St.  Patrick's Day Fire
By Mary Jo Shelton, Firefighter
Fisher's Peak Fire Protection District

1:46 am: “This is Trinidad Dispatch.  We have a fire at Garcia Plaza, in Hoehne.  Fisher’s Peak Fire Department, please be advised.  Flames are reported coming from at least 3 mobile homes with one fully engulfed.  There are reports of people inside.  Please respond.”  Mike and I scramble out of bed and fight over the bathroom.  I try to put my contacts in but they’ve only been out for less than 2 hrs.

1:59 am: We are in our truck headed down the canyon.  How cold is it? 11 degrees.  I hope I threw enough clothes on.  Mike and I only have wildland gear which is light and designed for hiking into wildland fires in warmer weather.  I was trained as a wildland firefighter.  This will be my third structure fire this week.  With only 24 volunteers, you respond when you are needed.  We have to take care of each other.

2:01 am: The Chief, Buddie Curro and his wife, Donna leave the fire house with Engine 4158 and Captain Rich Babnick is in the tender, loaned to us by the Forest Service.  How do those guys get the trucks out so fast?

2:05 am: We hit the gate and are instructed to proceed to the fire.  Where is Garcia Plaza? I don’t remember that area being in our territory.  The Fisher’s Peak Fire Protection District covers 44,000 acres and 15 housing developments…maybe I just forgot.  Imagine that. 

2:12 am: Brandon and Rhonda Berry are in Engine 4159, the truck from the north station and I hear Brandon say calmly on the fire radio, “I have no brakes.” Wasn’t that engine just in the shop? We turn down Hwy 239 and see the fire but how do we get to the scene? It appears that an entire football field of “stuff” is fully involved but it is too hard to tell exactly what we are looking at.  I see about 50 junked cars and some type of buildings.  There are no street signs or streets for that matter, just dirt roads.  We turn by the railroad tracks and park.  A woman is screaming, “Put it out, you have to put it out, hurry, hurry” but the rest in unintelligible and she runs off.  We run across the tracks but can’t get to the fire trucks because of the fence and the blaze.  There must be another way in.  This gives a whole new meaning to “the other side of the tracks.” Back to the truck.  We take the next logical road and end up in a field.  We turn around again but this time we see Paul Montoya, in his truck, with a trailer full of hose and we follow him down a narrow path.  Fire and lots of it……so much smoke and then the acrid smell of burning rubber reflexively chokes us.  Mike parks and we move to the fire past Engine 4159 which is balanced precariously with one tire on terra firma and the rest in some sort of ditch abyss full of Godknowswhat.  I figure this is how you stop a truck with no brakes.  4158 is there and our people are laying out hose.  The tanker is waiting to refill the engine when needed.  Some of the “residents” say that there is a man missing from one of the trailers.  Buddy asks them for names and they shrug.  We hear gunfire but it’s only tires popping and paint cans exploding.  Did San Isabel turn off the power? The Chief, as incident commander, stops everyone.  “We can’t squirt water until we get confirmation that the electricity is off.” We wait.  A power pole is burning in the middle of this mess and there is an elevated gas tank perched on a stand about 7ft.  up over a group of burning cars.  Is there gas in it? Is there someone here that can tell us if there is gas in it?

St.  Patrick's Day Fire, Picture1, 57KB

One of the passersby says that all the propane tanks for the trailers have just been filled.  Wonderful.  I look up and see the Trinidad Ambulance across the tracks and hope that isn’t an omen.  A woman now says that there is a man in the middle trailer.  What middle trailer?

