Fighting fire with fire: Mountain town firefighters credited with saving hundreds of homes in El Jebel
July 12, 2018
EAGLE — It wasn't until he surveyed the scene the next morning that Greater Eagle Fire Chief Doug Cupp realized the magnitude of what local firefighters accomplished in El Jebel on the Fourth of July.
In simplest terms, the crew of 40-some firefighters and around a dozen engines from departments from throughout the central Colorado Rockies launched an audacious strategy that saved the community of El Jebel when the Lake Christine Fire crested the hill and started a run toward the community. Photos from the scene and testimony from fire experts on the site bear witnesses.
"When we were putting our tactical plan together, it was already night, and we couldn't see the entirety of the situation we had to deal with," Cupp said. "When the daylight hit, I was more in awe of what we pulled off."
Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry has spent much of the past week over in the southwest part of the county.
"The Lake Christine U.S. Forest Service incident commander said that local team, with firefighters from Eagle, Gypsum, Eagle River, Vail, Basalt, Aspen, Carbondale and others, was the best local team he had ever seen," Chandler-Henry said.
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The effort to fight the Lake Christine Fire actually started last winter when fire departments from throughout the Colorado high country started discussions about the coming summer. With low snowfall and dry conditions, the various fire crews figured they were in for a long, hot summer. They agreed it would be in everyone's best interests to forge a Mountain Mutual Aid agreement.
"That way, when a fire gets this bad this quick, you can call on resources that are only an hour away instead of four or five hours away," Cupp said.
When the Lake Christine Fire started in the early evening of Tuesday, July 3, that's exactly what fire officials in the Roaring Fork Valley did. Cupp and Hugh Fairfield-Smith, of the Greater Eagle Fire Protection District, were among the firefighters who were initially dispatched to the scene.
After their first full day, Cupp and Fairfield-Smith were returning to the incident command from The Wilds neighborhood where they had been assigned. With tinder-dry conditions and winds picking up, they reported the fire was poised to blow up and threaten the valley-floor communities of Basalt and El Jebel. They were right.
"We just didn't have any idea it would be so bad," Cupp said.
Normally, fire moves downslope when night comes and temperatures cool.
"What we didn't know was that the winds would be in the 20 to 40 mph range, rather than the normal 5 to 10 mph range," Cupp said. "But we could see there was a wall of fire with 100-foot flames coming."
At that point, crews had about one hour to make a plan and mobilize forces. Cupp took over as the El Jebel Structure Protection Commander and Fairfield-Smith and Ryan Cole, of Summit Fire, were assigned as task force leaders. With only minutes to act, the team decided to fight the fire instead of defend against it.
El Jebel, as we know it, could well have been wiped away last week.
"Chief Cupp had to make the call to turn his men back or stay and try to save the mobile home park. That can't have been easy," Chandler-Henry said.
As firefighters were headed to El Jebel, residents were getting the order to leave. It made for a chaotic scene.
"This was probably one of the most complex situations that's possible," Cupp said.
Consider the factors in play — hundreds of residents had received emergency evacuation orders, high winds were fanning the wildfire headed their way, the relative humidity was just 3 percent, dense vegetation provided ample fuel for the flames, and there was virtually no defensible space between homes and the fire. What's more, it was night, so there would be no aircraft flying overhead to drop water or flame retardant.
In the heat of that moment, Cupp made the decision to light backfires so when the main fire hit the area, it wouldn't have fuel to burn and would turn away from the houses in its path. He then stationed the mutual aid crews to keep the backfires under control and wet down the areas closest to the houses to prevent them from catching fire.
"Typically when you do this type of technique, you have room to roam and you put people out in the vegetation," Cupp said. "But it was too dark and too dangerous to do that."
"It was all brush and lava rock. It is hard to move around in that in the daylight," Fairfield-Smith said.
Crews actually stood on decks and patios when they shot the device that launched flares out into the brush to light the backfires. As the fire crested the hill and made its run toward the neighborhood, they had about 15 minutes to ponder the complexity of what they planned to do.
"There was absolutely no margin for error," Cupp said. "We knew if we were to lose any homes, it would be a domino situation and we would lose half of the town."
But when the Mountain Mutual Aid crew turned the fire away from the first home, the firefighters knew their plan could work.
"By the second house, I felt a lot better about it," Fairfield-Smith said.
From approximately 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., the crew held its position and saved hundreds of homes. Only two houses burned down that night, and they were located away from the main neighborhood in a draw with heavy vegetation. That entire area was totally decimated by fire.
The day after the fire, a 9News helicopter flying over the scene produced a picture that is, as the saying goes, worth a thousand words. The aerial shot shows a clearly delineated fire line running along the back yards of dozens of houses.
Calm and focused
As they fought flames just feet way, Cupp said the firefighters remained calm and focused. He credited all the firefighters involved for their amazing teamwork.
From U.S. Forest Service Hotshot crews to fire officials nationwide, praise has been heaped on the Mountain Mutual Aid crew's work at the Lake Christine Fire. Cupp noted residents of El Jebel also have profusely thanked the team.
"It feels pretty great to have done something like this. It's the greatest accomplishment of my career thus far," Fairfield-Smith said.
Cupp also cited this fire as one of his proudest moments, and he believes all of the firefighters he worked with would say the same.
"Our goal was to save the neighborhood, and we knew if we lost that neighborhood, we would lose the town of El Jebel. We just knew we could not lose that neighborhood," Cupp said.
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