April 2 began with dry, windy weather and red flag warnings for high fire danger, just like many other days this year. Unlike those other days, April 2 ended with hundreds of Falcon residents evacuating as firefighters from multiple agencies battled a wind-driven fire that threatened their homes.
Highway 24 fire harrowing for residents
Tough year ahead for wildfires
By Robin Widmar
The fire started small, likely from a lit cigarette discarded along the highway, according to the Colorado Springs Fire Department; CSFD investigators examined the situation to determine the cause of the fire.
At about 5:21 p.m., El Paso County dispatch records indicate multiple callers reporting at least two fires along U.S. Highway 24, just east of Constitution Avenue. Videos posted to Facebook showed motorists stopping along the highway determinedly trying to beat out the flames. Despite their efforts, high winds pushed the fire through dry grass and brush toward Meridian Road, prompting evacuation orders for about 280 Falcon households. By the time the fire was contained around 9 p.m., it had charred 386 acres as mapped by the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s Multi-Mission Aircraft the following day. No structures were lost and no injuries to firefighters or residents were reported.
The Highway 24 fire occurred between the March 20 blaze that burned 242 acres from Woodmen Road through vacant land on the former Banning Lewis Ranch and the Mile Marker 117 fire in the Hanover area on April 17. The Hanover fire destroyed about 20 homes plus and burned 42,795 acres, according to an April 20 joint media release posted on the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office website.
These large-scale incidents highlight just how easily wildfires can start and how quickly they can spread, especially in tinder-dry conditions following an abnormally dry winter.
A view from the front lines
For Falcon firefighters, the Highway 24 fire was their third fire of the day. When they arrived on scene, they encountered fast-moving flames, sometimes reaching 10 or 12 feet high, headed toward a rural residential area. Falcon Fire Department Lt. Travis Kuemmerle said the fire “took off quick.” Firefighter Ben Rackl added, “On windy days, the fires outpace the fire crews.”
Driver/Operator Matt Gibbs said firefighting efforts depended on what was burning at any given time (grass, brush or trees) and the direction the fire was moving. Some terrain was impassable by vehicle, forcing firefighters to hike long distances. As some firefighters worked to contain and extinguish the fire, others were positioned to defend homes. Road graders dug wide paths around the fire’s perimeter to stop the fire’s spread. All efforts focused on the goals of protecting lives and structures.
The fire’s unpredictable behavior posed a significant challenge to firefighters. Kuemmerle described “extreme fire behavior for this early in the season,” including rapid growth, frequent changing of directions because of wind shifts; along with active nighttime burning when fires usually subside or “lay down,” as firefighters call it. In the end, firefighters from more than a dozen fire agencies across the region were able to bring the fire under control without losing any homes.
Aerial photos from the April 3 Multi-Mission Aircraft flight over the Highway 24 burn area show the fire’s erratic movement through uneven terrain. Several homes sit in unburned “islands,” where firefighters held the fire at bay. Pockets of white ash dot the landscape, evidence of where the fire burned hottest and longest as it fed on grass, brush and yucca.
Dry weather leads to high fire danger
El Paso County and other areas of Colorado have experienced extended periods of abnormally warm and dry weather. The National Weather Service in Pueblo issued 17 red flag warnings between Jan. 30 and April 19 for Fire Weather Zone 226, which includes the areas of Falcon and Black Forest. Red flag warnings are issued when weather conditions such as low relative humidity and high winds create elevated fire danger.
A United States Drought Monitor map issued April 19 showed western El Paso County in moderate drought, with the eastern part of the county in severe drought. Predictions for the coming months are pessimistic. Outlook maps from the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center forecast above average temperatures well into 2019. Precipitation is predicted to remain below average through May, and only average through the summer of 2018. At an April 13 news conference, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and state fire officials said the state could be looking at the worst summer wildfire season since 2012 and 2013.
How residents can prepare
Firefighters have long known that wildfires are not a matter of “if,” they are a matter of “when.” The Falcon Fire Department encourages residents to be proactive and prepare for wildfire and other disasters by doing the following:
- Create defensible space around structures, mitigate vegetation and reduce fire risks on properties. (See this month’s FFPD column for more information.)
