, and aided by several police officers who took it on without protective gear.

Because of their efforts, upward of 75 percent of the homes in Mountain Shadows were saved. Clearly, a lot went right in the city's fire response, which included evacuating Mountain Shadows' southern portion the day the fire broke out.

But their neighbors north of Chuckwagon Road, in the other half of Mountain Shadows, weren't told to evacuate until late Tuesday afternoon. That was more than five hours after press releases noted "changes in fire behavior," and more than three hours after the city called the fire "aggressive" but urged residents only to "consider evacuation planning."

Though Mayor Steve Bach reportedly ordered people to evacuate midway through the 4 p.m. press briefing, the city didn't send a press release until 5:15. By then, the fire had started to barrel into their neighborhoods, ready to claim entire blocks of property and 40 percent of all homes that would be destroyed that night.

And yet a top-ranking city fire official has said he's sure the evacuation orders for North Mountain Shadows and Peregrine were "spot on."

The first days

Scott Campbell, the county's deputy fire marshal with 25 years' wildland firefighting experience, got the call between 11 a.m. and noon on Saturday, June 23, about a fire in Waldo Canyon.

"When I came down the road and saw the column and saw it was 35 to 40 acres," Campbell says in an interview, "with that wind, we just knew it was going big."

Campbell says he made some aircraft orders into dispatch from his truck, and Pike National Forest fire management officer Eric Zanotto made some more. Colorado Springs Utilities' wildland firefighting team, called at 12:30, headed to the ridge above Cedar Heights to protect a tower Utilities uses, says firefighter Sandi Yukman.

Forestry officials started sweeping campers out of campgrounds and preparing for evacuations of Cascade, Green Mountain Falls and Crystola. Most of a 35-volunteer county wildland team and an AmeriCorps team from the National Interagency Fire Center went to the fire's west side to create a "speed bump" between it and Cascade, says Campbell, who over that weekend served as deputy incident commander under Zanotto.

Meanwhile, Campbell's team also coordinated with Colorado Springs Fire Department, which worked above the 178-home Cedar Heights area, as well as smaller departments from the Ute Pass area. Aircraft began dropping retardant, and helicopters emptied water buckets on the fire, Campbell says.

By 5:45 p.m. Saturday, mandatory evacuations had been issued for Cedar Heights and Mountain Shadows south of Chuckwagon, as well as towns along Ute Pass. Manitou Springs would follow early Sunday morning. U.S. Highway 24 was closed between Cave of the Winds and Crystola hours later.

Campbell says firefighters feared the fire would throw embers up to a half-mile from treetops. "On Sunday when it was really growing," he says, "it was like a Hiroshima bomb going off every 10 minutes."

The size of the fire — 3,446 acres by the time Zanotto and Campbell relinquished control to a "Type 1" team led by Rich Harvey on Monday morning — and its power mandated such a breakneck pace of assignments and evacuations.

"We have a saying," Campbell says. "We call it the Haul Chart: In 1- to 3-foot flames, we haul tools. Three to 5 feet, we haul equipment and water. And above 7 feet, we haul ass. The only thing to do with 100-foot flame lengths is get out of the way."

The buildup

By 10 p.m. Monday, the fire had spread to 4,500 acres, and 600 fire personnel were at work, according to incident update reports. Aircraft were dropping retardant along Rampart Range Road and the fire's east flank.

Yukman's 14-member wildland team worked into the wee hours of the night. They cut a line above Cedar Heights — which she says accounts for the fire's first 5 percent containment figure — and then moved over to the Queens Canyon area to make a barrier to the city's water tanks above Glen Eyrie.

Her team returned at 9 a.m. Tuesday, to the north flank. Above them, a cloud was building. "Smoke billows up from the fire and creates a very high cloud column," Yukman explains.

Campbell saw it too, from the opposite side of the fire, where he was giving county commissioners a look at the operation.

"I was showing them how the column builds and all the mass that's in it," he says. "If it keeps going, it could be to the point the collapse would happen. When I got back to the ICP [incident command post on the west side of the city], the head of the column was out over town."

