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Teller officials say luck, speed helped avert disastrous fires

By: matt steiner matt.steiner@gazette.com
July 8, 2013 Updated: July 8, 2013 at 5:15 pm
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In 2012, and again this year, Teller County fire officials have been able to douse small fires quickly, even as blazes raged elsewhere on the front range.

Officials credit luck and speed in averting disastrous fires. At the height of fire season 2012, as the Waldo Canyon fire burned into Colorado Springs, more than 30 fires ignited in Teller County, many of them considered arson. Last month, as the Black Forest fire raged in northern El Paso county, Teller firefighters nixed another handful of fires, these mostly caused by nature, before they could grow into monsters.

"We've been lucky," said Sgt. Marc Porcelli of the Teller County Sheriff's Office. "And we've gotten tips from residents. We're taking every one of them seriously. Everyone in the area is aware of what these fires can do now that they've seen other fires in the state."

The recent Black Forest fire burned more than 14,000 acres, destroyed more than 500 homes and killed two people. Last year's Waldo Canyon blaze destroyed 347 homes in western Colorado Springs while killing two and scorching 18,000 acres. And daily reports of a monster blaze near Wolf Creek pass were still making headlines Monday as the West Fork Complex fire was only 20 percent contained. That fire had already devoured more than 100,000 aces in southern Colorado.

Porcelli and Four Mile Fire Protection District Chief Lance Crummett said public awareness first peaked in Teller County after the Hayman fire burned from Lake George to Douglas County in the summer of 2002. Crummett called the attitude north and west of Pikes Peak a "finely defined sense of urgency."

"We don't like big fires," Crummett said. "We do not dawdle."

The chief said he and his 26 volunteers sleep with their gear at bedside. Crummett said he is out the door "in about three minutes" when he gets a call reporting the smallest sighting of smoke. Four Mile was the first response team called in when a small grass fire ignited near Teller County Road 1 on June 13, and they doused it quickly.

It's not just responders who are quick to action.

Teller Sheriff Mike Ensminger and Emergency manager Steve Steed couldn't stress enough the importance of public response when more than 30 suspected arson fires erupted from June 18 to 25 of 2012. Quick calls alerted authorities who were able to jump on the fires fast.

The arsons are still under investigation, Ensminger said. At least three of the four 2013 fires in early June have been ruled as naturally caused, according to Porcelli.

Steed echoed Crummett and Porcelli calling it "a real heightened awareness in this community."

"People will even see clouds that lay down in the mountains and think it's smoke," he said. "We don't disregard anything."

Steed has run Teller County's Office of Emergency Management for three years. He said his office's main priority when it comes to fire has been to establish an environment of communication and teamwork across the county.

The chiefs and Sheriff's Office officials meet monthly to streamline response.

"We've really established the ability to rapidly respond, not only in our initial response but in our support services also," Steed said.

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