Colorado firefighters see things they never had before

— Tuesday afternoon, Colorado Springs Fire Department Capt. Mike Wittry waited for his assignment with his wife by his side, at Coronado High School, the staging area to fight the wildfire blazing through Waldo Canyon. They had been evacuated from their home on the other side of the mountain, in the Mountain Shadows subdivision. They sat alone and listened to the scanner. A panicked update crackled over the radio: “Mountain Shadows is burning.”

He took his wife’s hand, looked into her eyes and said, “We’ve got each other.”

And then Wittry, 55, went to work. A 30-year veteran, he joined the hundreds of firefighters who battled the most destructive wildfire in state history, which destroyed 347 homes and at its peak, forced the evacuation,of 32,000 people. The number has shrunk to 10,000. Two bodies were found in the ruins of one house. No firefighters have been killed in the 26-square-mile blaze, but it forced them to see things they never had before.

By Saturday afternoon, authorities had increased the Waldo Canyon Fire’s containment to 45 percent, but they worried about continued dry conditions, high temperatures and possible thunderstorms. The National Guard committed more than 150 soldiers to help Colorado Springs police return to normal work. President Obama came here Friday and hailed the firefighters as heroes.

Authorities had started to wrangle the blaze, but the effort to limit damage still raged. Behind Station 9 on Garden of the Gods Road, Wittry, who has wavy, gray hair, wire-rim glasses and a mustache, ran the staging area: the parking lot for Appliance Factory Outlet had been converted into a makeshift headquarters. He wore a blue T-shirt, thick, bright-yellow pants and black boots. He carried two cellphones. When one of them rang, he answered curtly, “Staging, Wittry.”

The wildfire charred but spared his home from destruction. Given the intensity of the fire, Wittry felt exhausted but fortunate. He has been too focused on salvaging other homes to worry much, yet, about his own. He has not been to his usual firehouse, Station 3, in days. He had difficulty describing the last week. He settled on, “controlled chaos — and I don’t know about the controlled part.”

The chaos began Tuesday afternoon. By then, Wittry said, fire officials mapped out how they believed the wildfire would behave. It would creep down the mountain, they figured. To be safe, the fire marshal called for the evacuation of the entire community at the base of the peaks.

The decision saved countless lives. The fire changed with a perfect storm of conditions: high winds, high temperatures and additional lightning. It did not creep down the mountain slowly. The flames rose in a column. Then the column collapsed, and the fire roared down the hill.

After Wittry heard his neighborhood had caught fire, he reported to the staging area. They could see flames shooting into the night.

“Guys were excited, wanted to get on the fire,” Wittry said. “I had 150 guys milling around. Everybody wants to be on the next engine.”

As the fire raged and consumed homes, typical programmed shifts became impossible. Wittry wanted firefighters to work four-to-six hour shifts, then take breaks in the staging area, where food was delivered and a medical unit had been created. Some of the men stayed out for 12 hours. The power of the fire sapped their initial enthusiasm.

“After a while, man, there weren’t a lot of smiling faces,” Wittry said. “They were looking for words they don’t normally use: Armageddon. Nuclear holocaust. Hell. I heard that all night long.”

On a normal house fire, most often one room and its contents will burn, and the rest of the home will have smoke damage. Sometimes the fire will spread through the home, and perhaps gut it. But the house is still there. Even when firefighters say a house has burned to the ground, its skeleton survives. The framework remains and one can tell the shape of the rooms.

“Up there, you could tell where the foundation was, and that’s it,” Wittry said. “It’s dust. I saw this one where there’s a brick entrance standing free, and then it’s dust. I’ve never seen anything like it. That’s why I’ve been saying ‘holocaust.’ It’s ash with a plumbing pipe sticking out of it.”

Fire crews didn’t try to save houses already on fire, but instead attempted to halt the spread to other homes. Wittry spoke with one veteran firefighter who had been at it longer than him. His team had cordoned off the fire in one area, confident it would not jump to another house.

And then one house collapsed to the side, into another home, and a row of houses went up in flames. Against an inferno like they had never before confronted, the firefighters encountered a feeling of helplessness.

“They couldn’t move their hoses fast enough to catch up to the fire,” Wittry said.

Later in the week, Wittry drove around his neighborhood. He encountered an odd sight. Sometimes, surrounded by homes that had disappeared, one home would be standing. In other areas, a row of houses would be intact but interrupted by one the fire had leveled. Mostly, he saw one empty plot after the next.

“One would be freakish,” Wittry said. “It’s hundreds. The community above me, it’s just gone. You can see mountains where you never could see anything but houses. It’s all gone.”

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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