by Ben Brack
Captain, Baca Grande Volunteer Fire Department
Three fires flared the first week in April. With snows still receding from the peaks, water flowing in the creeks, fire found favorable enough conditions to threaten homes and businesses in Moffat, Saguache, and the Baca. Clear indicators of fire’s potential in the valley, the occurrence declared a shift into wildfire season heralded by rising temperatures, decreasing moisture, and fierce winds. Fire departments responding to the events kept all three incidents from major calamity through effective initial attack, early requests for assistance from neighboring departments, and inter-departmental cooperation.
At a quarter to three in the afternoon Monday April 5, the classic San Luis Valley winds slammed against fire trucks responding to the call.
“Crestone and Baca Fire Departments, your assistance is requested in the town of Moffat for a grass fire that is threatening structures. Repeat, Baca and Crestone fire fighters mutual aid is requested for a grass fire in Moffat, structures are threatened.”
By the time the Crestone Fire Department arrived on scene to join efforts with Moffat Fire, Saguache Fire, the Saguache Sheriff and the brave homeowners beating at flames with wetted towels and garden hoses, a garden shed had become fully involved. Hose lines were deployed, not to put out the burning shed but to quell the voracious fire edges that were lapping at the sides of houses. Traveling through thick matted grasses, the fire involved every bit of scrap lumber, yard tools, straw bales and other materials that were in the grass. Fence and electric poles were glowing coals at their bases, streamers of smoke reeling out downwind, trailing tales of the fire.
Fire jumped the road, a distance of thirty feet bare of fuels, a possible containment line that the fire wasn’t contained by. The head of the flames ran over around and through obstacles to crash like a wave of flame against the sides of houses sloughing siding and warping venetian blinds through the windows. There the fire met Sheriff Norris and his mighty garden hose stamping out smoldering material in the yards of our neighbors.
Baca Fire arrived on scene, Villa Grove fire was en route, and reserve firefighters stood by at the Baca firehouse. Thirty-mile-an-hour winds persisted, gusting to fifty. Leadership from the various departments established Incident Command to evolve the response from primal attack to a more organized,
safe, and effective operation. With radio communications hampered by multiple agency channel use, and high winds that swept our words away before they could reach the microphones, the IC maintained command by circumnavigating the fire repeatedly to check in with each of the responding units. There were eleven fire units on scene and three law officers. With the Reynolds fire contained on three sides and efforts focusing to catch and extinguish the lead edge, the second fire page went out.
An old burn at Mountain Valley Lumber was fanned to life by the high winds and found the kind of ready fuel you’d expect to find at a lumber mill. Saguache Fire was dispatched, and Rob Lambert took command of the situation, requesting heavy machinery in order to cut a wide control line around the burning material. Fire extension across the highway was corralled immediately to keep fire spread to a minimum. Initial attack resources were released from the Reynolds Fire in Moffat to assist with containment efforts across the Valley. Water supply trucks were requested from Center.
Since radio traffic doubled with the second incident, a change in channels was required to avoid further confusion. Incident Commanders for both fires stayed tuned in to what was occurring on the other side of the Valley. Later in the incidents when the Reynolds fire was fully contained and mopped up, additional resources were dispatched straight from the Reynolds fire to assist with the Sawmill fire. This teamwork assured that resources, often in limited supply, were being utilized where they were needed the most. A majority of the resources were released from the Reynolds fire to return back to their respective bases for truck and firefighter rehabilitation to be in a state of readiness in case another fire should happen to break out. The Reynolds fire was mopped up after a six hour effort, while the Sawmill fire remained staffed for the entire night.
Less than a week later, in greatly different conditions, the fire season made its debut in the Baca Grande. Relative to the rest of our spring weather, Saturday April 10 was a beautiful day: blue skies, sixty-five degrees, winds less than ten miles an hour. As the Baca Grande VFD gathered for their annual eight-hour wildland fire refresher class, homeowners went about their springtime lives prepping gardens and clearing winter’s fodder from their yards.
Firefighters have grown accustomed to the radio page outs for “controlled burns” in the subdivision. The site inspection and call-in process reduces the number of false smoke reports and provides education on how to burn safely. Residents wishing to reduce excess fuels from their yards or having campfires are required to have a site inspection annually. None of the firefighters batted an eye that Saturday when the pages for controlled burns began to trickle in and the instruction and discussion on wildfire initial attack continued. Thirteen minutes after one particular controlled burn page went out we received an emergency dispatch to the same address. The CAFS-1 initial attack engine and crew responded, putting firefighting volunteers on the scene within three minutes. (Our average response time is about 20 minutes.)
Smoke lofted through the tops of trees as CAFS-1 crewmembers rushed to the sight. The Incident Commander was met by the panic-stricken faces of a family doing their best to extinguish the running grass fire with pots of water as their hose no longer reached the leading edge of the fire. The fire had ignited some of the grass outside the fire pit while homeowners were gathering the next load of brush. Fire travels quickly through grass especially when pushed by even the slightest of winds. Fire fighters acted quickly to keep the flames from reaching the edge of the South Crestone Creek greenbelt where heavier fuels lay in abundance.
