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Firsthand account of fighting the East Peak fire, part 1

by CK Morey
HUERFANO — During the course of the raging East Peak Fire event, at the town meetings held by the IMT, a number of folks asked “where is CK?” Even now, similar questions come up when meeting with landowners and other folks.
This was understandable because for 38 years I have been the go-to guy so to speak for wildland fire coordination in the county. The Colorado State Forest Service was the lead agency by state statute to facilitate this coordination. I was able to help organize fire departments and get them training and equipment.
With the federal partners and sheriff, I developed annual fire operating plans that provided guidance for fire prevention and control. I helped with grants and GSA ordering of hose and hand tools. I also responded to wildfires to provide technical assistance as needed.
So in a normal workweek, I would spend 30-40 hours doing fire stuff and that could double during fire season. However, an accident that resulted in a escaped prescribed burn in Jefferson County during March of 2012 resulted quickly in new legislation that stripped CSFS of all fire responsibility starting July 1 of last year. Yes, my smokey bear hide was ripped off and nailed to the outhouse wall. So now I was just a naked bear.
Leadership in Fort Collins was so afraid of fire now that no CSFS employees were allowed to respond to local fires. So I had to lose my CSFS identity and join the local fire department and like a naked bear, I had to hide around the edges so to speak when I did respond to a local fire.
I did respond the night East Peak Fire started. I was delayed some as I could not find my 800 megahertz radio. I do not sleep with my radio anymore. Ha – talk about not being prepared. I finally found it. But by the time I got there to join up with firefighters at the current Incident Command Post, the fire had forced everyone back from the scout ranch area. This rapidly expanding fire was way beyond the experience level of most of the first responders. Night time fires like this take on a whole new perspective, the fire seeming surreal and flames seeming so much closer and more dramatic. I wished I could open up my head and just pour out my knowledge and experience into the heads of those fighting the fire. I have been a student of fire ever since I fought my first fire with an organized crew back in 1966 and have been taught by some of the best during my career involving over 3000 fires large and small. I have developed a very healthy respect for fire during these last 48 years.
So observing the current fire behavior, I saw that the fire was making crown runs on east and south facing slopes in heavy timber, but on the north aspects the fire was just spotting and backing down hill, burning surface fuels under the trees and oak brush. I was in a good safety zone, but I also knew that there were some good safety zones in and around the scout ranch. Also there would be lots of “good” black (new safety zones where everything has already burned). So what would be the biggest risk would be burning and falling snags.
Knowing that many structures burned in wildland fires are taken out by blowing embers, I went to the burned-over scout ranch area. Smoke was very heavy at times making driving more than five miles an hours a slow process. I got my first whiff of the ugly smell that burning structures put out with all the synthetic materials in them. I knew then that we had lost structures.
The first three structures I found were already burning and there were no trees around them. They were ember kills. In the heavy smoke amid flying embers, I did find a structure that was in the middle of a large green meadow. The deck was burning. At first look, I thought I had a good chance of saving it. I drove the truck toward the structure through the green meadow which during a normal year provably would have been somewhat boggy.
Then with my spotlight, I noticed the upstairs windows appeared blackened. Then I noticed that there was a little bit of smoke coming out of the eaves. These little puffs of smoke were difficult to see at first with all the fugitive smoke swirling around. I then felt the door with the back of my hand and it was way too warm.
I re-examined the area where the deck was burning, and I could see that the fire path had gone under the bottom log on the sill of the foundation and had gotten into the interior of the house. Then I knew I was too late. I had this sickening feeling in my stomach knowing I had to drive away. I did not have the water capacity or equipment to do anything to save it. “What if” I had been there 30 minutes earlier? (To be continued: “What if and being FireWise”)