We ask her for names and she walks away.  Cars are everywhere and all are on fire.  My best guess is that there are about 6 trailers in this group (a group meaning that they are not separated from the other hovels by a bare ground) and three are fully involved.  Buddie now receives confirmation that the power is off and we charge the hoses.  More explosions.  I look at my husband Mike, a Vietnam vet and he shudders.  Buddie, Rich and Brandon don SCBA’s (self contained breathing apparatus) and move to the blaze.  Paul is running all the hoses and breathing a lot of smoke and I know Francie, his wife and fellow firefighter, is watching him.  The fire has jumped an 8 ft corrugated tin “fence” made from railroad ties buried in the ground for posts.  What are they trying to keep out? It for sure worked on us.  Paul, Brandon and Buddie are trying to cut through the tin with an axe.  The engine is out of water and the closest hydrant is at Big R, too far away for our hoses and 4 blocks by truck.  We empty the tender into the engine’s holding tanks and Mike Freidrich leaves to refill it.  I find Donna on top of the engine; her hands wet and frozen from holding the hose into the fill tube.  Buddie comes back for a fresh tank of oxygen and I help him off with his SCBA.  I am surprised how heavy it is even empty.  Our SCBA’s are not exactly state of the art equipment but they work, most of the time.  Buddie is sweating and short of breath.  I try to get him to sit down but he waves me off.  Rich is back, “The hose is frozen.  GET ME ANOTHER HOSE!” Francie, Mike Shelton, Ed Hockett, Rick and Carolyn Johnson lay more hose and I get Rich an O2 refill.  He doesn’t want to rest.  Brandon comes back and is having trouble with his SCBA and throws it on the ground and heads back into the smoke with Paul.  Rhonda comes back for a different hose nozzle, theirs is frozen.  She is obviously very tired and falls to her knees but gets up.  Then Mike F.  comes back with the tender and more water.  Donna and I fill the engine’s tank and recharge the hoses.  Rich and Buddie go thru the fence to locate the propane tank and turn it off. 

St.  Patrick's Day Fire, Picture2, 37KB

That really scares me but I don’t say anything to Donna.  Gene Downs comes with the Pumpkin, a 2500 gallon portable pond but the plastic is so cold it takes 6 of us to unpack and deploy it so it can be filled.  The pumpkin is designed to be filled and then pumped into the holding tank of the engine, freeing up the tender faster to go refill but this time it is not to be.  We fill the pumpkin from the tender but the pump on the engine is frozen and we can’t draft the water into the pressurized tanks.  And now the engines tank is empty again and the fire is threatening to involve the rest of the trailers to the east.  Where is the tender? Mike Freidrich has been shuttling water to us as fast as he can but we never seem to have enough.  Good, Stonewall is here to assist.  We have a mutual aid agreement with them but now I find out that this fire isn’t even in our district!! It’s not even our fire! It’s Hoehne’s fire but they didn’t respond.  Hmmmm.

3 am: I think it is around 3 am.  Chuck Austin comes back from the road where he has been directing firefighters to the scene.  He can’t feel his fingers or toes and we go sit in the cab of the engine for awhile.  I am wet and now I know for sure that I don’t have enough clothes on.  Wildland gear is just not designed for these conditions and bunker gear is very expensive.  You can’t just wear anything when fighting a fire.  It has to be Nomex with 100% cotton underneath or you risk getting burned.  So do you freeze or take a chance on being burned? Now I’m warm enough to go back out but I need dry gloves.  No one has dry gloves.  The fire is starting to lie down and they are just using a hose from the tender bypassing the pressurized system in 4158. 

5:45 am: Day Break…… and it’s colder than ever.  The fire is contained and the “neighbors” begin to appear.  First I see 3 dogs emerge from what appeared to be a wood box, followed by a man drinking something.  I would like some coffee.  He comes over to us and tells us that he thinks the fire started in the “middle” trailer and that the people in the “first” trailer were on “vacation in Mexico.” I don’t know how to say this any other way but folks this place is a hole.

St.  Patrick's Day Fire, Picture3, 44KB

That is the only way I can describe it… a dirty filthy hole where the residents use trashed vehicles for mulch and Dish TV dishes as yard ornaments.  The whole situation is so ludicrous that I start laughing and can’t stop.  Whoa…..  better watch out or someone will take a shot at me.  I don’t understand how the county can allow a scenario like this to exist…….  people living in shacks and trailers in a junkyard with no enforced building codes or standards and no fire hydrants.  There is a lot of public money here and whispers of drug trafficking.  Where is the health department? I don’t even want to talk about sewage.  Some of the floors are dirt yet they go “on vacation to Mexico.” How ridiculous is that? And 15 of us are here risking our lives for what? A man comes out of one of the “homes” wearing slippers, jeans and a bath rob and starts to wander in the smoldering rubble, head down searching.  He is smoking a cigarette.  He is looking for something, and looking hard.  We think he was from the now infamous “middle” trailer.  There is a puppy shivering and following us around but so scared he won’t let us touch him.  Paul opens the driver’s door of one of few unburned cars and lets him in the front seat out of the wind.  Buddie asks the man in the robe to get out of the fire area so we can mop up.  He acts like he doesn’t hear him.  Paul and Brandon search the rubble for human remains.  I help for awhile but it is obvious that we aren’t going to find anyone even if they were there.  Lots of people were worried about the “middle” trailer but maybe it wasn’t because of who was in it, but WHAT was in it.  Lots of interest from the start.  Makes me wonder.  The only thing left of these “homes” is the steel frame and siding and some junk….  burned up junk.

