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VIDEO: Firefighters stories from the front lines of the Black Forest fire near Colorado Springs

By: Ryan Maye Handy, Tom Roeder and Erin Prater The Gazette
June 20, 2013 Updated: June 21, 2013 at 6:22 am

The battle of the Black Forest is nearly over, 10 days after it ignited in a dry, dense pine forest in eastern El Paso County.

Like any battle, it was hard fought - quick but seemingly endless. For firefighters, it was also a game of luck and risk - of being in the right place, at the right time. The destroyed homes - now, 509 - were tucked in the forest, some invisible even from roving fire crews. But more than 3,000 homes survived.

On June 12, the Black Forest fire, which killed two people, seemed unstoppable. But Thursday and Friday brought a confluence of things that stood in the blaze's way: helicopters from Fort Carson, aircraft from Peterson Air Force Base, a DC-10 tankerand rain. By that time, a Type 1 Incident Management Team - the team lead by Rich Harvey that also fought the Waldo Canyon fire - was coordinating the efforts.

Firefighters drove through the forest looking for homes, and then decided which they could save. They moved propane tanks and wood piles away from houses - if they hadn't already exploded into flame; they burned protective rings around homes, and cut down dangerous trees.

Some neighborhoods that had done fire mitigation, like Cathedral Pines, fared the best. The fire "skunked" around, burning the ground and the trunks of trees, but rarely reached the tree-tops. Only a few homes there were burned. But ultimately, even the best fire mitigation cannot stop the most fierce crown fire.

Crown fire obliterated swaths of the forest - most of Holmes Road, for instance, and the Brentwood subdivision. Those neighborhoods were taken by walls of fire - crown fire in the treetops, and creeping ground fire - pushed in by winds and fueled by heat. Firefighters often stood in the middle of such infernos, with fire on all sides; it was like being in the middle of the sun, one said.

There are outlying homes, separated from clusters of destruction, that burned alone. The homes were taken by ground fire that dropped down from the tops of trees, and crawled along in "fingers" of fire until it reached a home, burned it and moved on.

The fire drew crews from around the country, but it was a Colorado fire from the start, fought by crews from Falcon and Black Forest, from Steamboat Springs and Telluride. Some firefighters were seasoned, others had only seen a grassfire before the Black Forest fire. Here are the stories from the front lines.

Vernon Champlin, Fire Marshal, Falcon Fire Department

Vernon Champlin walked away from the fire with a shovel.

On Goodson Road, patrolling, the fire suddenly started to come through the trees, making its way towards the house near Champlin and his crew.

"We just had the pick-up with one shovel in it," he said on Tuesday. "As the (fire)brands were coming in, we were trying to stomp the brands out with our feet. And I found a shovel on the back porch of this house, and so we took their shovel. We stayed in there - sorry, Chief - too long, like everybody did."

He grabbed the shovel, and tried to use it to break-up small fires buring around the house.

"You could hear the roar of the trees behind you. ... I mean, there were things on fire around the house...there was a water hose by the house and we were trying to turn the water hose on and spray things down."

But hose water and the shovel's wacks weren't enough.

"It gets so bad that you realize you can't stop it there. And you get in the truck and try to get out and go to the next place."

Within minutes the crew was fleeing a crown fire. The smoke around them got thicker, and began to glow orange, reflecting the flames.

"You can't see," Champlin said. "The white smoke, it glows orange, and when it glows orange all around you, you're looking out the side of your window, trying to see the ditch and creep along at a half-a-mile an hour through the orange smoke, trying to get on the other side of it. And it happens instantly."

In the rush, Champlin grabbed the shovel, and used it over the next few days to fight fire.

"It's funny because I've got it with me," he said. He kept stored at the Falcon fire station. "It's just a simple shovel. There's nothing fancy about it."

Days later, the crew went back to Goodson Road and found the house - it was standing, flanked on either side by homes that burned. But Champlin didn't put the shovel back. He kept it, and hoped to personally put it back in the hands of the homeowners.

"What's crazy about it is I'm just kind of processing. When all that stuff's going on you don't really process. It's not until now that you realize how crazy that stuff is."