While fire engine access was hampered by the narrow tree-lined driveway, ground flames made contact with the low branches of a live juniper tree. Fire immediately consumed the entire ten foot tree and half of the fifteen foot juniper standing next to it. Sparks from these torching trees showered down on standing cottonwoods and into the thicket of dead and down trees, matted grass, branches, bark and leaves common to our creekside areas. Small spot fires bloomed on the ground.
Spot fires occur when burning embers lofted into the sky come to rest in receptive fuels creating more ignitions, advancing the flame front. While firefighters scrambled to extinguish the ground fires, lay hose lines, keep responders and the family safe, call for additional resources, and began to clear a spot in the choked area to work, the candling cottonwoods dropped and lobbed burning bits of tree into the dense fuels. An increase in wind at that moment, even just one gust, could have turned our greenbelt into a fuse of disaster.
With the additional resources now arriving on scene, hose lines were deployed for fire containment. Brush-1 (the new engine) earned its keep, as did Tender-1 which supplied both initial attack engines with continuous water. The Baca Water District hydrant was in good operation and supplied the means for quick extinguishment.
In order to control this fire an area had to be cleared in the forest to safely cut a burning tree down, and to be able to extinguish the fire that would start when the flaming tree hit the ground. Sawyer Ivan Lakish cut down the flaming cottonwood and the ground crew doused the area with water. Lookouts identified several additional spot fires which were promptly extinguished.
Then the mop-up activities began. Twenty of your neighbors that volunteer as firefighters operated chainsaws, removed cut logs and branches from the greenbelt, engineered pumps, hoses and nozzles, and stood back, to keep an eye out for more spot fires. The fire was contained to less than a quarter of an acre. Even though the fire was kept small, the fire department put in sixty total work hours to respond, contain and control the fire and clean up, re-supply, and wash and dry the hoses to be ready for the next call.
From our side there couldn’t have been better timing or opportunity to refresh our skills as wildland fire fighters. From the homeowner’s perspective, I believe that they will not soon forget their moment of fear that so quickly altered the face of a productive Saturday morning to one of possible catastrophe. As a community of people faced with the same fire potential in and around our homes, we need to accept the responsibility for choosing to live here and adapt ourselves to that enormous potential.
With so much continuous forest and brush through our neighborhoods, one small fire throwing sparks can quickly conflagrate into complete hillside destruction. How long will we rely on serendipity to keep us from calamity? How different would the outcome have been had the homeowners not had a site inspection that provided guidelines and instruction on making their own quick first-response actions? What if the majority of the fire department hadn’t been dressed in the appropriate protective clothing; prepared to respond? What if the wind had picked up? As a ten year fire fighter I do ask those questions and the answers urge me to action.
At the writing of this article, grant funding is available to increase property owner knowledge of wildfire prevention and to decrease excess fuels. Three projects surrounding the Baca subdivision have been funded by Saguache County Title III grant money. These are: the removal of dead cottonwood trees from the south side of T-road; the establishment of access roads to the perimeter of Crestone; and the creation of defensible space along the high road to some of the spiritual centers. The Baca Grande Property Owners Association (BGPOA) should be taking advantage of these available grant moneys for our community’s safekeeping and lasting forest health. Yet a moratorium on cutting anything in our fuel-choked creek areas remains in place.
Fire danger increases every year with the warm, dry, windy weather that the spring brings us. The higher temperatures are keeping the grasses dry and the wind is unpredictable and indomitable. Preparation, training and response are our means, as volunteer fire fighters, of sharing in the responsibility for the safekeeping of our community. Timely and successful initial fire attack has precluded a large catastrophic fire thus far. For over thirty years we have done our best and responded effectively to wildfires. All the while, trees and shrubs and grasses keep growing, areas of heavy fuel and the number of homes (also “fuel”) continues to expand.
The numbers say eventually that a fire will occur in conditions that will quickly exceed our initial attack capabilities and we will be working on the safe evacuation of the community instead of a hopeless effort to immediately contain the fire. The extinguishment of regular small fires over the years has lead to the imbalance of excess fuels now in place. Our forest and our prairie are very flammable! Instead of reducing our fuel loads, we’ve been adding to them by building more structures and failing to do appropriate mitigation to protect the structures we do build. We can wait for “the big one” to put things back into balance for a time, or we can mimic the cleansing role of fire and reduce fuels around our homes, and in the greenbelts.
For the good of the community we each need to take action to reduce the potential for the loss of property, lives, and environment. Guidelines for responsible fire mitigation and driveway construction, that will allow responding emergency vehicles to reach your home, should be addressed in the BGPOA’s Covenants and Restrictions. These possibly life-saving measures should be paramount to home construction and improvement details.
Community support for fire mitigation projects needs to be heard by the BGPOA. Fire professionals recommend the removal of excess fuels in portions of the greenbelts to slow a large fire and ensure some habitat survivability. Prescribed burning can reduce overgrown grass and rabbit brush along safe exit routes. Finally we recommend the continued implementation of the State-approved, community-created Wildfire Protection Plan.
Please share in your part of the stewardship for our home. Provide defensible space around your house, design or improve your driveway to allow emergency vehicle access, and plan for your family’s evacuation should a fire exceed our capabilities. Information on how to go about these activities are available in the “Fire Safety in Crestone and the Baca” pamphlets located at the POA. Please follow the example of the Town of Crestone and the spiritual centers by requesting available funds to bring mindful, holistic mitigation back to the subdivision, and strive to resurrect common sensibilities for the sake of community preservation.