Updated: July 7, 2012 at 12:00 am
James Prince and the 25 members of his Tahoe National Forest strike team rolled into Colorado Springs on June 26, just before 65-mph winds shot fire across the landscape.
The team’s five engines staged at 30th Street and Garden of the Gods Road before they drove into the inferno that had fallen on Mountain Shadows. They doused flaming homes and scrub oak until 2 a.m., under a shower of embers. They watched other homes burn.
Although team boss Rob Hilfer scouted the area and suggested a plan to his five crews, the sudden burst of fire changed all of that. The firefighters had to react faster than they could think.
It was a firefighter’s nightmare and career ambition, all in one.
“Honestly, I was having nothing but fun that first night,” Prince recalled a week later. Fellow crew-member Tyler Bosworth agreed. “That was good firefighting,” he said.
The men sat with eight others from their team in Holmes Middle School, the fire’s command center, on the eve of their departure from the Waldo Canyon fire, a week after they arrived in town. Their clothes were rank with smoke, but they were fresh from a lasagna dinner at the mess tent.
Seeing what was left of Mountain Shadows had killed the adrenaline high of that first night. They had spent the past few days mopping up, enforcing fireline and digging anti-flood trenches, called water bars.
“The worst was like today,” Prince said. “When you go back in there it starts to set in.”
The Tahoe team returned to neighborhoods that had been opened to residents, who left behind American flags and scrawled notes on their driveways.
“Worst part for me was driving through there the last couple of days, seeing people whose houses had burned,” Prince admitted. “When they went back, you know, they were writing stuff on driveways—‘We’ll be back.’ (I was thinking about) having two kids of my own, little kids you know, drawing pictures and stuff, thinking about them going through that.”
The Tahoe National Forest crew is a national resource, like air tankers or engines, ordered up by fire commanders. Although based in a forest that stretches from Sacramento, Calif., to Reno, Nev., the team has travelled to Alaska, Hawaii, Florida and the Australian outback.
For the Waldo Canyon the 25 firefighters drove in five monster all-terrain vehicles, lead by their boss Hilfer in his pickup truck. They met in Grand Junction on Monday June 25 and got their assignment: a strike team assigned to the Colorado Springs fire.
A strike team is a specialized and self-sufficient group — a team of firefighters that carries enough gear and food for two days in the woods, often camping near a spot fire or fire line they are working.
On Tuesday afternoon they gathered at the Loaf N’Jug at Garden of the Gods Road and 30th Street and watched smoke billow down the hill. Crew member Matt Bradford saw the sky above the gas station turn orange and gray. Eric Husmann’s eyes stung with smoke, and he couldn’t see across the street.
Jeff Bennefeld, manager of the gas station, opened up the store for the Tahoe crew before they made their way up to Mountain Shadows.
“Where are your maps?” Bennefeld remembered the firefighters asking. The crews grabbed all the maps the store had.
“They asked me how much, I said, ‘Just go, just go’,” Bennefeld said.
As the strike team boss, Hilfer scouted the scene. Before 4 p.m., he sent his engines to the streets — some went to Stoneridge Drive, others to Wilson Road and Champagne Drive. Once on assignment each engine crew was alone.
The surest sign of tension before an imminent fire fight is not the dense smoke or the heat in the engine’s cab — it’s the silence of the firefighters.
“Everybody’s going ‘oh s---,’” Prince said. “You just don’t know what to expect and the whole time you’re in it you’re always trying to pre-plan, to prepare, and figure out what you’re gonna do.”
The firefighters worked steadily, rarely picking up their radios, and rarely running into another crew. But once they got to Champagne Drive, things became hectic.
“I think we were more in the line of fire there, literally,” Prince said. “A lot of tight houses, a bigger subdivision, really.”
Then the firestorm came up a ridge and roared down Lions Gate Lane and Majestic Drive. Crews above Lions Gate saw the fire spitting embers, threatening to run uphill toward them.
“Then we started thinking about triage—where to go, where to be, what to save,” said Prince. “It’s never static.”
The winding lanes of Mountain Shadows were unknown to many of the firefighters defending them.
“I couldn’t believe how close the houses were together,” Prince said. Some homes sat three feet apart, enough room for a narrow sidewalk in between. Many homes had wooden decks surrounded by scrub oak.
“When the fire comes down, it hits that deck, and then your house is on fire,” explained Bosworth. “So the fire comes up behind all these houses just burning that vegetation, and then the winds or something make it turn, and just that one house will be on fire now. Then all we can do is try to prevent it from burning the houses next to it.”
Once a home caught on fire, heat blistered paint on the walls of its neighbors. Wooden siding ignited from radiant heat alone, often creating a domino-effect that burned down blocks.
“There was so much radiant heat like, literally, the walls were starting to smoke,” said Eric Husmann.
The Tahoe crew had to keep engulfed homes from tossing embers onto roofs or falling on other houses. Husmann watched one two-story home sway in the flames like a deck of cards.
“It was looking like the upper floor was starting to teeter … and we blasted it with the hose, trying to get it to fall in on itself instead of on the homes we were trying to protect,” he said. “The house next door did make it.”
Many homeowners left their sprinklers on, or left garden hoses snaking across their lawns — a saving grace and welcome surprise for the Tahoe team. Firefighters tripped over sprinkler systems, which they could turn on and walk away to protect something else, Husmann said.
The Tahoe crews battled flames from the outside, leaving the interior structure fighting to Colorado Springs firefighters. Structure crews with their “pavement queens” — the nickname for city engines — can carry much more water than Tahoe’s brush trucks.
By 2 a.m. Wednesday morning, the worst was over. Colorado Springs firefighters relieved the Tahoe team, which was sent back to Holmes Middle School to sleep off their 20 hours of work.
The team spent the following week mopping up in the leveled neighborhoods. On their last day, a week after the Tuesday firestorm, they dug a terraced trench system into hills to slow floodwater above Mountain Shadows.
They knew little of the fire’s drama beyond their roles on the hillside. They didn’t know that the city had waited anxiously for what fire crews saw on Wednesday morning: the numbers of homes destroyed.
The Fourth of July was the Tahoe team’s last day in Colorado Springs. Before hitting the road in their convoy of engines, they stopped back at the Loaf N’ Jug to buy cans of chewing tobacco and boxes of donuts. Jeff Bennefeld, who greeted them a week before, was still there.
One Tahoe engine was sent north to Wyoming, to help with the 97,443 acre Arapaho fire, which replaced the Waldo Canyon burn as a top priority in the nation. The other four trucks drove home to California.
People at the gas station waved and thanked them, something that is rare in California, the crew said.
“Some lady brought us cookies today,” Bosworth said, the night before they left. “It was a very heartfelt thank you. She started crying — said her house was up the street ... I’ve never had that before.”
Contact Ryan Maye Handy: 636-0261