Drew Olsson, Firefighter, Falcon Fire Department

"We didn't know if any crews were working up there, so we just responded as if were just a normal fire alarm," Drew Olsson said of the first day of the fire, June 11.

When they arrive on Remington Road, his crew had to leave its engine on the main road. Olsson walked up the drive, towards the house.

"We got to the house and the whole backside of the house was fully involved. So we were able to break in the door," he said.

The crew went to the garage.

"We were able to pull mostly tools and stuff like that out of the garage. And we put tarps over it so if it did rain, which it did. Probably small potatoes to those people but hopefully it means something."

They dragged the tools into the driveaway, away from the "raging house fire."

"I don't even know if I was breathing to tell you the truth. There was zero visibility right up to their house. You didn't have time to think. You just grab their stuff until the garage was no longer safe for us to be in," he said. It got so bad that they had to move on.

By Thursday they were back in the area, this time watching for flames in the trees.

"It was a different image going back up there two days later and just seeing nothing. You couldn't even tell the garage we were in was a garage," Olsson said.

"There's areas where everything is just black. The trees are black, the ground is black, the dirt's black. Everything's black and there are just holes in the ground where their basements used to be."

Chief Warrant Officer James Dowdy, Fort Carson

When the order came June 11, Chief Warrant Officer James Dowdy hit the throttles on his CH-47D at Fort Carson's Butts Army Airfield.

"I took off as fast as I could get a Chinook to go straight up Academy Boulevard," Dowdy said.

The first 1,400-gallon bucket of water carried by the Chinook hit the fire 57 minutes later. Army helicopter crews, ordered to the Black Forest fire by Fort Carson's Maj. Gen. Paul LaCamera under a Pentagon rule that gives him authority to commit troops to save lives off the post, would drop another 1,296 buckets of water over four days.

Dowdy's unit, the 2nd Battalion of the 4th Aviation Regiment, which was activated at the post April 3, has been honing aerial firefighting skills for weeks.

Dowdy said he could see the smoke from the cockpit of his Chinook, a massive twin-rotor helicopter, while it was still at the airfield.

"When we got on site, it was so wide spread we didn't know where to start," Dowdy said.

Unlike air tankers, which drop lines of retardant to stop a fire's advance, helicopters - especially big ones like the Chinook, can put out flames. That made Army choppers critical in the fight to save houses.

The helicopters flew 150-feet over the treetops, guided to targets by a National Guard observation chopper. The stayed upwind of the fire and dropped directly on flames.

Crew members in the cargo area of the Chinooks released the water.

"The flame will go down and the smoke will go bright white," Dowdy said.

Dowdy recalled one house - "the green roof house" - off Shoup Road that Fort Carson crews worked to save on June 12.

Two helicopters worked in tandem to douse advancing flames - some of which were two stories tall.

"The next day, the green roof house was still there," Dowdy said.

Soldiers from across the battalion joined the fight, working long nights to maintain the helicopters and establishing a refueling site on the Air Force Academy's airfield.

Dowdy has flown missions all over the globe in war and peace, with service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the pilot, who lives near Powers Boulevard and Woodmen, said this mission meant the most.

"When you're able to help your neighbors - that is the most rewarding thing I could do with my aircraft."

Air Force Academy crew

At the Air Force Academy, firefighters were checking out a smoke report in Jack's Valley when they saw the growing Black Forest fire.

"You could tell it wasn't the typical house fire we see across the interstate," said academy fire Capt. Roy Dalton.

Academy firefighters headed for the firestorm about 3 p.m. on June 11 assigned to save houses along Milam Road.

Flames crept, then roared toward the first home they worked to defend. The crackling sound was punctuated by explosions when a gasoline-filled garage went up and the sharp-crack of gunfire when flames hit ammunition in houses.

Dalton said he'd only seen one fire like it in his two decades of wrestling flames: Waldo Canyon.

With saws, hoses and shovels, the academy crews worked to douse flames and create barriers that would save homes. There's a switch that's thrown in most firefighters when they realize they're battling the mythical "Big One."

