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Trying to reason with wildfire season, again

Column by Hal Walter

Mountain Life – August 2005 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHEN YOU GET right down to it, we’re all living in a tinderbox. To me, it’s not so surprising when a wildfire kicks up, but rather that it doesn’t happen more often.

I became aware of the “Mason Gulch Fire” while I was out on a run the same morning that fire crews were also alerted to it. I saw smoke over the top of Hardscrabble Mountain, but continued on, and actually forgot about the smoke in a haze of chores, work and a tight schedule.

A reminder came in the form of a phone message from the city editor of the Pueblo Chieftain, where I work part-time as a copy editor. He asked if I might know the whereabouts of a fire in the area. I picked up the phone and called a reliable source and quickly learned that the fire was located in Babcock Hole just a few miles south of Wetmore.

Babcock Hole is a place with which I am very familiar. When I lived in Wetmore I trained my burros on the Babcock Hole Road. It is widely told that Babcock Hole was a favorite camp of Kit Carson, and a rock that is etched with his name sits alongside nearby Greenwood Road, though I have often wondered about its authenticity.

I had in fact just visited Babcock Hole less than two weeks earlier, as a guest of Dr. Robert Hamilton who owns a spectacular ranch within the forest at the far end of the Hole. On that trip I noted the thinning of the underbrush by the U.S. Forest Service to lessen the fire danger.

Other friends Chas and Mary live on the road that leads into Babcock Hole, which is really a small steep-sided valley choked with scrub oak and ponderosa pine, partially encircled by rimrock.

By the time I left for my evening shift at the Chieftain I had a pretty good idea that the fire was spreading. My wife called by cell phone on her way to work and told me of smoke, helicopters and slurry planes. On my commute I could see that nothing had changed, with the exception that the fire had obviously not been put out.

I had been fighting some sort of summer virus for more than a week and had lost my voice. So I quietly edited page proofs and stories, including the report about the fire. It didn’t seem to be that big a deal. Later in the evening I received a call from Chas asking if he and Mary could park at our place if they were evacuated. They had received a call warning them to be ready.

I told him they were of course welcome, and I left work early because I just was not feeling well. I stopped by a grocery for cough medicine, and drove off toward the mountains. Almost immediately I noticed more traffic than usual, including several people on motorcycles. I realized later that people had driven out to take in the sight of the fire.

About 15 miles out from Pueblo I was alarmed to suddenly see a large orange glow on the hillside, revealing a fire obviously much larger than the “100-acre” blaze I had just read about. At the edge of the orange field, several individual trees could be seen burning like beacon torches. As I reached Wetmore I could only see an orange glow, but when I came over the hill by the Farley Ranch, I could see the fire heading south along the ridge. A group of young adults were standing alongside the highway like spectators. I wondered if I would find Chas and Mary at my house.

BUT ALL WAS DARK and quiet there. A soft breeze out of the southeast carried a hint of smoke. Everything seemed too calm. I drank a glass of wine and went to bed. A little after 4 a.m., I was awakened by my dog, alerting me to Chas and Mary’s arrival. They had been told to evacuate, and drove here with their two Jeeps, a pop-up tent trailer, two dogs and a cat.

They were obviously upset, and I was no barrel of fun myself, commencing to cough and hack for the next hour. They bunked out on the couch and I went back to bed. At best we got another hour and a half of sleep, punctuated by the wild braying of jackasses who must have smelled the smoke hanging on the breeze.

I woke up, made coffee, and assessed the situation. I had two writing assignments due, and was due back at the Chieftain that evening. I was not feeling well at all. To top it off, I’d had about 4 hours of broken sleep and had guests. Something had to give.

I called the Chieftain and told them that I would be working via remote that evening rather than coming into the office. I have a computer connection that allows me to edit copy in the newspaper’s system directly from the Walter Pack-Burro Ranchito. Normally I do this two evenings a week, and commute two evenings a week.

I set about writing while Chas and Mary stowed their cat in my tack shed, then drove back to Wetmore to see about their house and to dig for information. They drove back up Hardscrabble to Westcliffe and took their dogs swimming at Lake DeWeese. Then Chas went back to Wetmore for a community meeting.

Only in the 21st century in the New West could a newspaper copy editor be editing the front-page story on his own computer at home, reading the lead article about the fire, with an evacuee from that same fire reading over his shoulder. Chas said that he had been standing next to the Chieftain reporter at the town meeting. Now he was being treated to an exclusive viewing of the news story.

The remarkable thing to me was how when the fire grew from its originally reported 100 acres to 1,500 acres, and began to threaten homes, the forest service upgraded its rating, which meant another layer of bureaucracy had to be brought in. A “command center” was set up at the community center in Wetmore and flashing signs were set up on the highway. New firefighting teams were brought in. It seemed like a lot of resources were spent on these “management” activities rather than on actually fighting the fire.

Also, it seemed the reporting of the fire’s size, spoon-fed to the reporters was consistently understated.

BY SATURDAY MORNING the fire was completely out of control, and growing. Chas and Mary didn’t even go down to look, opting instead for a trip to Westcliffe, where Chas was able to update his “blog” at Candy’s Coffee Shop via the WiFi system that seems to cover the entire town. That afternoon a bank of blue smoke blew in over the hill and hung on the air for about an hour. Then it wafted away and the air cleared.

On the fire’s fourth day, Sunday, we awoke to a hot wind. Law enforcement officials were allowing evacuees to visit their homes for 30 minutes a day, so Chas and Mary went down to check on their house. Photo IDs were required.

I watched from here as the downsloping breeze whipped the fire into a towering mushroom cloud with a chartreuse underbelly. The cloud rose thousands of feet into the sky and I stared in amazement as the top boiled like a frothing cauldron of white cotton candy.

I was reminded of a few years ago when the smoke plume from the Iron Mountain Fire had marched across the skyline to the north of my place and a friend had evacuated her horses to my place.

By the day’s end news reports said the Mason Fire had marched 6 miles south. Residents of Beulah were being evacuated and Colorado City and Rye citizens were put on alert. Some Beulah residents had refused to leave their homes.

A report from the inside said the fire had scorched an area as large as 12,000 acres and was still growing with only 5 percent containment.

By evening, the smoke had banked back in here and lingered until midnight. The next morning was clear with no sign of smoke, but the fire surely lingers.

Who knows when or where it will end. There’s really no way to reason with wildfire season.

Hal Walter writes from 35 acres near the ghost town of Ilse in the not-so-Wet Mountains.