Firefighters win!

Barbara Lawlor, Nederland. Some say it was a miracle.

Some say it was luck.

Everyone will agree that the work of local, county, state and federal firefighters saved the Cold Springs Fire from leaking into Nederland, from jumping Boulder Canyon and roaring uphill to Magnolia Road, from screaming into the foothills of Boulder.

A rapid, efficient, intense response from the emergency response teams managed to keep the potentially disastrous blaze from running, jumping or exploding more than it did. As of Wednesday morning, eight homes have been destroyed. Structures that were deep within the burn scar, with private driveways in areas that couldn’t be easily accessed until today. Also at presstime, 9am Wednesday, the fire was still active with 66 homes within the fire perimeter and wildfire management teams with over 500 firefighters are doing their best not to add more to that list.

At Tuesday night’s feast for evacuees, residents and firefighters, Nederland Fire Protection District firefighter Laurelyn Sayah said, “This is all about everybody helping everybody.”

After the Cold Springs Fire blew up Saturday afternoon, it did most of its damage in the first hour during its run from Cold Springs to Ridge Road. A combination of record-breaking heat and high winds torched the trees on the ridge above Hummer Drive before hitting Sherwood Drive, leaving three destroyed homes in its wake.

A staging area was first set up at the intersection of Cold Springs and the Peak to Peak Highway, and local fire departments sent out tenders and wildfire crews, but it soon became apparent that air support would be needed.

Helicopters began making their dips into Barker Reservoir and soon single engine air tankers dropped red waterfalls of flame retardant on fire path areas.

By Sunday, the fire had flared up, two more houses were lost, and by Monday, although there was still zero containment, hundreds of firefighters had put up enough residential defense that no more buildings were consumed.

Sometimes weather helps the situation, but in this case, it remained in the red flag danger zone for three days.

It was a phenomenal team effort among myriad agencies from all over the Front Range, with the Nederland, Sugar Loaf and Timberline Fire Protection Districts making the initial attack on what started as a runaway campfire by careless transients on private property.

The fire was first spotted by Henry and Susie Zurbrugg on the way to their home on Sugar Loaf Road on Saturday. They saw a plume of smoke on the hill on the northeast side at the intersection of Cold Springs and Peak and Peak Highway. When Zurbrugg went to investigate, he talked to a Cold Springs resident who had seen the smoke which led the two men to an abandoned campfire that had spread into the dried duff and then into the trees.

Zurbrugg reported the fire, and although Nederland firefighters were on the scene in minutes, the site was accessible only by foot. A crew with water packs headed up the steep slope, but by this time, the flames had torched and the blaze was being fanned by escalating winds.

Air support was called for.

Fire Incident Commander Mike Smith coordinated the support crews that began arriving from dozens of agencies. It had been hot and dry for a couple of weeks and when it did rain, the moisture did little to diminish the dangerous conditions. The Boulder County Sheriff’s Office issued a fire ban after the blaze had started. Too little, too late local residents said.

The first report of a home lost came after the flames hit Sherwood Drive and Charlie Schmidtmann’s home was destroyed. Schmidtmann, a NFPD firefighter, has been with the department for 17 years and was one of the first on the scene, one of the original wild land crews that hiked up to what they thought wouldn’t amount to much. However, the wind hit the fairly small fire hard and the crew turned back.

At that point Schmidtmann did not know the status of his house, which he had built himself, and said he was focussing on the fire in front of him, the one that was racing towards multiple subdivisions and the homes of his friends.

Neighbors grabbed one of his dogs and let his horse and donkey out of the pasture. They were later picked up by one of the many volunteer animal rescuers that rushed to aid those affected by the fire.

Schmidtmann and his wife, Bretlyn, lost everything except the clothes they had on when they left the house earlier. Their 3-year-old Saint Bernard, Geno, is still missing. If anyone has any information, please call 303-441-3600.

By this time a line of defense had been set up on Ridge Road which eventually runs raggedly parallel to Boulder Canyon. Fire engines lined up in front of houses, hoses ready, protecting the fire line made by the road, containing a good portion of them, keeping the flames from jumping onto the south side of the residential area road. At least 630 people were evacuated within two hours of the first reports. More than 2,000 people were ultimately told to leave their homes.

NFPD firefighter and EMT, Kate Dirr, drove into the evacuated areas, German Shepherds in the back seat, warning people to leave and assisting wherever she could. Rick Dirr, her husband and NFPD chief, was leading the Ned crews on the fire, even though the couple knew that their house, next to Schmidtmann’s, was probably on the fire’s hit list. She thought for a moment about all the work they had put into their home, all the mitigation they have done over the years, and shrugged it off, saying others needed her help, she had to get going.

Pam Harrington saddled up her horse and pulled another along behind her, beating the flames as the fire jumped Sherwood behind her. She had to leave two horses behind but they were found safe after the fire moved on.