"The cool factor is there," said Staff. Sgt. Tanner Derosier, a Falcon native who returned to his hometown as an Air Force firefighter.

But all the adrenaline on the planet couldn't stop the Black Forest fire as flames soared 60 feet over the treetops on Milam.

"It was too late," Dalton said.

Dalton's firefighters were forced back by fire from house after house. "It's very hard to leave," Dalton said.

Academy firefighter Brandon Eubanks said when firefighters were ordered to pull back, about 40 minutes after arriving June 11.

The firefighters gave ground grudgingly, working to build firebreaks to protect houses at every stop.

"It was beyond big," Derosier said. "The rate of growth astonished me."

Spc. Casey Hallas, Fort Carson

Fort Carson Spc. Casey Hallas headed to work at 4 a.m. on June 12 with other bulldozer crews from the post's 52nd Engineer Battalion.

Arriving at the Black Forest fire before dawn, they cut wide paths through fields and forests, felling trees and shrubs along the way, to contain the blaze.

"It smelled like a giant camp fire," said Hallas, who estimated he and others cut more than two miles of line to hem in the north side of the fire near Hodgen Road.

It's a job that's similar to road building. "It had to be clean cuts," Hallas explained, noting that the fire break would be used by firetrucks and crews.

One containment line cut by Hallas and his comrades, as wide as a two lane road, couldn't hold the fire Wednesday afternoon as winds gusted. So they headed north and cut another one, which did hold.

"We were all excited to go out there and help the community," Hallas said.

Chief Master Sgt. David Carey, 302nd Airlift Wing

Chief Master Sgt. David Carey, a flight engineer with the 302nd Airlift Wing, has been fighting fire from airplanes since 1993,

flying hundreds of missions throughout the country and assisted with aerial assaults on the Hayman and Waldo Canyon fires.

But the Black Forest fire hit home like none other for the Air Force reservist.

Three of his employees were evacuated from their homes because of it.

"This one was more personal for that reason," Carey said. "Employees I'm very close with were affected immensely."

Each night when Carey returned from a long day of slurry-dropping, he was confronted with the reality of the fire.

Family friends who were displaced by the fire were staying at his home.

"They were asking a lot of questions, and I really didn't have a lot of answers for them," he said.

While on duty, Carey and his coworkers stowed their emotions. They performed their duties as if it were any other fire, he said.

"I think that's what the public would expect of us," he said. "But it's something you think about at night at home."

Air Force Master Sgt. Jerry Reynolds, Peterson Air Force Base

Master Sgt. Jerry Reynolds usually battles building fires, but got his first taste of wildland firefighting last week courtesy of the Black Forest fire.

Reynolds and his crew are used to working with self contained breathing apparatuses on their back, and with the luxury of readily available water.

Last week, Reynolds and 11 other Peterson firefighters joined the brotherhood of "smoke eaters" as they battled the Black Forest fire like other wildland fighters do - without masks.

Or a copious supply of readily available water.

Because there were no fire hydrants in the area, Reynolds and his crew knew that should they need more water, it was a good five to 10 minutes away.

"We got a little smarter as we went," he said. "We did a lot of digging with shovels and tools and used our feet to help stomp out spot fires.

"We worked really good together with the Pueblo team, a team from Utah. We did it all together as a team. We saved houses."

Elias Kunishige, Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station

Sunscreen and socks.

Elias Kunishige remembers those two small donations that made a big impression on him.

"It's the little things that matter," he said. "If you've ever done something for someone and not expected a thank you but you get one anyway - it's pretty inspiring.

"It makes you want to go out and do more."

Kunishige, who formerly fought fires as an active-duty airman, was among more than 20 Cheyenne Mountain firefighters who worked on the Black Forest fire.

Kunishige's crew spent its time creating fire lines between houses and cutting away brush from homes directly threatened by flames.

Some houses were threatened by a creeping, low-burning fire, others by a faster-moving fire wall 20 or 30 feet in height, he said.

"There is a triage process," he said. "You try to do as much as you can for as many homes as you can."

But "there's only so much we can do and only so long we can do it," he added.

As for how many structures his crew saved, he said, "I'm not sure. When you're working, you don't time to count victories."

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