The following accounts and views are from within the Piedra Valley “ground zero” as viewed from the owners and employees of Crazy Horse Outfitter and Guides.
|Date of Origin||Sunday May 13th, 2012 approx. 04:00 PM|
|Location||13 miles NW of Pagosa Springs|
On May 13th clouds gathered over the Piedra Valley, thunder could be heard with numerous flashes of lightening in the area. A few miles southwest of the Sportsmen’s Campground and Mountain Cabins and home to Crazy Horse Outfitter (CHO) an event was born. Lightening struck and ignited a tree in the lower end of Little Sand Creek drainage. The smoke plume could be seen from Piedra Road at Dead Man’s Curve.
As the fire grew it was determined that since the ignition was inside an area to receive a prescribed burn that it would be allowed to do its job. That job was clean up the forest floor of dead and fallen trees and unhealthy habitat which has become so thick that large mammal’s could not pass through the forest to forage for food.
Mother Nature uses fire to clean her forest and promote healthy trees and vegetation. In the past, fire suppression was used which in turn created an abundance of heavy fire fuels in our forests. Over time this created an un-healthy forest and took away prime habitat for such big game animals as deer and elk.
As the fire crossed Little Sand Creek and began its journey climbing out of the valley onto Trail Ridge Mountain it was determined to be a possible threat. It was at this point that the people of the Piedra Valley became concerned. Should the fire cross the top of Trail Ridge it would surely cause evacuations of livestock, residents and people camping in the Piedra Valley?
A public meeting was held for the residents of the Upper Piedra Valley to inform everyone of the status of the fire, its movements and describe various trigger points which had been established. “Trigger Points” are reference points that upon the fire reaching these points would set into motion various means of defense.
A command center was established nearby with a heliport at Deadman’s Curve to service the needs of the firefighters and establish a refueling station for the helicopters.
Once this was done emails were collected from the residents and a communication link established for fire reports twice daily.
Sandwich boards were stationed at the Sportsmen’s, Hiliport site and at the end of the pavement on Piedra Road. Daily updates were posted at these locations to inform the public of the status of the Little Sand Creek Fire.
On May 26th, Crazy Horse Outfitters left the corral with clients for a four hour trail ride. Although smoky the air quality was not bad. Upon reaching the half way point, outfitter guide, Hailey Archuleta, and I received an emergency call that everyone was being evacuated. It was explained that the fire was making a run.
As I heard the news from the corral I was not surprised. The smoke had increased as well as the wind, the wind was gusting to sixty miles per hour and the smoke was so thick you could taste the pine pitch, our eyes began to burn. I explained to the customers what was occurring and reassured them that we were in no immediate danger. The fire had reached a trigger point and precautions were being taken.
In the midst of uncertainty; the story line to the customers with bandannas on their faces was this, we had robbed a train and the embers from the coal had set fire to the forest and the gang was on the move to evade the posy taking advantage of the smoke to conceal our escape. The customers became involved in the story and spun their own exciting adventure from a trail ride in the smoke.
Upon arriving at the stable “one and half hours later” I learned that a misunderstanding had taken place between a resident and Hinsdale County Sheriff’s Department regarding preliminary evacuation. Upon spreading the misunderstanding it had created ciaos. People were asked to leave the Sportsmen’s Campground and campers were turned away. People in the parks were making efforts to evacuate. Within minutes; rumors of evacuation were being passed around local businesses in Pagosa Springs. The damage had been done.
The truth of it was that the Weminuche Valley had been put on preliminary evacuation not the entire valley including the Upper Piedra Drainage.
At that point it was determined by CHO to continue its work towards being ready for the summer tourists that were to come in the following months. This would hopefully provide a model for others to follow rather than becoming paranoid of the fire event.
During the next public meeting a media expert was introduced. After the meeting and upon sharing ideas for damage control, it was determined that the reports be posted on Facebook, Flicker and to all agencies and media that allowed postings. Maps, updates and verbal communications became a priority. The key issue at this time was that a preliminary evacuation could be issued upon the fire reaching a trigger point of which still had not occurred.
