Ruins: Deputy Sheriff Plays Wildland Firefighter
Ruins: Deputy Sheriff Plays Wildland Firefighter
The East Troublesome Fire was one of the largest fires in the Colorado’s history. The fire started on October 14th, 2020 in Grand County Colorado by an unknown cause. Simultaneously, the Cameron Peak fire was burning in Larimer County east of the Troublesome Gulch Fire. With the perfect storm of weather conditions on the way, it was feared that the two fires would meet in the area of Estes Park via the Rocky Mountain National Park.
The fire was located in Grand County which is west of Boulder, Colorado. Due to the size and potential for the fire to reach Granby and Grand Lake, as well as Estes Park, officials with Grand County requested Mutual Aid and several agencies provided resources. Once of those agencies was my agency which is no stranger to wildland fires. We have had our share of them and have had to request Mutual Aid as well. So our Patrol Division provided several Deputies over the first few weeks of the fire to assist with road closures and evacuations as needed.
I am a Deputy Sheriff and have been on Patrol for five years. I have worked in Law Enforcement for eight years and prior to that, I served in the US Military for eight years. My knowledge of fire is limited… I can build a campfire… that’s about it. I was underqualified for this assignment, but I was honored to help in any way I could.
October 22nd was my first shift working the fire. This day was particularly important due to an expected wind shift that was projected to push the fire toward the towns of Granby and Grand Lake. The drive from our Headquarters to Granby was about an hour and a half. As I drove over Berthoud Pass, I could see smoke coming from the north. I continued driving toward the smoke and as I got closer, the whole atmosphere changed. I turned down my music so I could take everything in. As I reached town, it was completely empty similar to an old ghost town. The smoke filled the air and looming in the distance were flames crowning over the nearby mountains. The feeling of dread sunk in as I realized that the fire was moving toward town… it was moving FAST! The potential for the entire town to be demolished by the fire was real. Evacuation orders were filtering in and most of the town’s residents had already left. The town was now populated with the brave wildland firefighter heroes. I checked in at the Law Enforcement Operations Command (LEOPS) and was assigned the duty of ensuring houses were evacuated along Highway 125.
I drove my patrol car north on Highway 125 and as I did, I looked to the west. Just a few hundred yards from Highway 125 where I was driving, the fire was raging down the hill. I observed Fire Mitigation Crews setting intentional and controlled fires to clear brush around houses to attempt to save them in the event the fire reached the house. These crews had been working for days on end with little to no rest. As I drove up the road, I saw a crew pulled over. I decided to check in with them and see if I could get a feel for the atmosphere.
As I pulled up, three Wildland Firefighters were standing near a brush truck drinking from their bottles of water. Their faces were covered in ash and their yellow protective gear was nearly brown from the dirt and ash. Their faces were rugged and weathered from the cold and the wind. They were tired… and the fight had just begun. I began talking with them and getting a feel for the heartbeat of the fire. The fire was moving fast and it was expected to grow in size with the upcoming weather. I parted ways with them and continued on my objective.
I drove toward the C Lazy U Ranch and turned west into the first area I could. At this time, the C Lazy U ranch was still standing. I slowly made my way up toward a structure on the other side of the road that had been completely burned. The house was leveled and the only resemblance was the foundation and the chimney still standing. The underground pipeline from their gas supply was on fire and was making the only audible sound I could hear. The sound was eerie… and seeing the fire blowing around in the ruins made the situation feel powerful. This was someone’s home. I stopped for a second and got out of my car. As I looked around, I could see that the fire moved quickly through this area. Only about half of the trees were completely burnt. A lot of fuel remained so I made sure that I was well aware of the wind direction and the fire’s current position. I got back in my car and continued to drive through the dirt road that connected about five homes. All but one of them completely burnt to the ground.
As I drove north on Highway 125, I came across a flat roofed house that appeared to be intact. I drove up the driveway and observed two men standing on the roof. I immediately informed them of the fire’s current location and that they are in a position to be in the fires path. My mind raced as I worried about their safety and how they were going to get out. I instructed them to evacuate as soon as possible and attempted to vocalize the importance of expeditious movement. My objective continued while I drove north on Highway 125. I observed many homes to be totally burnt and several homes unscathed. The fire had come through so fast that if it turned back, the danger of losing more homes existed.
After a few hours of driving the seemingly endless ruins, I turned around and drove back south toward the LEOPS Command Post (CP). While driving the main highway back to town, I began to notice large rocks that had slid down the mountain and landed on the road. The trees had been holding up the landscape and the absence of those trees because of the fire caused small landslides. These are the things I was surprised by. Another thing that surprised me was the wildlife that died on the road. While driving, I saw multiple squirrels and chipmunks that had probably ran from the heat of the fire. They reached the centerline of the road and stopped, possibly out of instinct since there was nothing there to burn. Unfortunately for them, the heat or smoke got to them and they perished. The solid line was dotted with multiple little creatures that made my stomach turn. I couldn’t imagine what they went through the last few moments of their lives. Tragically, these lives weren’t the only lives lost to this fire.
