WALDO CANYON FIRE: Firefighters recall battles against flames

June 30, 2012
photo - A scrub oak tree with its burned leaves stands Friday, June 29, 2012, in Williams Canyon above the Cedar Heights housing development in Colorado Springs, Colo., after the Waldo Canyon fire burned through the area.    Photo by CHRISTIAN MURDOCK/The Gazette
A scrub oak tree with its burned leaves stands Friday, June 29, 2012, in Williams Canyon above the Cedar Heights housing development in Colorado Springs, Colo., after the Waldo Canyon fire burned through the area. Photo by CHRISTIAN MURDOCK/The Gazette 

Fiery embers racing through the night air on June 23 illuminated the fight to save Cedar Heights. Slurry lines held. Firefighters raced to spot each glowing ball of ash that landed on the roofs of nearby houses.

“It was a blizzard of embers coming over us,” Colorado Springs fire Lt. Rick Schmidt said.

Raindrops replaced those embers Friday. And the roofs they splashed appeared unscathed by the ashy fireworks.

The subdivision officials worried would be hit hardest by the Waldo Canyon fire — in part because it threatened there first — seemingly escaped intact this week despite flames edging near houses at the top of the neighborhood.

Cedar Heights residents were allowed back into their houses at 9 p.m. Friday — nearly a week after fleeing.

A tour of the subdivision hours earlier revealed a picturesque gated community bordered by a black abyss of ash-crusted trees and sooty dirt.

The dichotomy was stark: Past the stone sign declaring Cedar Heights “A Private Community,” green — if tinder-dry — pines stood among shrubs. Houses, empty but standing, offering prized views of Colorado Springs stretching from Garden of the Gods to Manitou Springs.

Twenty feet off a paved road a blackened area marked the spot where flames shot out of Williams Canyon in the first days of the fire and onto a hillside bordering the subdivision. Red-orange dye — retardant — lined a dirt road near the burn scar.

The fire appeared to race from the west and northwest, scorching the backsides of tree trunks as it chewed through grasses on the ground and countless stands of Gambel oak. A look to the west showed a stretch of Williams Canyon devoid of trees with needles.

The same crews that raced to shower orange embers with water on Saturday night and Sunday moved at a slower pace Friday — reinforced with fresh crews hailing from as far away as California.

The newly arrived firefighters plodded through the charred area with picks and oversized water jugs, looking for hot spots.

“It’s not glamorous work, but it’s what you do 95 percent of the time,” said Tom Stevens, leading a team of five men from the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Forests.

Exhausted by near-continuous shifts, Colorado Springs firefighters welcomed the help.

Their shifts began Saturday, when engine after engine raced up the subdivision’s winding roads to protect houses. Their work was made easier by fire mitigation work done by residents.

Many homes were built using stucco walls, while most homeowners avoided using cedar shake shingles on their roofs.

After the storm of embers showered Cedar Heights over the weekend, winds shifted to the north, fanning flames up Ute Pass toward Teller County.

On Tuesday, another shift in the winds brought a firestorm down on subdivisions in northwest, a harrowing ordeal that left firefighters scrambling for hours to save houses.

Schmidt, who helped oversee crews during the initial Cedar Heights fight, rushed to Mountain Shadows to direct 13 firefighters in that neighborhood.

“I couldn’t even begin to describe how hot it was,” Schmidt said.

Flames erupted in houses on both sides of the street. Some crews turned on sprinkler systems and left garden hoses running. Others tore down wooden deck stairs and knocked down curtains that ignited in stucco houses.

Arriving at the area late Tuesday night, Todd Smith, a firefighter, drove 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.”

Their battle was scored in houses left standing.

The lieutenant’s crew reported saving 11, Schmidt said. In all, 81 percent of the houses in the area under evacuation in Peregrine and Mountain Shadows were saved, said Colorado Springs fire Chief Rich Brown.

Often, it came down to triage. At times, firefighters identified homes where owners had done fire mitigation work — clearing debris from their houses and off porches and pine needles from property.

In the moments before the flames arrived, firefighters did that work for the residents — going so far as to push grills onto sidewalks and throw lawn chairs off decks.

But many of those without such fire preparation work were burning. Firefighters were able to save some homes where mitigation work hadn’t been done.

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

Sleep-deprived and exhausted, Colorado Springs crews Friday largely patrolled houses in Cedar Heights. Many still felt the effects of the firestorm.

Schmidt couldn’t list the carbon monoxide readings of his body Friday, mostly because he’s been afraid to see the results.

“I’ve had a headache since Saturday,” Schmidt said.

As he monitored his crews, Stevens and his men searched for smoke.

One firefighter poured water on hot coals dug up by another crew member Friday afternoon, declaring “we’re good” before moving to the next smoking stump.

Their tedious work was interrupted about 2:20 p.m. when Stevens fielded radio traffic of a new puff in the air seen by a spotter.

A short distance from their work site, a sign lay on the ground.

“Solitude Park, CHCA members only,” it read. “No motorized vehicles. No camping. No firearms. No fires.”

Contact Jakob Rodgers: 476-1654

Twitter @jakobrodgers

Facebook Jakob Rodgers

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