Lexie Armitage went to check on her daughter, Sandy Buell’s, home and learned it was one of the first three to burn down. She grabbed Sandy’s horse and walked her down to safety, but not before running into a wall of fire. She had driven in, leaving her car in “a stupid place,” but figured she was sacrificing it for the horse. She lucked out. She had left the keys in the car and a USFS firefighter drove it out of harm’s way. The house was gone but all people and pets were safe.

As dusk approached and the temperatures dropped, the wind abated and the flames settled down for the night, with at least 150 firefighters working the smoldering, charred landscape, mostly attempting to douse hot spots within the interior of the fire zone. By this time Boulder Canyon and the Peak to Peak Highway north of Nederland were shut down as fire traffic came to town and set up roadblocks to the roads leading into the fire zone.

Xcel Energy power outages made communication among residents difficult, as most of the outages were within the evacuation areas. Most of the shops in Nederland shut down. Locals gathered in the streets watching the northern skies as the fire glowed red against the clouds.

Sunday dawned pretty much the same as Saturday, heating up fast with winds up to 35 mph. The Salvation Army mobile food units set up shop at the Nederland Middle Senior High School, now the evacuation center, a place for evacuees to find food, shelter and many volunteer shoulders to cry on. Nederland resident and former Nederland Police Department administrator Lois Ott was the evacuation center manager, making sure that everyone had whatever they needed to get through the crisis.

At mealtimes, the Salvation Army fed the evacuees and the firefighters burgers, drinks and tons of water. Inside the school, volunteers from the Nederland Food Pantry offered snacks and fruit, fudge from the Candy Man, all kinds of baked goods from the community, as well as blankets and pillows.

Kim Stefane, of Blue Owl Books and Ice Cream, brought large vats of cold, delicious heaven to the evacuees at the high school, who were immediately, gratefully licking the dripping sweetness. Stefane continued to offer free ice cream to any firefighter. It was all the little acts of kindness that made the difference between loss and community connection.

The middle school gym had cots for people to sleep on and kennels for dogs and cats. Piles of dog food and cat food were donated and the pets were allowed to cuddle up with their owners for the night, as long as they behaved.

On Sunday afternoon, a group of Hummer Driver residents watched from Sugarloaf Road as the fire began to send fingers of flames down the hill to a neighborhood of homes that seemed to be located in an area destined to be flattened.

When Hummer was evacuated, Rob Roy Ramey decided to stay with his house, got out the chainsaw and began taking out the fuels, hoping to gain a fighting chance. His wife Laura Brown watched from Sugarloaf Road, glued to her binoculars and keeping Ramey informed of the fire’s movements.

Maryann Hill and her husband John had been hiking on Caribou when they saw the smoke and realized that it was in the vicinity of their home. They were given three minutes to get what they needed from the house and they got their second vehicle, some medication and their iPads.

“All the rest are just things,” they said. They watched as the fire roared on the ridge across from them, exploding now and then in ugly brown plumes of smoke.

At one point in the afternoon, it looked like a cluster of homes had gone up in flames, as billows of black smoke spewed ash into the air, again and again. The spectators groaned as they hoped it was just torching trees they were looking at. At the end of the day two more homes had been lost but it was nowhere as disastrous as it had appeared.

By this time all of Magnolia Road had been evacuated. Stock trailers gathered up the herds of cattle on Twin Sister’s Ranch and at Reynolds meadow in BC Parks and Open Space, taking them to the Gilpin County Fairgrounds where members of the Gilpin County Animal Rescue Team kept track of animals coming in, found safe places for them, as well as food and water. Volunteers helped contact owners and volunteers with trailers to go and pick up animals that were stranded.

A herd of alpacas, dozens of horses, some dogs and cats, and a bunch of chickens were dropped off.

At 9 p.m. a press conference was held at the intersection of Ridge Road and the Peak to Peak where residents, TV stations and local newspapers were informed of the progress on the fire. The total number of evacuees was increased to 1,992. Although three homes were destroyed, officials believe the number would be higher. Boulder County Sheriff Pelle said he was as anxious as anybody to let people go back into their homes, but he feared wind gusts could send sparks leaping the canyon and a spot fire could begin traveling up the hill to the Magnolia Road residents. He had at least a dozen officers securing entrance into the area.
By this time, there was little evidence of the fire in Nederland, which, thanks to the defense set up by firefighters, was left unscathed. The power had returned and businesses were open as usual. Tourists meandered casually around downtown as the fire raged on the ridge above them.

At a press conference on Monday afternoon, Pelle informed the evacuees and volunteers that the fire had not moved much beyond Sunday’s perimeter and that great progress had been made inside the perimeters. Now they were planning for an attack for Tuesday morning, waiting to see what the weather would bring.
As the firefighters began a shift change, those getting off duty reported to the tent city out at the Arapahoe Ranch where a large dining hall had been set up as well as showers and porto potties. They came in from the fire, sweaty and ash covered, tired, hot and hungry. A group of American Youth Corps sat on a log overlooking the beaver ponds at the ranch, saying they had never been sent on a fire before and were anxious to help.

