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Waldo Canyon fire fed off hot days, drought-ravaged forest

By: ryan maye handy
June 23, 2013 Updated: June 23, 2013 at 10:20 am

Every wildfire creates its own story.

In some ways, the Waldo Canyon fire was no different from other destructive fires. It was fueled by record-breaking high temperatures and gusting winds; it destroyed 347 homes with an invasive, overwhelming shower of embers. It also changed the lives of thousands of people, including residents who lost their homes and the firefighters who fought to save them.

And although Waldo Canyon eerily echoes past fires - its embers burned hundreds of homes in a night, like Canada's 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park fire, and it exploded under high heat and winds, like the 2002 Hayman fire - the story of what happened on the devastating night of June 26 is unique.

On June 23, Eric Zanotto and his U.S. Forest Service crew were hiking just north of the Waldo Canyon trail, working their way toward the Waldo Canyon fire as it exploded in front of them. It was an erratic fire from the start, Zanotto recalled nearly a year later - just after noon, he flew over it in a helicopter and saw that it had ignited hundreds of spot fires. Within two hours, the fire burned north, roaring up acres of steep terrain. Late that night, it grew rapidly in the other direction, toward Manitou Springs, prompting an exodus of that community.

Three things make wildfires grow - weather, fuel and topography. The Waldo Canyon fire fed hungrily on all three: dry heat, acres of drought-stricken forest and steep hillsides. Fires naturally burn uphill, Zanotto said. Flames heat the ground uphill, drying out and warming the vegetation and then consuming what's in their path.

From its ignition point, somewhere between the Waldo Canyon Trail and Pyramid Mountain Road, the fire burned uphill to the northwest on that Saturday. As the heat intensified and the day lengthened, the fire continued to grow, until night fell and it lost energy, petering out at an outlook point just off Rampart Range Road. To this day, that spot, an island of green trees in the midst of the blackened 18,247-acre burn scar, remains one of the few patches that escaped the flames.

Fires can burn downhill, too. It's a rare sight, Zanotto said, but one he saw June 26, the day the Waldo Canyon fire exploded into Mountains Shadows. The neighborhood is on the east side of Queens Canyon and partially protected by a quarry scar - both features that fire crews hoped would help them stop the fire.

Those who saw it likely will never forget watching the fire collapse over northwestern Colorado Springs.

Fire gobbled trigger points

Fires create their own weather - whirling vortexes, winds, ember showers - and the collapse came as the fire's plume collided with another force of nature, a thunderstorm. All day, the fire had been building what is called a pyrocumulus cloud, which collided just before 4 p.m. with a thunderhead, and was pushed down over Mountain Shadows. The fire was growing, pushing flames down and up canyons, chewing through retardant. Winds of 65 mph sent embers flying miles ahead of the flame front.

That morning, the Colorado Springs Fire Department had set up trigger points - if the fire reached a certain spot, it required action. There were trigger points for evacuations, such as the east side of Queens Canyon, and there were trigger points for when firefighters should "bug out."

Sandi Yukman, a wildland firefighter for Colorado Springs Utilities, was one of many lookouts in western Colorado Springs that day. From her vantage point on the west side, she could see Queens Canyon as well as a radio tower behind the Cedar Heights neighborhood. Around 3 p.m., the weather suddenly changed, and Yukman saw that the fire had crept halfway down a ridge near the radio tower - a trigger point that was the signal to bug out.

At 3:53 p.m., lookouts reported fire in Queens Canyon, according to a Colorado Springs Utilities timeline. After that, the fire roared through trigger points faster than firefighters had time to think.

"Twelve trigger points all hit in 45 minutes," Yukman said. "It was quick."

At 4:42 p.m., the first homes in Mountain Shadows caught fire.

Meanwhile, Yukman, her Utilities crew and hundreds of other firefighters were ordered to retreat multiple times, and winds kept pushing the fire past trigger points, until at 5 p.m. they all were sent to the Loaf 'N Jug at Garden of the Gods Road and 30th Street to wait for orders.

At 5:11 p.m., the column of smoke collapsed over the neighborhood and pushed fire throughout it. The dense smoke was like a premature nightfall; the firefighters could see nothing.

"It felt like we waited forever," Yukman recalled. Her engine crew was getting antsy. Just before 5:30 p.m., the crews were given their orders, according to the Utilities logs.

Each crew was given a street or cul-de-sac and a simple order: "We're doing triage. When you go in there, take 30 seconds per house," Yukman was told.

Thirty seconds to decide if the home was gone or if they could save it.

"I thought that was going to be really hard," Yukman said. "But it wasn't."

Putting up a defense

Yukman's crew was one of two assigned to Hearthstone Lane - a cul-de-sac the eight firefighters would defend for seven hours.

Their 30-second scan told them all they needed to know - two homes were gone, two were fully engulfed, and two were just starting to smoke. They got to work saving homes, although none of them was a trained structure firefighter. They battled from the outside as best they could.

The homes they could save were at the opposite end of the street from the fire hydrant, Yukman recalled. The brush truck's tank would empty every 15 minutes; while it took a trip back to the hydrant, Yukman grabbed at garden hoses on lawns and used them to douse flames.

The noise was deafening; the roar of burning homes and the explosions of propane tanks drowned out everything.

"It sounded like a bomb. At some point, I couldn't hear my radio anymore," Yukman said.

Yukman was surrounded by flames - a "bug out" situation in the wildland firefighting world - and she could see fires all around the neighborhood. The ember shower was endless, like "tiny little raindrops." She started to panic.

"I was standing in the street with fire on all sides, freaking out," she recalled. "I started stomping on embers."

As maddening and harmless as the ember rain might have seemed, it was that downpour that destroyed Mountain Shadows.

Creeping flames, running on the ground, destroyed 21 homes along Brogans Bluff Drive, Wilson Road and Sandray Court. The rest of the homes burned down in the ember shower, which lasted for hours, first coming from the forest, then from the homes as they burned.

For a break, the crew climbed the hillside behind the cul-de-sac and surveyed the inferno below.

"We're never going to get all these fires out," one crew member said. "There's no way."

Yukman could see that hundreds of homes were gone.

"We were all in awe. We were in our little cul-de-sac, and as far as we could see, fire was everywhere," she said.

At 1 a.m., the crew was relieved, and Yukman went home to bed. There, she broke down and sobbed.

"I will never forget that raining of ashes," she said, months later. "That was the most amazing thing I've ever seen."

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