Saga Of A Wildfire

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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Coping With Wildfire:

We have just personally experienced the third largest and possibly the hottest burning wildfire in Colorado history. This is a first hand report from our experience and the lingering problems encountered by this wildfire. I have titled this blog ‘Saga’ as it is an ongoing story that will be divided into two easy read segments. We had pre-planned for a wildfire since we knew our state is a semi arid state that is prone to wildfires. Perhaps our personal experience will give others insight into how a wildfire impacts people if found in the same situation.

Restricted Outside Burning:

Prior to the actual wildfire we had been in an extreme red flag warning area instructing us ‘nooutside burning’ of any kind for weeks before the wildfire was started. The person who set the wildfire has not been tried yet so I do not want to comment on how the wildfire started except to say it spread rapidly and before it was put out had burned 108,000+ acres. We were in the adjoining community and were only a handful of miles from the origin and where the fire started. There were 134 homes in our community that were destroyed and countless undeveloped lots.

Emergency Notification:

We were enjoying our evening dinner when we received the reverse 911 notification of a wildfire and we were in pre-evacuation status. Since the wildfire was north of us and heading due east we wrongly assumed it would pass us by. We went outside and could observe plumes of smoke a few miles north of us. A few minutes later  we received the second reverse 911 call to evacuate. We gathered our pre-arranged evacuation kits and loaded up our vehicles. Then we attempted to load our three dogs into the vehicles; however two are disabled with seriously weak back legs. That took us far more time than we had anticipated and by the time we turned off the propane tank and closed up the house we were late evacuating.

Evacuation Fail – Turning Back:

As we were leaving the community we could see the flames and smoke ahead of us and with only one way out of our community it appeared we were cut off from escape. We therefore returned home to await further instruction when another reverse 911 call told us it wouldn’t be safe if we didn’t evacuate by 7:30 p.m. We knew the drive out of our community would take us longer than that. We therefore spent a sleepless night watching the fire glow in the sky but not particularly moving toward us. The next morning we readied ourselves for evacuation if it became safe to leave. We knew we were more safe at our home than being on a road that was probably encased by fire.

Evacuating Through A Gauntlet Of Fire:

About noon a sheriff deputy came to our house and told us if we left in the next 5 minutes we could safely get out as the route was open. We left immediately and as we left recognized the wildfire was now moving toward our home. We drove through one area of heavy smoke and flames and could feel the outside heat through the vehicle doors. Once through those flames and embers we came upon a few firefighters in the road who told us to turn around as it was very bad ahead. Being unable to turn around and go back they told us to use extreme caution in going through the second area of flames and embers.

Another Evacuation Plan Failure:

It was nerve racking but we safely managed to get through the second gauntlet of fire. Our evacuation plan included camping in one of the nearby campgrounds. That was another flaw in our evacuation plan because when we finally found a vacancy and were setting up our tent the center support broke making it unusable. We then drove to the nearest town and found a motel (with the aid of a relative) that could accommodate us along with our dogs. We ended up spending two weeks being evacuated while hoping our home and property were safe.

Short Return Investigation:

After one week when it was safer to enter our community we were allowed to return to our property for a 1 ½ hour inspection. Our home was thankfully intact but it had experienced intense heat, spot fires and heavy smoke, plus we still had some hot spots burning. I spent my time putting water on hotspots (we keep two 55 gallon barrels for wildfire) while Carol emptied the freezer and refrigerator of spoiled food.

Misting System Failure:

In our wildfire mitigation plan we had installed a misting system to keep our deck wet without draining our well. Another mistake because the well/system runs off electricity and the first thing the firefighters do is cut electricity so they are not having to deal with live lines. A backup generator that would run off propane when electricity is disrupted would have kept the misting system working but we did not have that benefit. Also we were told to turn our propane tanks off. One week later we were allowed to return home on a permanent basis. Regretfully one hundred thirty four of our neighbors did not have a home to return to.

Hottest Wildfire Unit Commander Experienced:

While evacuated we did receive daily progress briefings from the incident fire commander if we could get to the scheduled meetings or connect on a live feed. We were told this was the hottest wildfire the fire commander had experienced in his 30 years of fighting fires. Our community was so extremely dry and there was sufficient fuel that it was estimated to have burned between 3-4,000 degrees (F). When we arrived home to stay we observed numerous trees that had exploded from the sap inside turning to gas leaving holes in the charred trees.

Back Home – More Fortunate Than Most:

Upon returning home we still had no utilities and the house reeked of strong smoke odor. Once electricity was restored we set up an ozone machine that we had purchased and it completely destroyed the smoke odor and we were able to live more comfortably. We are now surrounded by total devastation but we are in an oasis of green vegetation and our property, home and outbuildings are virtually untouched. Many others were less fortunate.

Next Part – Dealing With The Aftermath:

The next blog edition will be about the lingering and ongoing problems encountered once we began life again in our home. While most people generally assume that once you are back in your home all is well; however that is far from the reality of dealing with the aftermath of a wildfire.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their life in remote mountain living and their experiences visit their personal blog site

Photo Courtesy of Bruce McElmurray

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