Steamboat Springs Four local firefighters returned to Routt County this week after a five-day deployment to what developed into the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history.
“To be part of the crew was a privilege,” North Routt firefighter Linas Vaitkus said Wednesday.
The crew members said it was an invaluable experience, and they will be able to use what they learned to help protect homes in Routt County.
Vaitkus was deployed June 12 with Steamboat firefighters Leighton White and Tony DeRisio and Oak Creek Fire Chief Chuck Wisecup to the Black Forest Fire near Colorado Springs.
Immediately upon arriving, they could sense the urgency and scale of the fire. Aerial support, including large DC-10 aircraft, could be seen in the air, and large pieces of equipment like bulldozers were being brought in.
“It was like a war zone,” said Vaitkus, a former Steamboat Olympic ski racer. “The manpower was huge. I haven’t seen anything at that scale before.”
As of Wednesday morning, the fire had destroyed 509 homes, burned 14,280 acres and was 85 percent contained.
The local crew arrived at about 4 p.m. the day after the fire started. By 6 p.m., they were headed to the fire line.
That first night was the most active, White said, and their local crew was split off from the rest of the division to protect large multimillion-dollar homes on 5-acre lots in a subdivision. At times there was fire on both sides of the street, but the firefighters said they felt safe throughout the incident.
DeRisio was the firefighter in charge of driving the Steamboat fire engine. When attached to a water source such as a fire hydrant, it is capable of putting out 1,250 gallons of water per minute. But without a water source, they had only the 750 gallons of water they could hold in the tank at any given time. It meant they had to be tactical in deciding what structures to protect. The firefighters had been told not to bother trying to save a house if 20 percent or more of the roof was on fire.
“You have to be pretty judicious with your water,” said White, who was the crew chief and had gained experience on large fires while working on a U.S. Forest Service hotshot firefighting crew.
The crew timed their efforts and waited until the fire crept up to the house to attack so the fuels later would not catch fire.
“We were right at the edge of losing some structures, but I think we were definitely productive in saving some homes,” Vaitkus said.
Wisecup, who was on his first career deployment on a large-scale fire, estimated they saved 12 structures the first night.
“The first night was just do what you can do, do as much as you can,” Vaitkus said.
Despite the efforts, many homes were lost. The destruction was random. In some areas, entire swaths of homes were destroyed except perhaps one. Sometimes it was just a single home that caught fire from a floating ember.
“It was bizarre and no logic to it,” White said. “No rhyme or reason.”
Their first shift was over at 8 a.m. Thursday, and they tried to get rest before the next one. The firefighters working at night slept during the day on wrestling mats at a gym at Pine Creek High School.
By the second night, the fire mostly had quieted down, and by the third night, they were beginning to mop up and check perimeters.
Throughout the incident, local residents would stop the firefighters, shake hands and show their appreciation.
On Saturday night, while leaving the high school to go to work, the local crew was applauded by hundreds who had gathered to thank the firefighters.
“That was pretty cool to see,” Vaitkus said. “It chokes me up a little bit. They’ve been hit, and they’re definitely grateful for any help they can get.”
White said they knew a lot of homes had been destroyed, but the residents appreciated their efforts anyway.
“You wish you could do more,” White said.
Wisecup said he would not forget the experience.
“It was very gratifying to know that we were down there to help people,” he said.
To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com