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Gazette Premium Content WALDO CANYON FIRE: Inside Tuesday's tragic firestorm

DANIEL CHACÓN and RYAN MAYE HANDY Updated: June 27, 2012 at 12:00 am

From day one, firefighters knew they had to hold the line at Rampart Range Road or all hell would break loose.

The highly unpredictable Waldo Canyon fire was a three-headed monster spreading its misery in one direction one day and in another the next.

When the erratic wildfire marched closer to Queens Canyon on a hot and windy Tuesday afternoon, fire crews dedicated every resource available to prevent the fast-moving flames from jumping over.

Aircraft painted the ridgeline red with slurry. Tractors and bulldozers ripped into the ground to create a boundary, aiding the hundreds of boots on the ground.

But a dangerous mix of winds blowing up to 65 mph, steep, rugged terrain and tinder-dry fuels created an inferno that forced thousands of Colorado Springs residents to flee and reduced dozens, if not hundreds, of homes to ash and debris.

“You can have one firefighter. You can have 1,000 firefighters. When that flame front is coming at you and it seems like it’s going all the way to the sky, all you can do is get out of the way,” Norm Rooker, a fire information officer with the Waldo Canyon fire incident command team, said Wednesday.

“We’re full of trite phrases but one of them is — and it’s for all disasters, not just this — Mother Nature always bats last. Mother Nature was at bat yesterday, and she was knocking them out of the park,” he said.

The fire started Saturday and burned around the Waldo Canyon area off U.S. Highway 24.

On Sunday, the fire spread south and northwest.

On Monday, the fire snaked west up Wellington Gulch and toward Rampart Reservoir. By Tuesday evening, it had tripled in size and invaded the city limits, destroying neighborhoods and forever changing Colorado Springs.

Before the fire breached the city, officials held a press conference outside Coronado High School. Flames and towering plumes of smoke served as the backdrop.

Less than 20 minutes into the briefing, Mayor Steve Bach was summoned to the side.

As the winds continued to grow stronger, reporters continued to ask questions.

“What are the consequences of the fire getting into Queens Canyon and if it keeps running? What’s ahead of it?” a reporter asked incident commander Rich Harvey.

“It’s a good question and a tough answer,” Harvey replied.

“Rampart Range Road was one of the best natural or high probability success points for the containment of this fire to the north,” he said.

Suddenly, Bach walked up to the microphone.

“We’ve just been told that there now is an evacuation order for the balance of Mountain Shadows up through Peregrine so please get that on your newscasts right away,” he said.

“Is that mandatory or voluntary?” a reporter yelled.

“Mandatory,” Bach replied with a sense of urgency in his voice.

In a matter of moments, a thick cloud of smoke settled over the city while terrified residents from Rockrimmon, Mountain Shadows and Peregrine rushed to get out.

Teenage brothers Dalton and Alex Sullivan cried in the parking lot of Springs Calvary waiting for their dad to get out.

“He doesn’t know if he’s going to make it,” said Dalton Sullivan, tears in his eyes.

“He just texted me telling me how much he loved me,” he said.

The Dalton family eventually reunited.

Hours later, back at Coronado High School, officials gathered again, this time with reports of “multiple structures” damaged.

“When we were here at 4 o’clock … I looked at the people from the Forest Service,” Bach said. “When we all turned around and saw that fire jump those two ridges, I saw their mouths drop. I think they were stunned at what they saw. I was.”

Rooker, the fire information officer, said three main things dictate fire behavior: weather, topography and fuels.

“Our fuels are very, very dry,” he said. “They say ‘1,000-hour fuels,’ which means it takes 1,000 hours for that fuel to dry out or 1,000 hours for that fuel to rehydrate up to its full moister-carrying capacity. Our 1,000-hour fuels were at 3 percent yesterday. That’s tinder-dry. That basically means you could rub it, and it will start to burn.”

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