Lower North Fork Fire: Public Report

By Michael Davis, Elk Creek Fire Department, Firefighter 235 – Public Information Officer

Monday, March 19, 2012 the Colorado State Forest Service began a controlled burn on a 50-acre section of land owned by the Denver Water Board. The property, located in the North Fork Fire Protection District, is seven miles southeast of Conifer, south of Reynolds Park on South Foxton Road. The operation was completed Thursday, March 22, 2012.

Colorado State Forest Service monitored the area, and on Monday, March 26, 2012, reported that high winds had caused parts of the burned area to reignite. They reported seeing embers from within the burn area being blown across the containment line, and into unburned fuels. 

At that time, the Colorado State Forest Service requested assistance with what they termed a one-acre “slop over” fire. Elk Creek Fire Chief Bill McLaughlin and a team of five firefighters responded to the call. Elk Creek Safety Officer Joe Page, who had been adjacent to the area on a separate call, began moving into position across the valley to serve as look out. 

The Colorado State Forest Service instructed the Elk Creek team to look for a two-lane dirt track on the left side of South Foxton Road. Locating the unmarked trail proved difficult for Chief McLauglin and his crew of local firefighters. After a 15-minute delay, the correct trail was located. Fire tape was used to mark the road so that additional resources might not encounter the same difficulty.

When the Elk Creek crew arrived at the scene, the one-acre fire had grown to more than five-acres in size. The Colorado State Forest Service official on scene re-classified the fire from “slop over” to “escaped.” This higher threat level immediately put more resources in motion. Firefighters and equipment from the North Fork and Inter-Canyon Fire Departments were mobilized.

Elk Creek personnel joined with Colorado State Forest Service firefighters, and began advancing a progressive hose line along the southern flank of the fire. The intent was to press in from the flank, and pinch off the fire’s progress.

Flame lengths were reaching eight to ten-feet and were traveling at near wind speed. Firefighters struggled to maintain their footing as they extended fire-hose down the steep slope. Raging winds made it difficult to stand.  Each time the wind would shift, firefighters were blasted with waves of intense heat and overwhelmed by blankets of choking smoke. Despite their efforts, the flames quickly spread into the trees. Wind gusts up to 80-miles hour fanned the flames and sent the leading edge of the fire racing ahead. Trees that were hit by the advancing heat exploded into flames with a roar. Flaming branches and embers where thrown high into the air and caught by the racing winds, which cast them as far as a mile ahead of the flame front, igniting hundreds of spot fires in the distance. 

From his vantage point across the valley, Safety Office Page constantly updated the command staff of the fire’s progress and the firefighters’ position.  Once it became clear that the fire could not be contained with the available resources, and that the firefighters were in grave danger, the order to withdraw was given. Fire-hose was abandoned as the crew made a hasty retreat. Within minutes, what had been a five-acre fire transformed into a firestorm, raging through the treetops and laying waste to all that stood in its path.

A small group of seasoned firefighters stood helplessly by as the now infamous smoke plume rose up from the blaze, extending tens of thousands of feet into the cloudless sky.

While the combined Colorado Forest Service and Elk Creek Fire Department crew battled the blaze, Chief McLaughlin was working with North Fork Fire Chief Curt Rogers to establish command and coordinate the attack. Chiefs McLaughlin and Rogers assumed command from the Colorado Forest Service, and immediately request air-tanker support. Chief McLaughlin ordered his on site crew, and those staging in the area to get ahead of the fire and initiate structure protection.

The Elk Creek team raced back down the dirt trail to Foxton Road, then speed north, toward Pleasant Park Road. When they reached Pleasant Park, the northbound lane was jammed with cars and trucks of residents fleeing the fire, while firefighters and apparatus from every surrounding district were flooding the southbound lane heading toward the fire.

As firefighters made their way through traffic along Pleasant Park, the fire was racing straight through the forest, gaining in intensity as it went. When the blaze crested the ridge near the subdivisions along Kuehster Road, the flame wall was 100-feet high and advancing at 200-feet per minute.

It blasted through the forest, instantly consuming every blade of grass, bush, and tree. Homes, even those that stood well back from the edge of the forest, were blasted with 1,000-degree heat and showered with flaming debris. Nothing in the fire’s immediate path was spared.

