Colorado Springs firefighters described an epic fight to save homes when flames from the Waldo Canyon fire raced down Queen’s Canyon and into the Mountain Shadows and Flying W Ranch neighborhoods on Tuesday night.

For some of the firefighters, Friday morning marked their first extended break from the front lines.  Many had never imagined seeing hundreds of homes light up at once; it was something they’d read about it trade magazines.

“I’m not going to see 346 structure fires in my career,” said Lt. Tadd Mauritson.

Firefighter Todd Smith described arriving at the area late Tuesday night as the fire raged, driving through billowing smoke at a frustratingly slow place.

“I couldn’t get over 25 mph because I couldn’t see,” he said. He said he could smell burning plastic and burning paint. Of the smoke:  “It was the biggest campfire in the world.”

Firefighters made stands against the blaze on many blocks, Smith said, saving houses.

But it mostly came down to triage, with firefighters identifying homes where owners  had done fire mitigation work – clearing away debris from their houses and off their porches and pine needles from their property.

Many of those without such fire preparation work were already burning, he said.

“Our job is life and property, and certain times we have to draw a line in the sand,” Smith said.

Colorado Springs Fire Department Lt. Tadd Mauritson described working 58 hours in the first three days of the fire. “That was the height of it,” he said.

Then, he got a six-hour break, then started a 16-hour shift.

During the firestorm Tuesday evening, homes lit up like matchsticks. At one point, Mauritson spent four hours trying to keep flames off one structure as a house the right burned to the ground and smoke rose from houses all around.

“It’s like eating the elephant one bite at a time,” Mauritson said.