Dave Shively: Into the fire | SteamboatToday.com

Dave Shively: Into the fire

Dave Shively

— A funny thing happened on the way back to the Clark Store.

Last Sunday, I hiked with my parents to the foot of the Zirkels to gaze briefly at a tranquil Gilpin Lake before swarming mosquitoes and looming clouds had us hightailing it back down 1161 to the Slavonia Trailhead.

The blooming alpine fields had me thinking about how to phrase an apt description. Maybe something like a, “stunning mosaic of cascading bluebells, glowing Indian paintbrush and dense stands of perfect five-pointed columbines,” without it sounding as flowery as it just did.

But the sudden drone of the rotor hovering 100 feet above our heads interrupted these thoughts.

The helicopter’s slung bucket dipped into a small beaver pond no more than 50 feet wide ahead of us. It toted the dripping bucket less than 1/4 mile to the faint column of smoke we hadn’t even noticed. In less than a minute, it was back for another load.

North Routt Fire Protection District Chief Bob Reilley said the lightning strike-ignited blaze couldn’t have burned more than 1/10 of an acre.

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Small fry, but it was eye-opening how close the fire was to one of the most popular access points to the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area and in the response time between when camp hosts spotted smoke and when North Routt and Forest Service crews had it contained. And it was also eye-opening how the unfolding events changed a long-held childhood conviction.

When I asked Reilley if he wanted to fight fire when he was a kid, his response was, “I don’t know any kid that didn’t think a fire truck was the coolest thing in the world.”

So what could I possibly have imagined to be cooler than firefighters?

That’s easy.

Ninjas.

But Sunday changed all that. Seeing a pilot spot the fire, find a pond and make 20 drops in as many minutes to stop its spread left me slack-jawed. What if it had spread? How many more hikers still behind us would be blocked from the trailhead? The job’s demand for bravery finally resonated – having visited ground zero could not match the simple, physical act of walking out of the fire area to safety, exchanging a quick glance and nod of respect as I passed the crew on the trail that was walking in.

I was surprised a fire could even start near the lush confluence of two streams, especially on a rainy day, but Reilley reminded me it would take a torrential dousing to keep the countless dead logs from being susceptible to strikes. With the fire season under way, it will be interesting to see how similar fires can be managed when resources are stretched thin. Fortunately, Reilley has prioritized the steps necessary, from trying to increase the benefits for his volunteer force to the completion of a Community Wildfire Protection Plan, to make the inhabited spots more defensible from a natural process that will always shape the forest that more and more homeowners move into.