The Crestone Eagle • May, 2018
Fires in Crestone history
by Mary Lowers
As summer approaches, we are living with a stage two fire alert in Saguache County. Crestone and the Baca Grande are drier than even the “old timers” have seen them. Even the spring pool behind the Town Hall, which no one remembers ever going dry, was waterless for over a month. I would like to remind everyone that many, many fires in our neck of the woods have been threatening in the past and have been extinguished by nature and human intervention. Houses burned down all over, parks, the forest and even the old train depot located on W. Galena Ave. (before the road turns north toward the cemetery gates) burned down.
During a dry, high cottonwood fluff year in the 1980s a youngster with 4th of July fireworks set the lots just north of the Old Schoolhouse on fire. It was put out by quick-thinking neighbors with hoses. In the late 1970s or early 1980s the old house on the corner of Cottonwood St. and Galena Ave. (across from the Eagle) burned to the ground. You can see the apple trees and tall spruce as well as the outline of where the yard was from Galena Ave. The tenant at the time, Bobby Troutman, stoked the woodstove and went to the Bistro (where the Desert Sage is now). His house ignited and burned quickly although local firefighters stopped the fire from spreading.
There was the fire up the San Isabel drainage in the late 2000s, started by the late Gary Boyce when he was burning ditches one windy day and the fire got away from him. About six years ago another, even bigger fire started on the Boyce ranch. While Boyce was grading his road, his blade struck some rocks, causing sparks. It was an extremely windy day and that fire went into the trees along San Isabel Creek, heading for the mountains. Every fire department in the area came out to fight that blaze, including a professional “Hot Shot” team that was in the area.
In 2015 there was the fire started by a lightening strike way up Burnt Gulch that burned itself out. I was living in Moffat then and the fire at sunset and sunrise way up above Crestone looked like a dragon winding its way down the mountain. A Shumei log house, east of Wagon Wheel Rd. in the Baca Grande, burned down in 2015. The cause of that fire was believed to b a spark from a power cord.
I remember the Old Town Roadkill fire in the mid 1990s. It consumed the old-west style building that stood where the Sangre de Cristo building is today, on the southeast corner of Alder St. and Galena Ave. in Crestone. I visited with Kim Martinez who was Crestone Fire Chief then about the fire. Kim was five months pregnant at the time with son Drew and her family, the Sniders, owned the complex of shops and a restaurant that was burning. When it was discovered the fire was electric in nature Kim told me, “we cut the power.” So, garden hoses could not be used. I remember an orange inflatable water tank called a “pumpkin” was set up. The Town did not have a city water tank or fire hydrants in those days and drafted water from the creek or hauled water in tankers from the Baca. Shaking her head, Kim said, “That thing burnt for four days.”
She reminded me that the Old Town Hall was the original Crestone Fire House and that the founder of it was former mayor, George “Jack” Harlan. “Before the new firehouse went in, the fire truck and ambulance had to be pulled out to have [space for] a meeting.” Kim and I talked about the fire stories surrounding Burnt Gulch which rises east of town. Some old timers like Jack Harlan, longtime mayor of Crestone and historian, said that Native Americans, probably Kiowa, who camped along North Crestone Creek, set the forest ablaze in the gulch to make it less attractive to white settlers. On the other hand, Kim told me a story about the name Burnt Gulch I had never heard. “From across the valley,” Kim said, “the brilliant red of the Aspen up there in the fall make it look as though the mountain is on fire up in that area.” And thus the name Burnt Gulch came to be.
In 1892, the so called Great Forest Fire was heading towards Crestone from the north. Miners left their claims and headed for the hills to stop the destruction of their new little town. The fire was stopped at South Crestone Creek and the town was spared.
Back in the old days word of forest fires did not spread quickly. On July 31, 1889 Mrs. Strong, living in the Short Creek area, wrote in her diary, “Fair, hot and smoky. There must be a big mountain fire somewhere to make so much smoke. Have not seen across the Valley in four days.” It must have been very concerning not to know where the fire was in relation to one’s home.
In her history of Crestone, Drillin’ Loadin’ and Firing, author Gladys Seismore says, “Fire has always been a horrible threat in Crestone and many houses have burned—most of them completely.” She tells of the fire that burned the little community church just before a Christmas in the 1940s. Many spent “long hours of preparations for the Christmas Program . . . treats were bagged . . . packages purchased and wrapped. The crepe paper costumes for elves and angels were made and laid out for instant use. As the hour drew near for the big event, the old school bell started ringing frantically which at the time was a fire alarm. Escaped coal from the stove had set the church afire.” Despite a citizen bucket brigade from the Town well, and folks using shovels and wet cloth “gunny sacks” to smother the flames, the little church burned to the ground, holiday goodies and all Gladys writes, “Before the flames died down, Bill Seismore and Leon Carpenter started passing the hat and by the time the coals were cold they had collected enough to replace the treats.” The Collins’, who owned the Baca Ranch back then, had contributed originally for the gifts, and graciously sent money for more presents. Crestone’s Christmas was saved. Jim Hollmer, who has spent much of his life here, told me about a fire on Alder St. in Crestone about 1948. It took place at the home of Gene Bishop, a local who worked at the Baca Ranch. Jim said, “Gene went into the yard to get gas to fill his gas lamps and brought it into the house in a glass jar which broke when he accidently hit it against the wood stove. Flames from the fire rose so high it could be seen from the Baca Ranch. Gene was burned pretty badly and went around in bandages for a long time.” Jim recounted when the old Crestone Depot burned down in 1956. “Mabel Thorn, who lived there, had cleaned out the stove and put the ashes in a paper bag on the porch.” Fuel shot out a hole in a nearby fuel tank, igniting the ashes. They were able to get everything out of the building before it burned down, but the old depot was lost. I was working at the old Crestone Mart during the drought of 2002-2003 when the Million Fire ravaged the South Fork area. According to a recent article by Mike Blakeman in the Alamosa Courier, “while there have been four larger wildland fires in the Upper Rio Grande Watershed since then, the Million Fire is still the most destructive in our area in more than a hundred years.” Winter of 2002-2003 was the driest in history, although this year may break that record. The snow pack was 0% in May and everyone in the valley was jumpy. To top things off, a fire bug was on the loose and several arson-causedfires had already been contained in the Del Norte/South Fork area. The call came in that there was a fire up by the Million Reservoir. Forest Service employees were on the scene, quickly digging a fire line. Strong winds pushed flames up a steep incline and climbed to the tree tops where the fire took off, jumping rapidly from tree to tree. As flames ignited trees a huge smoke column grew that could be seen from all over the valley. It looked like the most dark and frightening mammoth thunderhead ever seen. As firefighters from all over the valley responded to fight the inferno it moved with fierce force toward the Willow Park Estates subdivision. Helicopters poured the pinky orange slurry retardant on the fire to no avail. South Fork was under evacuation orders. There were beetle-killed pines and lots of other tinder-dry fuels feeding the monster blaze. Volunteer firefighters were focused at the sides and back of the fire, the roaring fast-moving front being too dangerous. They were clearing up and wetting down around homes they thought they might be able to save. Crews from Crestone and the Baca Fire Departments were there. Local firefighter Robin Durrance told me at the time it was amazing to her that a house could be burned so only the foundation was left, but the propane tank right next to it was untouched. That illustrates how fast this fire was moving. People from all over the valley rallied to feed fire fighters and help evacuees get back on their feet. Throughout human history fire has been the friend and enemy of our species. We love it and fear it now as in the past. It seems in our history we have counted on our neighbors and larger community to work together to keep fires at bay. Together we can survive another scary fire season.