Jim Schanel has feared for his life during his four-decade career as a wildland firefighter.
He fought Hayman, Waldo Canyon, Black Forest, the 117.
But the day that haunts him — the day he can’t recall without tears — is June 30, 2013.
That’s the day he thought a wildfire had killed his son.
Schanel was battling Colorado’s West Fork fire with a Type I incident management team, protecting structures near the headwaters of the Rio Grande River, when he got a call: “Your son is missing.”
Aaron had been a Prescott, Ariz., Hotshot for six years.
Schanel found a spot with better cellphone reception and heard that 19 Hotshots were missing. “And you go, ‘S--t, that’s my kid.
“’What am I going to tell his mom, what am I going to tell his sister?’ I went through this whole wild thing in my head.”
About midnight, his son called on a satellite phone.
“He said, ‘Dad, it’s not us. It was Granite.’ They had been working together that day.”
Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots in Prescott died battling the Yarnell Hill fire.
“So this whole firefighting thing, the luster gets kind of taken out of it,” Schanel said. “Over the years of doing this, it’s been a trial of a gamut of emotions from elation, saving something and being happy about it, to having this terror. And terror is a hard thing to describe.
“Fortunately for me, I dodged it, but I had a taste of it. And the people who had to live through it for the entire duration of it, I can’t imagine. I can’t imagine actually losing somebody. But I got a little six-hour window (into) what it is to lose a loved one, and man, I don’t want that to ever happen.”
Schanel, 61, retired in January 2015 as a battalion chief after 30 years with the Colorado Springs Fire Department. He came out of retirement this year to become deputy fire warden and fire management officer for wildland fire at the El Paso County Office of Emergency Management.
He battled many of Colorado’s notorious wildfires, from the Hayman fire in 2002, the largest blaze in the state’s recorded history at about 138,000 acres, to the Waldo Canyon fire in 2012, which killed two people, destroyed 347 homes and burned 18,247 acres.
He’s worried about his fellow firefighters, too.
“There’s a couple of times when we thought we lost our own people, so we had to go out and look. Oh, man. That was terrible. That’s partly why I retired. I finally went, you know, ‘I’ve had enough.’”
During the Waldo Canyon fire, he drove around looking for a group of missing firefighters.
“It’s terror. That’s all I can say.”
His worst fear was looking up a street and seeing an engine filled with dead firefighters.
“It never happened, so it was like this huge relief. But when they were missing, it was hard.”
Asked if he ever feared for his life, he laughed and then quickly grew quiet. “Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, a couple of times.
“If you don’t say you were scared, you’re” — he paused to consider — “probably lying.”
Life as a firefighter
Firefighters are battling a different beast nowadays, Schanel said.
“From when I started until now, the fire intensities — I can’t explain to you how dramatically they changed,” he said, as the size and destructiveness of fires have increased tenfold. “We’re seeing fire behavior that was unprecedented. Or if we did see a fire (like that), it’d be like one in 10 years.”
“Some of the fire behavior and the flame lengths, and the long-range spotting and the thermal columns and the microenvironments the fire causes are things that the kids coming up now, this is their new norm. But for us, we call it extreme fire behavior because our reference base started out with relatively manageable fires — fires that we would manage — and now they’ve become unmanageable.”
He blames climate change, population growth in the urban-wildland interface and increased vegetation.
“There’s not an easy solution, and I think we’re over that point of no return,” he said. “It’s sad to say, but we can’t afford to fix it, so we’ve got to live with it, if that makes sense.”
The work firefighters do is only a Band-Aid fix, he said. Too many people move into wildfire-prone areas without considering the risk, he said.
“We need to get the public to understand they’re living in a dangerous environment. They’ve got to be part of the solution and be proactive with us. Do some mitigation, do some irrigation, do some things that would reduce the risk where they’re living. Then we’ll come and help you if you’re having a bad day, but it has to be a cooperative effort.”