Large cargo trucks rolled into the area carrying hundreds of extra hoses, back up equipment, everything needed to continue the battle. Multiple chopper bucket drops occurred every few minutes and the slurry bombers made their deep-throated pass over areas that needed to be protected. They do not drop the retardant on the fire itself, but in the path of fire to keep it from heading towards structures.

On Tuesday morning, Sugarloaf and Magnolia Road residents were allowed back into their homes at 11:30 a.m. At a press conference, BCSO Sheriff Joe Pelle said, “To have this intense of a fire move that fast and to just lose five structures is pretty remarkable so people have a lot to be thankful for. I’m optimistic with the change in the weather that we’ll have this thing knocked out.”

He believes firefighters should be able to get a perimeter around the fire and start working on containment in a couple of days. “Currently, there are 65 structures within the fire perimeter,” the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office said Monday. “At this time, there are no identified homes in the immediate path of the fire. Shifting winds and high temperatures could potentially put more homes in danger.”

On Tuesday night, Pelle told Saint Anton residents that they might be able to return to their homes on Wednesday. It all depends on nature’s whims.

During Tuesday night’s community potluck that hosted about 500 people, the local firefighters received a standing ovation as grateful residents expressed their appreciation of the tremendous stand the volunteers made for their community.

Chief Dirr said he was impressed by the two teams involved in the blaze, “Meaning the department and the community. It is sometimes easy to get distracted by the negative things, but the community effort in the past few days has reinforced my belief that we live in such a fabulous place. The success of the fire is about making the right decisions at the right times by the right people in the right places.”

Dirr’s house was safe, even though a couple of structures around him were destroyed. He said he had done a lot of mitigation work and feels that has made the difference.

He is most grateful, however, that that the fire was stopped before it had spread below St. Anton’s subdivision, protected by a line that had been dug with a bulldozer.

“It was structure point protection with the dozer and the tankers and the helicopters working synchronously to achieve the result.”

On Wednesday, residents were allowed into the burn areas for brief periods of time to inspect their property and gather personal items for the next few days.

Sheriff Pelle explained that while residents are in the area, mop up operations have to be suspended. After the residents leave, Boulder Canyon west of the summer road will be closed.

As of Tuesday night, the fire was 25 percent contained and resized to 528 acres.

The Sheriff’s office said that   volunteers were not needed immediately, but will be needed during the upcoming recovery phase. Go to http://helpcoloradonow.org/index.php/volunteering-mod if interested in helping.

A Disaster Assistance Center was opened on Wednesday and will be available through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Nederland Middle Senior High School.

Go Fund Me Donations accounts have been set up for Charlie and Berwyn Schmidtmann as well as Sandy and Michael Buell: The Peak to Peak Healthy Communities Project has been asked to accept and distribute donations directly to people in need through the fire and beyond. This is a three to eight year recovery project that will encompass a lot of funding needs. All donations to PPHCP are 100% tax deductible through the 501(c)3 Colorado nonprofit organization. All funds go directly to the people needing them. All funds will be managed by Mandy Kneer and another board member. They will be overseen by the Town and other local entities.

Peak to Peak Healthy Communities Project
Cold Springs Fire Support
PO Box 668
Nederland, CO 80466

 
The Boulder County Sheriff’s Office identified the homes that have burned down: 2315 Ridge Road, 2454 Ridge Road, 171 Bonanza Drive, 37 N. Sky View Drive, 325 Sherwood Drive, 47 Bonanza Drive, 1513 Ridge Road and 319 Sherwood Dr.

 

 

On Tuesday morning, Magnolia and Sugarloaf Road residents were informed that they could return to their homes. Overnight fire crews had been successful at keeping the fire from jumping the canyon and putting out any hot spots that could spread. All of those who had evacuated animals could now bring them back to their barns, fields and coops.

People came in and out of the evacuation center, getting snacks, sunscreen and drinks.  Christy Yoh and her daughter Myla, 4, enjoyed a burger for lunch. Myla, as were many of the evacuated children, was getting over the trauma of being jolted from ordinary life into a dramatic, crisis situation. She said, “That fire was so big, it got close to my house. It was scary. I thought it would burn us out, so I had to go someplace else. When we drove away I saw the sky was yellow and grey and there were helicopters flying with buckets and they lowered them down over the fire. We had to drive through where the trees were burning and my lungs hurt, and I saw men with hoses to fight the fire. I also got a police button and that made me feel better. But I feel fine and I know my house will be okay.”

Myla’s optimism turned out to be prophetic. Although eight homes were destroyed, firefighters joined forces and put a stop to what could have been an epic disaster. Their unrelenting attack, along with amazing support from the community, demonstrated that when it was Nederland’s turn for the fire, they and their support teams were ready.

Barbara Lawlor

Barbara is a reporter for The Mountain-Ear.