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Valley firefighters lend hand in Springs

Posted: Tuesday, Jun 18th, 2013

Burned-out cars and buildings resemble a war zone in the Black Forest. Photo courtesy of Zach Cerny

Courier editor

ALAMOSA — Burned out cars, charred remains of houses and vacated residential streets greeted San Luis Valley firefighters assisting Black Forest fire containment efforts in the last week.

“Basically it looked like a war zone,” said Alamosa Volunteer Fire Department Chief Don Chapman. “In some areas the homes were completely vaporized, almost like a nuclear bomb had gone off.”

Chapman, along with Alamosa firefighters Fabian Juarez and Zach Cerny and Mineral County firefighter Damian Trow, responded to a call last Wednesday to assist with the Black Forest fire in Colorado Springs. After one 22-hour shift and subsequent 14-hour shifts, the Valley firefighters returned home exhausted on Sunday evening.

The men were assigned to night shifts while in the Springs area. During their long shifts they drove the roads and went from house to house checking for hot spots where flames might have flared up around the homes, Chapman explained — “anything actively burning, anything that could create an issue.”

Their duties for some of the time they were there included securing 100-foot perimeters around structures to make sure fires did not start up again at those houses.

They also responded to calls of fire flare ups and hot spots and helped knock them down so fire would not spread to other structures.

“We found stuff smoldering and burning,” Chapman recalled.

The first night the Valley firefighters were attached to a group from Peterson Air Force Base, the second night they were on their own, and their third night they worked with a Bureau of Land Management crew from Grand Junction.

The Valley firefighters worked in the area around the Black Forest Road.

“A lot of it was where the worst of the fire was,” Chapman said.

Most of the houses in that area were destroyed.

“A lot of the homes the only thing that was left standing was the foundation and if they had brick or rock chimneys or pillars, they were still standing,” Chapman said.

However, even some of the foundations had crumbled in the intense heat.

“There were lots of burned-out cars and everything. You would be driving down the road, and just in the middle of the road was a car just sitting in the middle of the road that was burned out.”

Chapman added there were some homes inexplicably untouched by the fire, while all around them the houses were completely destroyed. Most of the homes the Valley fire crew observed and monitored, however, were nearly obliterated.

“Where the brunt of it was, there’s absolutely nothing there.”

Law enforcement presence was huge in the fire zone to prevent looters from ransacking what might be left in the homes, Chapman said. One night when Valley firefighters were checking on a house, a property owner who had snuck back to his home came out and started yelling at them, and they took cover, not knowing what the man might do. When they called the police, they were at the scene in less than a minute with eight police cars. The man, who had ignored orders not to return to his home, was intoxicated and was transported from the scene, Chapman said.

“It was pretty heartbreaking to see the damage,” Chapman said, “and then to talk to people. We would run into people when we were fueling that lived in that area and didn’t know the outcome, or knew … There were some families that had lost everything. One lady I talked to her home was still there, but her son’s had been burned. Seeing the devastation was definitely heartbreaking.”

By Sunday some of the residents were allowed in a few at a time to begin looking for anything that might remain of their homes, Chapman said.

At a press briefing on Monday, authorities reported 75 percent containment, no further loss of homes, and a point of origin of what they believed to be a human-caused fire that so far has cost $5.5 million to fight.

The Black Forest Fire, the most devastating in Colorado history, has destroyed nearly 500 structures, burned more than 14,000 acres and taken two lives. It began nearly a year after the Waldo Canyon fire in the Colorado Springs area.

At the height of the fire, 40,000 people were ordered to evacuate. A few have been allowed to return with more expected to be able to visit their properties today and tomorrow.

The sheriff said during the Monday press conference that letting people return too soon could damage evidence that could be used in future criminal prosecution. He said investigators believe they have determined the point of origin “within feet or yards” and are awaiting arrival of equipment that will help in the process.

Alamosa Chief Chapman said this is not the first time Valley firefighters have assisted with incidents outside the Valley. Alamosa and Mineral County departments have cooperative agreements with the statewide fire prevention and control division. Their crews and equipment are listed in the statewide database, and they may be requested to share those resources, as they did in Black Forest.

They have assisted either with crews and/or equipment with fire incidents ranging from Estes Park and Mesa Verde to Wyoming and even California.

Chapman said he did not expect to be called back to Black Forest unless the fire significantly flared back up.

On the local front, Chapman said no fire/fireworks bans have been initiated but he expected a decision to be made in the next week. It will be a coordinated decision between county officials, fire departments and public lands.

“I am sure it’s inevitable.”

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