St.  Patrick's Day Fire, Picture4, 39KB

7:30 am: Done.  I think we left Garcia Plaza for the fire house at 7:30 am.  Sue Downs meets us with juice, milk and breakfast burritos.  I try to eat one but it tastes like charcoaled marshmallows and smells like burnt tires.  I am too tired to eat anyway.  Where’s the coffee? I am told that the fire house’s coffee pot is way past too cruddy to use and is being used by the FDA for biological warfare experiments.  The milk is good though and I have several glasses.  I have had to go to the bathroom for several hours and Mike Friedrich volunteers to take me to the truck stop.  We still don’t have indoor plumbing our fire station but soon will thanks to donations and many volunteered man-hours.  By 8:30 it is warm enough (25 degrees) to start cleaning up the vehicles, equipment and hoses and everyone goes to Checkers to use the hydrant there since we have no other way to do it.  All the hoses have to be scrubbed and then hung up to dry, tools cleaned, the engines filled with water and refueled.  Back at the station we repack the engine with dry hose and get ready to go home to bed….its 11am, I think.

11 am: Everyone is gone except Buddie, Donna, Ed, Mike F, Mike S.  and me.  I’m dreaming of coffee and a hot shower but the fire radio shakes me from my reverie.  “This is Trinidad Dispatch to Fisher’s Peak One, please be advised that there is a fire at Garcia Plaza.  Please respond.” Buddie responds and they say that the fire has kicked up again.  We all just look at each other and slowly pick up our gear and head out.  Mike and I follow in our truck.  We get to the road and see a little smoke.  A car is moving slowly down the middle of the nameless dirt road so Mike honks and they move over.  We proceed to the tender.  Mike F.  and Buddie are in the process of being verbally attacked by a man and several women……….  “How can you leave? You have to help us.  The fire isn’t out.  What’s wrong with you people?” Buddie tells the man not to yell at his crew and then another woman comes up and starts screaming that “we,” (Mike and I) tried to “kill” them and that we “tried to run over” them with our truck.  Buddie calls the sheriff.  We unroll 2 hoses.  The woman starts taking down our license plate numbers and barks obscenities.  We survey the “fire.” The 8 or 10 railroad tie fence posts were smoldering as were some tires.  Big Deal.  They were in no danger of spreading to anything or any unburned structure.  The tires may smolder for weeks.

St.  Patrick's Day Fire, Picture5, 39KB

A car trunk was smoking.  Mike S.  comments that we may have found Jimmy Hoffa.  Then 3 guys from Hoehne’s fire department show up and watch us for a while before Buddie requests that they pitch in and put out what fire there is.  They try to open the trunk and one guy uses a hay fork to rake out some smoking garbage from under some unidentifiable object.  Where were they last night? The sheriff comes.  The people disappear except for the man in the bath robe.  He is back and he is still looking for something.  We have to ask him
St.  Patrick's Day Fire, Picture6, 14KB
to move so we can put out a Beautyrest that is still smoking.  He is trying to get his land phone line to work.  He finds the phone junction box and puts new phone wire on it and starts talking excitedly on his cell phone.  He turns his back and moves away from us so we can’t listen.  Donna and I are sitting on a burnt out car that is still warm.  It feels pretty good on our cold derrieres and we start giggling at the sheer absurdity of our plight.  Peter comes by from Stonewall to offer his support but there is really nothing to do.  Peter asks one of the Hoehne boys to shoot the recently revived phone junction box with water.  I think an axe would work too but I am too tired to go find one.  Donna gets up and leaves because the car is “getting cold” and finally Bud gives the OK and we all pack up and leave, this time for good.  Mike and I walk back to our truck and pass a posted sign saying, “Trespassers will be shot and survivors will be shot again.”

Fifteen in and fifteen out… we were lucky.

Note: This is a true story, told to the best of my knowledge, just as I observed it.  WE are YOUR fire department.  We are volunteers and most of us are not trained professionals.  We put in a significant amount of time being educated to fight fires to the best of our ability but we can only be as good as our equipment.  Please remember us the next time we have a fund raiser or ask for donations.

Respectfully submitted,

Mary Jo Shelton, Firefighter Fisher’s Peak Fire Protection District