Consumed by Fire

On the front lines of the Hayman blaze.

We're now fully surrounded by fire -- and I'm loving it. Situations like this are to firefighters what an endorphin rush is to a runner: It doesn't happen all that often, but when it does, it's an unbelievable high. We're junkies.

The next hours are a blur of activity. We burn out lawns and shrubs near the houses of the Turkey Rock subdivision while the fire dances around us. As the flames approach a home, we attempt to guide them around it, or we put the flames out when the front of the fire has passed by. Helicopters dip and swerve above us, dropping bucket after bucket of water. Many houses are saved; some are not. Everyone works hard.

So we are astonished to later read a column in the Colorado Springs Gazette purporting to describe the scene at Turkey Rock that day. (The column was repeated more or less unchanged a few weeks later in the Denver Post.) The writer reported a rousing tale of surpassing heroism, involving the crews from Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs -- and deleting the rest of us.

Brian Stauffer
Up close, but not personal: Fire approaches a house in the Turkey Rock subdivision.
Up close, but not personal: Fire approaches a house in the Turkey Rock subdivision.

According to the author(s), the trucks from the Springs rushed into the fiery mouth of hell. With little regard for their own safety, their crews (who, the columnist memorably quoted someone as saying, "had solid brass clackers") put out many fires and saved many homes. They were working so hard that they even burned a hose. "You don't get to meet a hero every day," the columnist concluded.

Being a bona fide member of the media in moderately good standing, I know how these things work. You want to write about heroism and you're on deadline, so you find a way to do it. And I understand a little home cooking. But I'm also a firefighter who was there that day, and I'm here to tell you that plenty of us saw something entirely different.

For starters, the Colorado Springs hose didn't char because the trucks were working so close to the fire that it suddenly ignited. The way we saw it, the city firefighters rushed toward a house just as the flame front was approaching. Perhaps being an urban department, they weren't familiar with how to guide a fire around the building. Once they realized that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to fight a crown fire head-on, they bolted -- dragging behind them a piece of burning hose.

When our crew got the call to drive to that particular scene to help out, we found a grass fire licking at one of Manitou Springs's engines. We put it out easily -- it was no big deal -- and yet we wondered at the wisdom of sending under-trained city firefighters into a wildland fire. One of the first rules of operating a truck in wildland fires is not to park it in anything that can burn -- like grass.

I'm not the only one who noticed, either. A few weeks ago, another firefighter who was there -- from a paid department -- sent a letter to the Post. "There should have been fatalities," he wrote. "The reason for this insanity? These were not wildland firefighters; they did not have the knowledge, experience or training to be on that fire."

Hayman Fire, Day 14-16:
A lower-middle-class neighborhood becomes upper middle class. Plus, the same old debates.

The last few days of our tour are spent around a lumberyard. Houses and forest burned on all sides of it, but the yard itself remained unscathed -- this despite extremely flammable piles of dry timber and sawdust dotting the property. If the fire had caught here, events could have taken a dramatically different turn. But they didn't, and now our division is mopping up.

That's okay. Things here have been dramatic enough. By the end of its run, the Hayman Fire will have charred 137,000 acres -- nearly double the size of the next-largest fire in state history (the 70,000-acre Missionary Ridge fire, which was burning concurrently with Hayman). It is estimated that, with rehabilitation of the burned area, the fire will end up costing taxpayers more than $50 million. That's approximately $376,000 per lost home -- a price more associated with Washington Park than rural Douglas County.

The ash that remains after a powerful fire has run through a forest is so fine and light that, no matter how carefully you step, it rises in a delicate puff. It gets in your nose and your eyes. It colors your skin like a fine talcum.

Stumps can smolder for weeks. After they burn away completely, they leave a hole in the soil, a negative space defining the spot where something has turned into nothing. Empty tunnels run out from the holes like spokes on a wheel, indicating where the tree's roots burned into oblivion, too. It's an easy place to twist an ankle.

Burned houses are forlorn, symbols of great loss. Yet they also excite my imagination. It's like looking at one of those follow-the-dots drawings -- you stare hard enough, and you begin to see the outlines of the picture.

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