WALDO CANYON FIRE: Accounts of neighborhood devastation

June 27, 2012
photo - Paramedics check the vitals of Colorado Springs firefighters at Station 9 on Garden of the Gods Road after their pull a shift fighting the Waldo Canyon Fire Tuesday, June 26, 2012. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) Photo by CHRISTIAN MURDOCK, THE GAZETTE
Paramedics check the vitals of Colorado Springs firefighters at Station 9 on Garden of the Gods Road after their pull a shift fighting the Waldo Canyon Fire Tuesday, June 26, 2012. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) Photo by CHRISTIAN MURDOCK, THE GAZETTE 

Scores of firefighters spent Tuesday night pulling eaves from homes and shoving nozzles through windows to douse burning rooms in the charred residential landscapes in northeast Colorado Springs.

For Lieutenant J.J. Halsey of the Colorado Springs Fire Department only one word can capture the essence of that 27 hours of saving homes.

“Devastation,” he said on Wednesday.

When Halsey and his crew of three from Station 4 were shifted Tuesday to Mountain Shadows for all night duty, many homes were beyond salvation. Entire streets were incinerated, leaving nothing but charred foundations. Fractured gas lines erupted in neighborhoods obliterated by flames that moved too fast for fire crews. Embers poured down on them, fluttering around them like fireflies, Halsey said.

“It’s just a helpless feeling, you know,” he said.

In briefings, crews were told that between 200 and 300 homes were lost, firefighters said. It would take complicated map work to reconstruct the decimated neighborhoods where flames had erased addresses, firefighters said.

Halsey lost track of how many hours he and his team spent going from house to house — he estimated that the crew worked on minimal sleep and food, returning to home-base at Station 9 before noon on Wednesday. They were forced to leave a couple of homes in fragile condition, uncertain if the structures would be standing hours later. Fortunately, they were, Halsey later learned.

“That was really good for our souls,” he said.

Sweat-crusted, hungry and desperate for another assignment, Halsey milled around Station 9 Wednesday morning with other firefighters recovering from a long night on the front lines of the ferocious Waldo Canyon fire. The fire tripled in sized Tuesday after a pyrocumulus cloud mixed with thunderstorms, shoving 40 to 60 mph down drafts over the firescape.

The gusts pushed the fire into Mountain Shadows, a neighborhood in northwest Colorado Springs, leaving in its wake unprecedented destruction such as Halsey had never seen in his 18-year career.

While Halsey’s crew walked away from fully engulfed homes, another crew in the Flying W Ranch subdivision was forced from encroaching flames before it got a chance to finish protection work. Richard Groh and the Mount Baker Initial Attack crew from Washington deserted their unfinished lines as the fire poured into their area. Nearly 40 minutes later, the fire roared through the subdivision, Groh said.

Tuesday’s blow-up prompted more calls for help from the Colorado Springs Fire Department, and firefighters were called in for mandatory overtime. Back-up engines and crews poured in from Denver and Pueblo. On Wednesday firefighters waited, despite their exhaustion, to be sent back to the zones that had been nearly annihilated less than 24 hours before.

Kevin Apuron, who had just put in 48 hours straight with little to no sleep, was at Station 9 watching the incoming engines eagerly.

Apuron’s men had run from house to house Tuesday night, dousing flames inside and out. They watched spot fires ignite all around them. As for bodies, Apuron didn’t find any. But then again, he wouldn’t know how to recognize them in the ash, he said.

On Wednesday, he and his four crew members were waiting to catch a ride up the hill on a Type 1 engine, and relieve an incoming crew. He was frustrated at the delay, but could understand it.

“They tell us when to come down,” Apuron said. “Otherwise, we’ll stay up all day.”

It’s a duty they throw themselves into, some going 90 hours straight without breaks, said Apuron.

When firefighters return to Station 9 and surrender their rigs to their recharged colleagues, paramedics check their vitals, often forcing them to sit through examinations, said Lt. Stacy Billapando, paramedic squad leader.

“For some of these guys, this is what they live for,” she said. “They all want to get up there because it’s their backyard.”

To accommodate the famished and enervated crews, the fire department has set up its own smaller-scale fire camp behind the station. It constructed a 900-square-foot tent complete with extra sleeping cots and air-conditioning.

At 11 a.m. Wednesday Halsey was among several who stuffed their pants’ pockets with food, waiting anxiously for spare engines and new orders. Others, such as Station 9 engine driver Howie Henderson, were looking for spare cots to collapse on after several all night shifts on the mountain sides.

Apuron and Halsey each grabbed a bag of Skittles — never mind if the heat melts them.

“I’ll eat the package — I don’t care,” Apuron said.

In his other pocket Apuron stuffed a hamburger and energy bars as a last resort. He watches his diet closely, and usually carries a cooler of his own food with him, he said. But Tuesday night, as his team worked through what he called the carnage of Mountain Shadows, they pillaged whatever food they could find. That meant shoving down Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs, given to them by a Station 9 brush crew.

After stuffing their pockets, napping, and restocking their packs, all officers gathered for a quick briefing before the rigs arrived to pick their crews up. They were told to make bathroom stops and stay hydrated.

If they found human remains, they were told not to radio in, instead clearly mark the spot with green tape.

Apuron was told not to expect to come home on Thursday; he was given no return time for the future.

“It’s going to be a long week,” he said.

Shortly afterward Apuron’s crew shouted to get his attention — a Type 1 engine had arrived, and it was theirs.

Contact Ryan Maye Handy: 636-0261

Twitter @ryanmhandy

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