As I drove south on Highway 125, I watched as the wind shifted to the east. The fire was now closer to the road and I could barely see because of the smoke. My mind raced as I realized that just a few miles behind me, those two men were on the roof of their house watching the fire. I considered turning around but looked in my mirror as the fire completely engulfed Highway 125 near the C Lazy U Ranch. I drove faster to ensure I didn’t burn the patrol car but as I did, my visibility got worse. I found myself driving by, “brail” as I like to call it. I would run the tire as close to the white fog line as I could to feel where the road went so I didn’t go off.
Once I made it to the clear skies, I continued to the CP and told the LEOPS Command about the folks on the roof. To be honest, I never found out what happened to them but I know they survived. As I sat back at the CP, I was re assigned to begin the evacuations of houses along Highway 57. The National Forrest Service had resources allocated to this as well so I teamed up with them and we played leap frog as we went from house to house. We started our evacuations from the north where Highway 57 met Highway 40. Immediately, I noticed horses and other livestock in the fields belonging to these houses. My heart broke as I informed the owners of each house that they had little to no time to evacuate.
Having to look someone in the eyes and tell them that everything they own is in danger and that they need to leave immediately is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. Seeing the pain in those families eyes will stay with me forever... I specifically remember one family with several small children. The mother was loading the kids in the car as I drove up and my presence made the situation grimmer for her I’m sure. She frantically rushed in and out of the house grabbing whatever items she needed for the kiddos and their pet dog. Another family that stands out had a six horse trailer loaded up with horses at the end of the driveway far away from the field. This family had already evacuated and I imagine they left the horses there to retrieve them at a later time or in hopes that the fire would not reach them there.
I continued my way south toward the town of Granby going house to house with my lights and sirens on. Running to and from the doors giving the worst news these folks would hear. Once Highway 57 was evacuated, I listened as the fire crews chattered on the radio. The fire was moving east toward the Town of Grand Lake which had already been evacuated. The fire was moving fast due to the winds picking up and the crews were having to give up ground that they had fought so hard to save. Then the 911 calls started coming in… I remember VERY vividly as the Dispatcher relayed the callers information saying that people were trapped in a house and that children were in the house as well. Fire crews responded to the reported address and as far as I know, they were able to get them out. We also heard the sad news that an elderly couple that chose not to evacuate were killed in the fire. This news was grim and so was the outlook for the Town of Grand Lake. The fire continued east and fire crews did all they could to save the structures.
At this time, I was posted at an observation position at a peak south of the fire. My responsibility was to begin evacuations in that area if the fire moved south at all. Luckily, the fire did not move south and all of the evacuated homes on Highway 57 survived. Day one was concluded on that peak and after a very long and eventful 15 or so hour shift, I went end of watch. The remaining time I spent at the fire was doing assessments of the ruins. In the military, the term is similar to Battle Damage Assessment (BDA). That’s what it felt like. I drove into areas that the previous day were intact. Some structures at the C Lazy U Ranch were lost and several other homes were lost. I was given a camera with a GPS device to document some of the burned structures. The remaining time, I roamed the area of Grand Lake which had many structures lost but downtown area survived. I roamed the area to ensure houses and businesses didn’t get looted.
A heavy snowstorm greatly assisted Firefighters in their efforts and ultimately, the need for our help was over. As I concluded my time in Grand County, I was grateful for the experience but I think it will take years for me to process everything. I can tell you that I value the knowledge that I obtained from these few days. I prioritize things differently as seeing people lose everything really put things into perspective for me. I carry a med bag with me along with water and a few days worth of food in a go bag so I am prepared for anything. The goal of this article was to add perspective to the reader’s life. Things can always be worse. Be prepared for anything and never take things for granted. Keep supplies in a vehicle and make sure you have your valuables in a fire proof safe. I suggest having a small safe somewhere that is easily transported that holds valuable documents like birth and marriage certificates. Document all of your valuables with pictures and receipts. This will help in the event something gets damaged or stolen.
I want to dedicate this article to the brave Wildland Firefighters and their families. The amount of time and effort that goes into fighting a fire like this is incomprehensible. The bravery that it takes to stand within feet of a fire that is as wild and unpredictable as a hungry beast will always stand out to me. As a fellow First Responder, I gained a new level of respect for my brothers and sisters in that line of work. I will always appreciate the level of dedication to such an immense and daunting task. You folks are truly hearos and I wish I could shake all of your hands.