Schanel started his career with the U.S. Forest Service in the ’70s, then worked for the Bureau of Land Management and as a firefighter in Kenosha, Wis., before his sister, a student at Colorado State University, lured him to Colorado in the mid-’80s. He worked for the wildland fire crew at the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office before joining CSFD, which was just starting to develop a wildland team.
He was assigned to a fire station and responded to medical, rescue and fire calls in Colorado Springs, but he also often was deployed to wildfires across the country with Type I, II and III teams.
He would be immersed in city firefighting one day and then get a request to go to a natural disaster elsewhere.
“Within two hours, you might be on a plane out of DIA or Stapleton, to really date myself,” he said. He’d say goodbye to his family, grab his “red bag” — a small suitcase filled with anything he might need — and leave town for weeks at a time.
“That was my lifestyle for a while,” he said.
The passion for it, he said, is difficult to explain.
“You’re driven to do it,” he said. “I know on assignments I turned down, I felt guilty for weeks.” There were only a few that didn’t make him feel guilty, about turning down — such as the assignment in Douglas County that coincided with his daughter’s wedding.
In 2013, when Schanel was named Colorado Springs Firefighter of the Year, then-Fire Chief Rich Brown said Schanel had been the “cornerstone” of the department’s wildland program since its inception in 1989.
But firefighting isn’t all adrenaline and saving lives, Schanel said.
“ … There’s nothing glamorous or exciting about it,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s really not like that. It’s been sad for us in this community.”
The deadly Waldo Canyon fire was especially devastating, Schanel said, because it was in his community. Many of his friends, family members and colleagues were evacuated, and some lost their houses to the fire.
At one point, they struggled to protect a Colorado Springs firefighter’s house.
“The fire came up right up to the back of his house, and we made a stand. We didn’t even know it was his house. We were just there, and it was happenstance, because the neighborhood he lived in was being bumped at the time.”
He remembers those days in the summer of 2012 clearly.
“Day 1 — not day 1 of Waldo, but the day it hit the city, which was the night of Tuesday the 26th, it burned all the homes, and our initial report through both fire and police and the best intel we could gather was 30-some people missing,” he said. On the second day, the number of missing dropped to 18.
By the third day, the number was in the single digits.
“That’s when the reality set in, like, we’re going to find fatalities. … There are people who actually have died,” he said. “We’re still working the fire and there’s still active fire out there, but it’s like just this emptiness is in you, like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to — this is not good.’ ”
They moved from foundation to foundation, searching for people.
Finally, only two people still were missing. “And then we found them. It wasn’t relief, but the terror wasn’t as great … because we were thinking 30 initially.”
Police officers and firefighters lost homes, too.
“It was difficult talking with them,” he said. “We’d sit down and have coffee or a beer or something, and at some point, they had to unload. They just kept it in, kept it in, and once they got talking about it, it was kind of therapeutic for them to some degree, I think, but it was also hard to listen to it.”
Then came the Black Forest fire, which also killed two people and destroyed 489 homes and burned 14,280 acres in June 2013.
“We went through the same gamut of emotions, because all these houses burned, and (there was) not a lot we could do because it was so windy. We finally started to get some semblance of order to the chaos and a plan in place, then the same — lots of people were missing.”
A fight with raw things
In April, about a week after he started his county job, the 117 fire sparked, burning about 42,795 acres, becoming the county’s largest wildfire.
“I didn’t even have permission to get onto the computers yet — I didn’t even have a phone,” he joked.
Although fires have changed, Schanel said, firefighting is still based on the same principles — and firefighters need to stay humble.
“We have this phenomenal amount of technology,” he said. “We’re building robots that can do almost everything, and yet it takes a human being to go out and face a fire with raw things like water and a tool and dirt, and we have no other technology. Of all the things we have, all of the intelligent people … we haven’t figured out anything yet to fight fire, and to fight Mother Nature in any of its domains, whether it’s fire, flash floods, snow.
“We’re still raw to that, even with all our technology.”