by CK Morey
Part 1 of this account ends with CK driving away from a burning structure that he has been too late to save. He has begun to ask himself – “What if … .”
As I drove away through the smoke and falling embers, I looked back in the mirror at the house I had at first thought I could save. I was wishing I had been able to do something. I knew I was going to beat myself up the rest of the night with “what ifs.”
Like “what if” I had been a prepared bear instead of just a naked bear, had all my gear and thermo-gel ready and loaded on the truck, and had been able to respond when alarm first was aired about 5:30. I could have used the 10 gallons of thermo-gel on at least the decks and places where embers would collect around the structures. Thermo-gel absorbs more than 16 times its volume of water and will stick to vertical surfaces including metal and glass. It forms a thermo barrier to heat and embers that will last 6-8 hours and can be re-misted by the fire department later to extend times.
When the fire front approached the Scout Ranch, I could have gone into one of the safety zones like the big green meadows. Then when the fire front had passed, I could have returned to put out any ember fires on the structures that were defensible. “What “if” I could have been there and convinced some of the more experienced fire resources to stick with me in the safety zone until the fire front had passed. This is a strategy that I teach in the S-215 Wildland Urban Interface Strategy and Tactics class. What “if” I could have worked with the residents in Shangri-La subdivision more on mitigation. Yes, I was going to be beating myself up with the “what ifs” the rest of the night.
About that time Huerfano Fire Protection District Chief Gerald Jerant did direct me on the radio to another residence down the road from the Scout Ranch. The landowner had called him from Denver wondering if his house was still standing. It took a while navigating through the smoke and falling ash to locate the driveway.
There was a tall white fir tree that had a big yellow witches broom growth near the top of the tree. A flying ember had lodged in the big broom of growth and was burning. As it burned, embers were raining down like sparks from a grinding wheel on metal. The wooden gate and posts were burning and had fallen down so I did not have to cut any locks or chain. I would have beat myself up some more as I had forgotten to bring my wildland firefighter master “key,” a heavy duty bolt cutter.
When I found the house, there were spot fires everywhere and a backing fire was coming from the west, burning surface fuels under the oak brush. This was OK. These surface fires were removing fuel and at a much lower intensity and would help secure the structure for the next day when the fire behavior would greatly increase with the heat of the day and winds came back up.
But now a flame front was working its way around the dike to the northwest of the house. I figured I did have some time to prepare before the flames got into a stand of nice ponderosa pine. It had not been mitigated and that was not good. It was raining embers, so I removed all the flammable furniture and welcome mats off the decks. Then I set up my hose lays. Then I sprayed thermo-gel to coat the deck and areas where embers could collect and around the lower half of the house. The roof was metal so no worries there.
I then started removing old boards, logs, and excess pine needles from under a big ponderosa pine by the propane tank. The flame front reached the small rise NW of the structure and got into a stand of ponderosa pine. This stand torched out with 150 foot flame lengths. It was impressive and I tried to capture it with my camera. I wished I had my good camera. I learned later that this forest stand was the landowner’s pride and joy and he had set up several game cameras.
At the right time, I fired out with a backfiring fusee around the base of the large ponderosa pine and by the propane tank. I used a light misting spray from the garden nozzle to cool the base of the tree and around the propane tank. The burnout was pulled by the main fire up the little rise behind the house. By eliminating the surface fuels close to the house, I was able to secure the structure from future radiant heat. The biggest threat remaining would be embers.