Firefighters drew a line in West Glenwood and held it |

Firefighters drew a line in West Glenwood and held it

In wildfires and wars, firefighters and soldiers don’t always get to choose the place of their battles.But at approximately 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 8, when the Coal Seam Fire jumped the Colorado River and Interstate 70 and was threatening West Glenwood, Battalion Chief Bill Harding chose his ground.With winds whipping to 60 miles per hour and a dense choking cloud of smoke obscuring the flames, Harding drew a line in the dirt and committed his men to hold the fire at bay.They did just that, without loss of life, without injury, in the face of horrific odds.By their actions, they saved West Glenwood Springs.”My aim was to start a line of defense and probe forward,” Harding said.That line was drawn through a square formed by Mel Ray, Donegan, and Mitchell Creek roads and Highway 6 & 24, roughly a square mile of West Glenwood Springs real estate that was in imminent danger of destruction.The fire was roaring over the toe of Storm King Mountain, much as it had in 1994 when the mountain burned and 14 firefighters perished.In 1994 the fire stopped short of town.Last Saturday, Glenwood Springs wasn’t so lucky.”I didn’t know what resources we had. I wondered if (the line) would be far enough back to head it off,” Harding said.At the vanguard of the battle for West Glenwood were two engines, Engine 51 from the Glenwood Springs Fire Department and Engine 4 from the Carbondale & Rural Fire District.The first order of business was to attack the fire that was consuming homes in the Storm King and Robin Hood trailer parks on Highway 6 & 24, just east of Mitchell Creek Road.Firefighters Mike Alsdorf, Dave Reinhold and Garry Tillotson on Engine 51 drove into Storm King Trailer Park and found a few trailers already on fire.”The fire was on the back side of (three) trailers,” Alsdorf said, but there wasn’t enough hose to hit the third. He found a garden hose in the driveway of the third trailer with the water still running, and used it to hose down the trailer. “I figured they must have just left,” he said.Alsdorf also thought if the fires in those three trailers could be put out, “we’d have a real good opportunity” to save the trailer park. By then, the fire was so hot and the winds blowing so fiercely, even their water hose was ineffective.Attached to a hydrant, the hose shoots 700 gallons a minute between 150 and 175 feet. But because of the gale force winds, the water sprayed “maybe 30 to 40 feet, and it was blowing back,” Alsdorf said.Then, he said, “the gas and propane tanks started exploding and we got out of there. It sounded like the Fourth of July.”Meanwhile, Engine 4 parked at the intersection of Mitchell Creek Road and Highway 6 & 24. “Everything there was overrun with fire,” said firefighter Randy Hill of the Glenwood Springs Fire Department. The team worked their way up Mitchell Creek Road, spraying water on houses and hosing down flames.”It was so hot it was hard to breathe. The air was full of ash and hot embers,” Hill said. He turned around and saw “a wall of flame going across the highway.”They decided to retreat when U.S. Bureau of Land Management firefighters came from Ami’s Acres campground to the west.”They said, `The fire is right behind us. It’s 50 feet away,'” Hill said.”The fire was blowing sideways like snow does,” he said. “I looked up Mitchell Creek and saw a wall of flame. It was a firestorm.”Bob Guion of the Basalt Fire Department, working with the BLM team, said, “We were shocked when we came down the road and we saw the Carbondale engine. The fire had spotted over us at Ami’s Acres and the whole ridge (above) just burst into flame.”Hill, who fought the Storm King Fire in 1994, said, “I thought the Storm King fire moved fast, but that was nothing.””I’m not ashamed to say I was scared,” said Louis Eller of the Carbondale Fire Department, on Engine 4.While Engines 51 and 4 were holding the line at Mitchell Creek, all hell was breaking loose at the command post at the West Glenwood Fire Station on Mel Ray Road.”For four hours, it was more than we could do” to get men and equipment out to the two most threatening flanks of the fire.Flames were bearing down on West Glenwood and the city’s water treatment plant and storage tanks on the east side of Red Mountain, said deputy Carbondale fire chief Rob Goodwin, who acted as initial operations commander on the Coal Seam Fire.Firemen were calling for equipment and reinforcements and Goodwin had to find a way to supply them.”We were putting firefighters in harm’s way. I thought, `They are friends of mine, and they might die today,'” he said.At one point, as the worst of the fire was being kept at bay in Mitchell Creek, Goodwin called a meeting of the commanders to discuss strategy.”I looked out the window, and the trees (on Red Mountain) were bent over by flames that were 100 feet long. The (fire station) bay doors were shaking and fire brands were peppering the building,” he said.At the same time, Glenwood Springs police Sgt. Bill Kimminau and Officers Aaron Munch, Jeremy Ownby, Matt Hagberry and Neil Wagstrom were racing door to door in neighborhoods at the face of the fire, ordering people to leave immediately.Glenwood Springs Police Chief Terry Wilson had just returned to the fire station to report that the evacuation of the neighborhoods along Mel Ray Road was complete, Goodwin said.”He said, `OK, we got Mel Ray, what’s next?’ I said, `All of West Glenwood.’ That’s when we decided to move the command center,” Goodwin said. “It felt like we were abandoning our guys.”Amid all the horror of fighting the city’s worst wildfire, there were also moments of humor.At about midnight, Bob Guion and the BLM crew had just arrived at the Glenwood Springs Fish Hatchery on Mitchell Creek. They quelled fire on two of the buildings, “then I heard someone screaming, `Come here, come here,'” Guion said.He ran over, expecting to find an injured fireman, but found instead a fireman looking out over one of the fish ponds saying, “Will you look at the size of those trout.”At about 3 a.m., two teenagers came walking into the hatchery. “There was fire everywhere, burning snags were falling on the road,” Guion said. “These two teenage boys were walking into a fire storm.”I said, `What the hell?’ and asked what they were doing there. They told him they came to get a pickup belonging to one of the boy’s fathers, which they’d left earlier in the day when Mitchell Creek was evacuated.”He said, `It’s my dad’s truck and if I don’t get it back, my dad will kill me.’ They came back to get this old beater pickup,” Guion laughed.For the men who kept up the fight through the long hours of Saturday and Sunday, there is satisfaction in knowing they kept the West Glenwood neighborhoods safe.What is today a green oasis amid burned hillsides would now be black, and the houses charred ruins, if they hadn’t held the line that Bill Harding drew as the fire first hit.

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