by William Alder Lakish

On Tuesday, December 20, at 9:48pm, on the cusp of the longest night of the year, Baca firefighters responded to a chimney fire call in Chalets I. Two fire fighters who were at the station donned structural bunker gear, provided incident information for later-arriving firefighters, and pulled out the initial attack engine. In less than ten minutes CAFS-1 with a crew of three was en-route to the scene with sirens blaring. Minutes later Attack 1 and the 7 Up Truck pulled out with three firefighters in full personal protective equipment.

CAFS-1 and crew arrived fourteen minutes after the 911 page to find a wood frame single story home belching thick gray smoke out of the open garage door, attic vents, and chimney. A Mutual Aid request was radioed to the Northern Saguache Fire Protection District. Crestone and Moffat fire fighters reported to their stations.

Residents of the home said that the chimney fire had ignited the wood framing built around the fireplace insert, and flames were spreading from the void space into a linen closet. Before firefighters arrived, residents tried to slow the fire’s spread with fire extinguishers and pots of water, and to remove flaming fabrics from the linen closet. They were unable to find the pet cat.

Firefighters encouraged residents not to inhale the intensifying smoke. Most structure fire fatalities occur from inhalation of toxic smoke and gases.

Following size-up protocols, propane was immediately turned off and electric breaker panels identified by Incident Commander Ivan Lakish. Simultaneously, Chief Ben Brack donned Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (Scuba diving gear for firefighters) in order to safely enter the house to extinguish the belching fireplace, locate the cat, and determine the extent of the fire. Brack used a Thermal Imaging Camera (TIC) to scan through the smoke to locate flames and hot spots. Other Baca crewmembers charged pumps, dragged hoses and set two ladders to access the attic crawl space.

Chief Brack quickly removed the fuel from the fireplace, then attempted to starve the fire of oxygen by utilizing a Chimfex flare. Unfortunately, the fire had already extended outside of the chimney and firebox into the wood framing around the fireplace insert. Tongues of fire extended inside the wall, engulfing the closet. A sheet of flames surged across the ceiling.

Brack ordered an immediate water assault into the void space using an inch and a half attack hose to knock down the advancing flames and extinguish the remaining heat in the stove’s firebox. In an effort to protect the structure from extensive water damage, a precise application of water was made with an 8’ piercing nozzle that was rammed through the drywall ceiling to confront the fire from above.

A Saguache County Sheriff’s Deputy arrived on scene to assist fire fighters and the residents while Crestone and Moffat fire fighters “stood by” in case the fire extended beyond initial attack capabilities.

The flames were extinguished using less than 200 gallons of water. Amid thick smoke and steam, Chief Brack and Assistant Chief Chris Botz manually removed smoldering insulation and debris from the void space and linen closet. Baca volunteers removed embers from the ceiling and interior of the framed walls where the flames had traveled. Other volunteers worked to ventilate smoke, extinguish hot spots, and prevent hoses from freezing in the 13° weather.

The cat was found, safe and sound.

Mutual aid resources were stood down, and the house was ventilated. No one was hurt. Damages were contained to the fireplace framing and the linen closet and contents. Some residual smoke damage occurred close to the fire.

The fire was declared fully extinguished at approximately 1:10am. Utilities were turned back on to the house and lightly frozen hoses were rolled and equipment repacked. Following a final check for heat, trucks and crew returned to the firehouse to undertake post incident readiness procedures. All trucks, gear and equipment were cleaned and readied for reuse, ensuring that equipment is fully operational for subsequent events.

The six local volunteers who extinguished the blaze convened for an after-action review de-briefing that focused on what went well, and what could be improved in future operations. Due to the fast response time, good teamwork, and effective use of prior training, the team considered the operation a success. Had these elements not been present, it is likely the fire would have extended into the space between the ceiling and the roof causing a much larger fire with much more extensive damage.

All volunteers were released from the incident and retired to their respective residences at approximately 2am. Due to the smell of smoke, the residents spent the night at a friend’s house. At the time of this writing, the residents were still planning on hosting their annual solstice party at the house, despite the fire’s effects.