The mass had all the earmarks of a pyrocumulus cloud, he says, which forms from smoke, moisture from burning vegetation, and particulates from the fire. "There's tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of cubic yards of mass up in the sky held up there by heat," he says. "Topography directs where that wind goes. If you're in a steep canyon, the speed is a lot higher and it pushes in all directions."

Despite red-flag weather conditions, including an all-time historic high temperature of 101 degrees, the city issued a statement at 10:52 a.m., saying Mountain Shadows evacuees could return to their homes for a half-hour. Forty minutes later, the city canceled the return in another release, stating, "Due to the current changes in fire behavior, no return visits to Cedar Heights OR Mountain Shadows are allowed at this time."

At 1:40 p.m., the city issued a pre-evacuation notice to North Mountain Shadows and Peregrine north of Chuckwagon Road. "Waldo Canyon Fire behavior continues to change and be aggressive," the city stated, adding that residents in North Mountain Shadows and further north "should consider evacuation planning." But the city also noted, "There is no need to panic as this is not a mandatory or voluntary evacuation at this time..."

That afternoon, the column, or "header," as firefighters call it, continued to build. Springs Fire Battalion Chief Jim Schanel watched it. "I knew what was happening," he says. "I've never seen fire behavior so extreme and unpredictable."

Greg Heule, public information officer for the incident and a former Springs firefighter, says the conditions aligned for a worst-case scenario: dry fuels, high and erratic winds, and rough terrain. "Everybody knew it was going to be a dangerous day," he says.

When media gathered at Coronado High School on West Fillmore Street at 4 p.m. for a news briefing, the pillar towered behind officials.

At 4:20 p.m., wildland engine boss Steve Martyniak and his crew from Station 9 on Garden of the Gods Road were dispatched to the top of North Mountain Shadows, where fire was clearly coming over the ridgeline. As they drove down Garden of the Gods Road toward the fire, sirens blaring and red lights flashing, they saw residents speeding toward their homes and away from them. When they arrived, the column fell and pushed the fire over the top of the ridge onto homes. Martyniak says one of his crew heard a pilot on the radio who was dropping retardant say, "Get outta there."

Yukman saw the cloud begin to fall at about 4:30 p.m. "I knew [the time], because they had been calling out the weather every hour, and we had just done the 16:00," she says. Yukman adds, "It came down on all sides of the fire line. It hit like a watermelon and exploded."

In her seven years of firefighting, Yukman's never seen something like what she saw that day. "My thoughts were, 'This is very bad for the city,'" she says.

The cloud's plunge sent firefighters scrambling to protected positions blocks from the fireline. It startled officials at the media briefing, bringing Bach to the microphone. But not until 5:15 did the city formally issue a mandatory evacuation order for North Mountain Shadows and Peregrine residents, giving them 30 minutes to return home, gather valuables and leave.

In that press release, the city said, "Residents will be notified by reverse 911 calls and by uniformed police officers advising them of the mandatory evacuation." The Police Department refuses to say whether the two people who died in the home on Rossmere Street received either of those notices before fire struck.

The disaster

After getting their bearings, Campbell and his firefighters, and Yukman and her crew headed for Mountain Shadows, where fire poured down the ridge. Dozens of Springs firefighters were on hand, as well as dozens from neighboring departments under the command of Schanel.

"Everybody assisted," Campbell says. "Forest Service green engines. Colorado Springs red engines. Cooperators from outlying areas in there. We were setting up our groups. We're yelling at each other trying to get a toehold somewhere so we can make a stand to prevent it from pushing further in, because the wind was howling."

When he drove in, he had to keep his head behind the vehicle panel, because the window glass was so hot from the 30 to 40 houses "fully involved." Firefighters searched for a place to make a stand, he says, and police officers jumped in.

"We had policemen in there in their duty uniforms who were helping us, and they wouldn't leave," he says. "They said, 'We have to do something.'

