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Red Cross Hometown Heroes: Volunteer Cascade firefighters lauded for fire, flood work

March 16, 2015 Updated: April 1, 2015 at 1:59 pm
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photo - Members of the Cascade Fire Department. Photo courtesy of the fire department.
Members of the Cascade Fire Department. Photo courtesy of the fire department. 

While Colorado Springs watched the Waldo Canyon fire burn eastward, a group of volunteer firefighters was stuck on the fire's west side, defending more than 400 homes in Cascade.

Cascade's 15-person, all-volunteer crew worked straight through the first 24 hours of the devastating 2012 fire, which went on to burn more than 18,000 acres and destroy 347 homes in Colorado Springs. They were among hundreds of firefighters who watched the Waldo Canyon fire from behind a wall of smoke, separated from the Colorado Springs' destruction and connected to it only through news reports.

The fire burned only around the northern edges of Cascade, but another disaster made Chief Michael Whittemore realize that Cascade had hardly escaped unscathed.

The town sits at the bottom of a drainage that sends debris and sediment coursing off the Waldo Canyon burn scar, much of it dumping right onto the street that houses the fire department. Facing a decade or more of regular flooding off the burn scar has changed Whittemore's outlook - for him and others in the department, an already risky job suddenly took on a new level of commitment, cutting into their personal and professional lives.

"If you're up here (at the fire department), you're not going to make it to work," he said.

The flooding has become far worse than anything Cascade faced during the fire, and is part of the reason that the small fire department received the Red Cross Hometown Heroes award for a first responder organization this month, as well as for the work it did during the Waldo Canyon fire. The department was nominated anonymously.

The award has left Whittemore humbled and slightly embarrassed that his crew should be singled out among many departments along Ute Pass who faced the same struggles, he said. He has asked around but can't figure out who nominated the department, he added.

The fires and floods took more than a professional toll on the firefighters. During the fire, the crew split time between manning its station and making rounds to neighbor's houses to remove propane tanks and other fire hazards. Rather than do mitigation work on their own homes, El Paso County crews were brought into help, Whittemore said.

At the fire station they "didn't have any food beyond what they could pillage out of our own homes," until community donations came in, Whittemore said.

Eventually, the firefighting demands became so intense that Whittemore and others were forced to temporarily shut down their family-owned businesses. Whittemore owns a water damage restoration company, and at least half of the volunteers operate their own businesses, he said. For Whittemore, flooding has also become a part of his professional life - his company has helped clean mud out of Manitou buildings following floods in the town. He also has adjusted his rates, lowering them to help out customers faced with extensive water damage, he said.

For the department, the Waldo Canyon fire is becoming a distant memory, surpassed every year by flooding. Nearly three years after the fire, the Cascade department is one of the first to respond when water hits its community.

"We are usually the first ones on the scene here to say 'yes, we have extreme flooding," Whittemore said.

The station has become a hub for flood mitigation planning. Upstairs, the department keeps a to-scale 3-D map of Ute Pass, donated before the floods. Flood mitigation workers from El Paso County and the Coalition for the Upper South Platte use the map to help understand the topography of the Waldo burn scar, which has about seven drainages that dump onto U.S. 24 when it rains.

The flooding has forced the department to adjust to a post-fire world, where flood response will continue to dominate their work for years to come.

"We had to implement brand new safety practices," Whittemore said. "We obviously didn't have a whole lot of experience, so we quickly had to adapt."

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