Updated: March 17, 2014 at 6:35 am
El Paso County sheriff's Sgt. Shane Mitchell worked a 20-hour shift in Black Forest on June 11.
As houses burned around him and ashes rained down onto his patrol car, he had only one way to describe those 20 hours: hell on earth.
That was the setting for what would become the brave evacuation efforts of the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, and that's why the office is the recipient of the Red Cross Hometown Hero Award for a first responder organization.
"At one point, the fire on the side of the road was probably no more than 8 to 10 feet from the patrol unit, with flames 40 to 60 feet high," said Mitchell, a 15-year veteran of the Sheriff's Office.
"The heat was so hot that it was melting the plastic parts of the car. Those are the moments when you think to yourself, this is a dangerous situation, am I going to get out of here?"
As the duty patrol shift sergeant that day, Mitchell coordinated resources and traffic control, helped firefighters get into the area and deployed deputies door to door to assist with evacuations. They did it bravely, he said.
"When the temperature is 1,000 to 2,000 degrees and things are vaporizing in front of you, that's a daunting task to ask someone to go in, and do what they did. Not only to do what they did, but do it safely," he said.
Patty Baxter, who was serving as the El Paso County emergency manager, listened to the evacuations happening over the radio, fearing that some deputies would not make it back as they drove in and out of heavy smoke and fire.
"I'm listening to the radio, and I can hear the stress in their voices. They're flying down the road after they just banged on the door to get someone out of the house," Baxter said. "They did it time and time again that day, getting residents out."
Baxter's witness to sheriff's deputies' selfless bravery is what prompted her to nominate the department for the award.
Deputy Lora Lowry doesn't remember how many doors she knocked on. But she remembers driving down narrow roads as fires burned on both sides of her patrol car. She remembers seeing homes engulfed. She remembers knocking on doors of houses where the people were gone but the animals were home.
"That tore me up," she said.
She also remembers driving through smoke that was so thick she couldn't tell whether she was moving closer to the fire or away from it.
"Not being able to see the road, that was probably one of the scariest moments," she said.
Mitchell said the smoke was like nothing he'd seen.
"You could be going down a road, and you couldn't even see the end of your car," he said.
In the moments he drove through pockets of fresh air, he'd see animals.
"Horses that had been released, dogs that were running for their lives. It was something straight out of a horror movie because they would just run out of the smoke, run in front of you, and then disappear back into the smoke," he said.
Even as paint cans and tires exploded around him, and power lines melted above his head, his most daunting moment was coming face to face with a man with a gun who didn't want him at his door.
"He told me to get off his porch, get off his property, or he'd shoot me where I stood," Mitchell said. "And quite frankly, in the midst of everything happening, that was a terrifying moment."
Lowry had jumped a fence to make contact with the people on a house on Holmes Road and was met with the same reaction.
"It's kind of shocking to be met with that kind of hostility," she said. "But then you have to understand, they're (residents) under an immense amount of stress, and trying to collect their belonging and everything that means the world to them. The last thing they want is someone coming up and telling them they need to leave quicker," she said.
About 41,000 people were evacuated during the fire, which burned more than 18,000 acres, destroyed 488 homes and killed two people.
Rob King, patrol division commander with the Sheriff's Office, said the deputies could not have done it alone, giving credit to local firefighters and law enforcement agencies who converged on the area to help.
"This was an entire community response to a horrific event," he said.
Still, he's impressed with his deputies' efforts.
He was doing a site assessment of the damage after the fire when he realized just how much ground they'd covered during the evacuations.
"As I drove through and observed each of those homes or structures that had been burned, I realized that my deputies had been down every one of those roads, because you could see the yellow crime scene tape," King said.
Baxter, who listened to the radio transmissions as the horror unfolded, knows how much effort the Sheriff's Office gave.
"They went above and beyond the call of duty of a responder," she said.