- Sign up to receive emergency alerts via phone call, text message and/or email. Visit http://elpasoteller911.org to register or update information for the Emergency Notification System (also referred to as Everbridge). Residents without internet access can call 719-785-1971 to register.
- Prepare for evacuation by making plans for family members, pets and livestock. See http://Ready.gov for details.
- Maintain awareness about what is going on by monitoring local news outlets and social media –- especially on high fire danger days.
From his personal experiences at the Mile Marker 117 fire and other incidents, firefighter Rackl offered another piece of advice: “Heed the evacuation warnings, because the fires move fast.”
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The United States Memorial Day website states that Memorial Day has become less of a remembrance day and more of a celebrated three-day weekend to usher in summer, vacations and barbecues.
By Mark Stoller
However, this is not the case for Falcon’s own Dane R. Balcon American Legion Post 2008. The Post is named for Dane Balcon, a Falcon resident who lost his life in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005.
Ian Carney, a 22-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force and current commander of Post 2008, said he leads 214 veterans, their spouses and children in service activities to provide for the community’s veterans and honor the fallen.
One such recent event was the eighth annual Vets 4 Vets Barbecue held at the Sam’s Club outside Fort Carson to aid homeless veterans in Colorado Springs. Carney said Veterans of Foreign War Warriors, four American Legion Riders posts, Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association, Special Forces Motorcycle Club and the Veterans Motorcycle Club supported the event. He added that Post 2008 actively supports the El Paso County Homeless Veterans Coalition. “The Vets 4 Vets was a local idea, and there are two chapters in Colorado — one in Denver and the other here in Colorado Springs,” Carney said. “New chapters are being created in Arizona. The Vets 4 Vets Colorado Springs Chapter is the largest contributor to the El Paso County Homeless Vets Coalition.”
Carney said the Coalition takes seven to 14 homeless veterans and their dependents to the Clarion Hotel for 45 days; veterans with families are the priority. While there, they receive education, help with employment resources and mechanical assistance for vehicles. “This year’s barbecue was very successful and allowed us to contribute the same monetary commitment as last year,” Carney said.
Post 2008 also participates in game night at Bonaventure of Colorado Springs — a senior living and memory care center. Carney said a long-time member of the Post is now a resident at the facility. Game night used to be both cribbage and poker, but the one post member who knows how to play cribbage has moved from the area. “Now, it’s two tables of poker with snacks, drinks and good stories,” Carney said.
The Post honors veterans who have passed. Together with the Boy Scout troop and Cub Scout pack they charter, the Post places American flags on the gravesites of veterans buried in the Eastonville Cemetery.“We have placed flags for the last four years on both Veterans Day and Memorial Day,” Carney said. A member of the post has completed the research on everyone buried in Eastonville Cemetery and mapped out where each of the gravesites are located. One interesting fact: The oldest veteran grave in the cemetery belongs to a Civil War soldier named William S.”Billy” Coon, Carney said. The Post has endeavored to replace Coon’s aged headstone with a new one.
American flags will be placed again this year on Saturday, May 26.
The American Legion Post 2008 has teamed up with JAKs Brewing Co. to recognize scholastic excellence and military studies in the local community. Carney said, “JAKs has been a huge supporter of the post’s activities … . This is the first year for a scholarship fundraiser.” JAKs has helped support the effort to reward a scholarship to one Junior ROTC senior from each of the three District 49 high schools, he said.
“The American Legion is the largest veterans service organization. Any and all qualified veterans, active duty, separated and retired are welcome to join,” Carney said. Family members can participate by being part of the Auxiliary, Sons of the American Legion, and the American Legion Riders.
“Membership has become a concern of the national leadership,” Carney said. “Once around four million members, the American Legion has a national membership of approximately two million today.”
Membership in Post 2008 is 214 strong. Their biggest event is coming up, Carney said. “The American Legion Post 2008 Annual Golf Tournament on July 21 is our main fundraiser for the year,” he said.
“We try to raise enough money to afford our annual budget. The money we bring in goes back to our primary focus of veterans and their families and giving back to the Falcon community.”
To learn more about the American Legion Dane R, Balcon Post 2008, visit http://alpost2008.org.