To a passerby unfamiliar with the various residents of Kiowa County, a conversation about the weather between two relatively soft spoken, mild mannered men like David Kraft and Howard Vortruba might seem to be typical, casual, small talk. But if that conversation includes the discussion of high winds, low humidity or—worst of all—lightning, it wouldn’t take long for even that passerby to realize that the topic of their conversation is anything but casual, typical or small.
As anyone from this part of the country can testify, those elements of nature create the perfect conditions for starting a fire capable of causing more destruction more quickly than almost any single thing people can imagine. In the event that a fire does break out, as it has before, David Kraft--Fire Chief for the Town of Eads, Howard Votruba--Fire Chief for Kiowa County, and their relatively small crew of volunteer firefighters have taken upon themselves the responsibility of holding the line and keeping that destruction at bay. However, holding the line of even a small fire can turn into a dangerous endeavor with little to no warning, a fact Howard Votruba knows very well.
Votruba started out as a wildland firefighter. “You know the guys you see on television fighting forest fires?” he says. “That’s how I started. I did a few of those up and down the Front Range. Last one I did was the Hayman fire.”
The Hayman fire of 2002 was the worst fire in Colorado history. After starting out in Jefferson County, it spread south into El Paso, ultimately burning 137,760 acres and leaving a burn scar equal to the size of the entire Metro Denver area.
“That fire was intense,” Votruba says. “And the heat…you can’t even imagine. A forest fire can generate heat up to a thousand degrees. And it’s scary. The first time I was around that I was terrified. I thought, what have I gotten myself into?”
The fire freshest in Votruba’s mind is the blaze that occurred in Chivington last summer. “That started off as 3 separate fires from lightning,” he recalls. “Then it all came together into one, and it got pretty large pretty quick.” The heat was intense from that fire, as well. “You could tell when you were outside the fire’s weather zone and then got closer to the fire. There was more wind—it was blowing in different directions. Even with a grass fire, it creates its own weather.” The different vegetation presented a challenge, as well. “Willows, sagebrush, tamarack…those burn at a different rate,” Votruba explains. “The fire around may be out, but those plants will still be burning. If the wind picks up an ash and carries it somewhere else, you’ll have a new fire start. That’s why, when you drive down 96, you’ll see weird burn patterns.”
The Chivington fire burned 2,000 acres—no small amount—but Votruba says the damage would have been much worse if not for the actions of several people. “All the surrounding agencies showed up,” he says. “La Junta, Kit Carson, Cheyenne Wells, Prowers and Lamar--there were 40 or 50 firefighters there, and we needed every single one. Casey [Sheridan] called in the road graders from [Kiowa County] Road and Bridge to come out with their maintainers to cut a fire break. If it wasn’t for them, we would have been in bad shape. We couldn’t have cut a fire break and fought the fire, too.”
Assistance came from another source, as well. Rod Brown, whose property was at risk, turned on his irrigation to flood his fields. As it turns out, the humidity the irrigation put in the air helped to cool things down.
In his role as Fire Chief for the City, David Kraft largely deals with structure fires which present their own set of very different problems. “When we show up at a building that’s on fire,” Kraft says, “the first thing we have to ask is, is there anyone inside? If so, that means we have to go inside a burning building. That’s dangerous. You’re in a contained space with a lot of smoke which makes it hard to see, you’re looking for people who might not be able to yell for help and you don’t know the layout of the house. Like I say, that’s…a bad situation.”
Where Votruba says that weather is frequently to blame for starting wildfires, Kraft says a structural fire is usually the result of human error, and there is one situation that causes him more concern than others. “Some people do things in their houses that aren’t legal, and, if something goes wrong, it could be very deadly.”
Kraft recalls an incident where he was visiting the house of a relative and smelled propane coming from the house next door. That set off an alarm bell for him, so he contacted the sheriff and suggested he just stop by the house. “So, he [the sheriff] did. The people moved out the next day.” Kraft’s concern is that the process involved in making drugs is very volatile and can result in an explosion. “Something like that doesn’t just destroy that house, it can catch other houses nearby on fire, too. And we just don’t have the resources to fight multiple structure fires at one time.”
>>WHAT TO DO, WHAT NOT TO DO<<
Both chiefs agree that human error often plays a role in fires getting started, so what follows is their list of suggestions.
Don’t wait to see how bad a fire is going to get before calling 911. Make the call the minute you discover the problem.
Don’t pass up a fire, assuming someone else has called 911. Fires have been much more destructive than was needed because people assumed someone else had already called it in.
Smoke and fire detectors are a must. Change the battery every time you change your clock.
Have a plan in the event that a fire breaks out.
If a wildfire breaks out on your property, consider your safety first. Lives are often lost because people are trying to save livestock and pets. As enormously difficult as it might be, make certain you don’t risk your own life trying to save the lives of your animals.
Think about those things in and near your house that are highly flammable and either dispose of them or move them to a safe distance away from any buildings. For example, don’t store your lawnmower and gas can under your porch or deck. Don’t stack wood for the fireplace up against the house. Don’t allow tumbleweeds to pile up under your deck or between outbuildings.
Observe burn bans and red flag warnings. More than once, fires have gotten quickly out of control because people did not observe warnings that were already in place.
Both fire chiefs agree that we’re at risk heading into this year’s fire season. There’s an abundance of fuel—tall grasses, dead trees that haven’t been removed, debris stacked up around people’s property—and the lack of moisture makes the situation critical. Keeping in mind what causes fires plus what firefighters face once a fire has started should, hopefully, make everyone more cognizant of what that goofy old bear in the forest ranger’s hat has told us since we were children: “Only you can prevent a forest fire.” These days, given the chance, he’d probably add something about grass fires and houses.
Sounds like good advice.