In order to save the summer tourist season it was imperative that this event did not reach a national event status.
“Preliminary Evacuation Order” A point in which residents are notified that an evacuation could be imminent. To make preparations to evacuate in the event the order is issued.
Many meetings were held in the Upper Piedra Valley and in Pagosa Springs regarding the fire and smoke. It was determined that the fire would be burning for a while. The terrain and spot fires created an unsafe environment for firefighters.
In areas where the line had been drawn, the Piedra River, private structures and property would be protected at all costs. The remainder of the fire would be allowed to burn until opportunity presented itself to contain it, put it out or allow it to burn out.
Wilderness fire activity is totally acceptable when there is no threat to private property, livestock or human life.
The firefighters and Helitack teams were top notch, they all took time to explain and inform the public of the current fire status.
They shared their rest time with people who wanted to learn more, especially the young people. They were happy to have diversions away from the fire as well as a remembrance of why they were here.
As the fire moved up the west side of Martin’s Ridge over 40 firefighters manned the defendable areas around the structures at Poma Ranch. They wrapped the structures in foil, placed pumps and hoses in critical areas to do battle with the monster. The pending battle was sure to come; it was only a matter of time till the monster threatened the residences of the ranch.
Trail Ridge would be a major campaign. The fire had to be stopped on Trail Ridge! Dozers were moved into place and fire lines were cut on the Sally’s Overlook Trail. Teams were busy preparing for the fire to crest the ridge. Helicopters carrying large buckets of water strategically dumped their loads.
On the ground; firefighters met the monster head on! It was sure to be a battle to protect residents and private property.
Notifications were pending, should the fire jump the Trail Ridge Fire Line and run towards the private property evacuation would begin. Once the residents were evacuated it would enable the firefighters, engines and personnel to establish Piedra Road as the new battle line. The teams dug in! Trail Ridge would be the front line.
At one point the fire breached the fire line on Trail Ridge; however the teams engaged the fire on the ground. Man to monster, they put in hours of digging, shoveling and many buckets of water from above.
The deed was done and the crews had prevailed.
The Sportsmen’s Campground and Mountain Cabins, Crazy Horse Outfitter and private ranches were protected from the fire.
Businesses would remain open and campers would be allowed to remain in the area. This was a enormous milestone in the battle of the Little Sand Creek Fire.
Today; July 3rd 2012 the fire is not over! Hilitack teams and helicopters have moved to new locations away from the Upper Piedra Valley. Structure control is still in place and the mop up has begun. The fire is still moving southwest, west and northwest away from private property. An occasional smoke plume can be seen created by a lonely stump that will smolder to its own demise.
Here in the Upper Piedra Valley life has returned to normal. Tourists are arriving to fish, camp and horseback ride here in the valley. From time to time smoke reminds us of a time not so long ago when we too were threatened.
There are many accounts of heroism, to many to write about. Hero’s are out there every day risking themselves on our behalf. Soldiers, firefighters and law enforcement personnel are all heroes. They protect our property, families and our way of life. Salute them, shake their hands, wave a big smile, and let them know their efforts are not in vain.
The important thing is that people need to remember that these men and women put their lives on the line everyday to protect homes and lives. Have faith in their abilities and their passion for what they do.
Never panic, stay the course, understand the exact words and their meanings as they are being presented. Never pass on information unless one is absolutely sure of what was said.
Why was this fire the Perfect Storm? The on ground conditions that prevailed during this fire allowed the fire to remain mostly on the ground and not make huge runs through the tree canopies. It burned dead beetle killed trees, fallen timber and debris that was choking the forest. From the Piedra Road where the burn can be seen, green trees hide the evidence that a fire even existed.
As fires continue to burn across the state, pause for a brief moment, feel the relief and resolve that we have the firefighters, agencies and conviction to meet adversity head on. And Prevail.
So here is to those Hero’s out there everywhere.
God Bless and Thank You
Always remember; Everyday is an Adventure, Every moment an Experience!
Copywrite; Willie Swanda