As night fell, crews worked their way into the hardest hit areas. Fire spread out on both sides of the road. Smoke and glowing embers filled the air – at times so thick it was impossible to see beyond the hood of the fire engine. Firefighters were forced to stop and wait, hoping the smoke would clear, praying they would not be swept up in a wave of flame.

Many homes had already been reduced to heaps of smoking rubble; others were fully engaged with bright orange flames licking out their windows and through openings in their crumbling roofs. Miraculously, some homes were spared. In some cases, flames had made their way up to the structure and were burning attached decks or outbuilding. Where a home could be saved, firefighters doused the flames with water, cut down burning trees, dragged them away, and dug protective trenches around the structures to halt the fire’s progress.

The work went on well into the night. Fire trucks went in, expended their water supply, and came back out for more. Time after time, exhausted firefighters from Elk Creek, Inter-Canyon, North Fork, and many other departments refilled their apparatus and returned to the fight, determined to save every home that could be saved.

In the early morning hours, as the cool night air and calm winds diminished the fire’s intensity, crews were pulled back and redeployed to posts in the surrounding neighborhoods. Here, they would stand guard through the night. Ready to sound the alarm, and resume the attack should the fire advance.

Though the night, firefighters and equipment from across the state of Colorado and beyond poured into the area. Many took up positions along Pleasant Park Road near Kuehster Road, massing for the attack that would commence at first light.

Before sunrise, the watch crews were pulled from their weary posts and sent back into the heart of the destruction. Their assignment: to access damage to structures and search for victims. Firefighters scoured the area, and by mid-morning when the task was complete, were again reassigned.

Some teams were designated as spotters for the three air tankers and four helicopters that were now dropping fire retardant on the most active spots of the fire. Others were detailed to hike the hillsides, cut down smoldering trees, and douse any spot fires that remained.

By Tuesday afternoon, more than 500-firefighters from a dozen different departments were working on the fire.  The original Elk Creek, North Fork, and Inter-Canyon firefighters, many of whom had been on duty for 30-hours or more, were replaced.

These firefighters continued to operate in a defensive and structure protection mode through out the day. On Wednesday, they were able to begin containment of the fire.

An operations center for unified command staff was established at Elk Creek Station 1. Here the fire chiefs of the surrounding districts, representatives from Jefferson County, State of Colorado, federal agencies and their support staff would continue working around the clock, catching a few moments of rest whenever possible, but always keeping a steady hand on the controls.

The fire was first managed by the Elk Creek-North Fork unified command. As it spread into the Inter-Canyon Fire Protection District, an Elk Creek-North Fork-Inter-Canyon unified command was formed. Command was then relinquished to the Jefferson County Type 3 Incident Command team, and as the fire grew, was later turned over to the Great Basin National Incident Management Team.

As additional agencies became involved and sent in their administrative teams, the operations center had to be relocated to Conifer High School. 

The work went on through the week. Hundreds of men and women, spending thousands of hours hiking every foot of the burn area, cutting down smoldering trees, dousing hot spots, digging fire line, and crawling on hands and knees, placing their bare hands into the ashes to ensure the fire was truly out.

As the fire was brought under control, the Incident Command System, which is designed to expand or contract as situations warrant, reversed itself, and passed command back down the chain until it reached the local level, which is the Elk Creek-North Fork-Inter-Canyon unified command.

The Lower North Fork Fire destroyed 27 homes and burned 4,140 acres of pristine forest. Thousands were displaced, much property was destroyed, and three irreplaceable human lives were lost. These events have left scares on the land and the people that may never truly heal.

No one can say enough about what a tragedy the Lower North Fork Fire was. But in tragedy you often find goodness and compassion that you never before recognized were there. Neighbors reached out to help neighbors, opening their homes and their hearts to people who were strangers only a day before. And firefighters, especially the volunteers, ordinary men, and women who at a moment’s notice will drop everything, left their jobs and their families to try to save a forest, or the home of someone they’ve never met. People worked beyond their physical limits and risked their own lives in the service of their community.

I am terribly saddened by what has happened, but simultaneously I feel an overwhelming sense pride. It’s an honor and a privilege to live in a community such as ours and to know ordinary people who, when called upon, can and will perform extraordinary acts of selflessness.