"We had places where our fire guys were going in with 1-inch fire line [garden hoses], between houses that are 10 feet apart and this one's on fire and this one's not, trying to spray the houses down. Guys pulled the decks off, knocked down the fire on the outside of the windows, and the guys jumped in the house with a garden hose. If the fence was on fire, we'd knock it down. We were knocking stuff down, cutting trees out of the way, dragging them into the street.

"There was a pool in one place, the guys had five-gallon buckets and were throwing it on stuff. Whatever you can do. Seven or eight houses burned right up to the road. The engines are standing there. They held it there."

Crews worked through the night with "many, many" homes fully engulfed, according to Yukman. "We saw only the outline of the homes because of the flames. You ask yourself, 'Can you make a difference?' If you can't, you go to the next one."

Yukman found it hard to breathe and see; she kept track of her crew by watching for their head lamps.

"There was just a lot of fire and embers floating around that were hot. It looked like a bomb exploded. It was like a war was going on, because of [exploding] propane tanks," she says. Natural gas in pipelines burned blue, and walls and chimneys crashed to the ground next to them.

"As far as we could see, everything was on fire," she says. "We all stood there for a minute and said, 'I can't believe this is happening. How are we ever going to get these fires out?'"

Martyniak, who spent 54 hours on the fireline from Tuesday through Thursday, says that by late Tuesday night, all off-duty Springs firefighters were called to work the fire or backfill stations across the city. When it was time for shift change, about 1:30 a.m., Yukman says 200 firefighters were waiting to go in. And through the morning, the firefighting continued.

Lt. Mike Skeldum's Fountain Fire Department crew worked mostly on Rossmere Street and Wilson Road. In one case, his team saw a fireball land on the roof of an untouched house. They raced inside the house and put out the fire.

According to the city's list of destroyed homes, only 17 of the 87 houses on Wilson were a total loss, as were only nine of the 79 homes on Rossmere. But they were the ones that touched Skeldum.

"Bicycles, basketball hoops, project cars, cars in garages were just burnt metal," he says. "On the majority of them, the mail boxes were still up. There were a couple of houses the door was still intact but there was nothing behind it. A lot of people had turned sprinklers on and put them on porches or roofs. All that will be burned into my mind forever."

The days after

For Campbell, the signs were clear that city subdivisions below the ridgelines were imperiled Tuesday afternoon. "Any fire that builds those big puffy clouds over the top, any time you put that much mass up in the air, gravity is on duty 24/7, so it's always something to watch," he says. "But there's nothing you can do about it but get out of the way."

That decision — of when to evacuate and how — is made by the authority of each local jurisdiction and is based on information provided by the incident commander and others. In press conferences, Harvey has urged decision-makers to err on the side of caution.

El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa says he evacuated Ute Pass on the county side of the fire on that first Saturday to assure citizens' safety. Manitou's mayor, Marc Snyder, and fire chief made their evac call early Sunday morning.

"I had full decison [sic] authority on all county evacs," Maketa says in an e-mail, "and at the time they were directed I simply notified the IC and carried our evac plan."

Tim Johnson, public information officer with the federal incident management team, says inside city limits, "ultimately, it's the mayor" who makes an evacuation call.

Cindy Aubrey, Bach's communications director, says in a text message to the Indy that the city had issued an evacuation alert and there were voluntary evacs in place, adding, "Both the city and the team did all we could to ensure the safety of the citizens."

Asked Friday afternoon if city officials are happy with how the evacuations of North Mountain Shadows and Peregrine were handled, whether they were done properly and in a timely way, Springs Deputy Fire Chief Tommy Smith said they are.

"Knowing the profession the way I do and how concerned they are with people's safety, absolutely," he said. "I'm sure they were spot on in giving adequate notice to residents."

Regarding what was said on that fateful Tuesday about evacuations and fire behavior, Heule won't say specifically, though he notes, "Definitely the discussions were held about what should be done and when it should be done."

He also adds that, having served with Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown, he trusts Brown's judgment. "If he said we can stay, we can stay. If he said we need to go, we need to go. I would trust him with my life."



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