Firefighters assist with Colorado floods

Firefighters help trapped residents evacuate
Firefighters help trapped residents evacuate by National Guard helicopter. Photo by Justin Cowger.

Incident management teams that usually respond to wildfires found themselves in a position to help thousands of Colorado residents earlier this month when unprecedented amounts of rain caused massive flooding and damage to infrastructure

Today we have a guest author, someone who worked with one of the two incident management teams during their assignment September 13 through 24. Rae Brooks was an information officer with Shane Del Grosso’s team. Her background is in journalism.


By Rae Brooks

They came not to fight a fire, but to perform a rescue mission. 

On September 13, Shane Del Grosso’s Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team was deployed to Colorado to help manage the response to the flooding in Larimer County, north of Denver. A second Rocky Mountain Type 2 team, headed by Dan Dallas, managed the rescue response in Boulder County.

When Del Grosso’s team arrived in Fort Collins, hundreds of people remained trapped in mountain towns, cut off by roads that were likely to remain impassable for months. Thousands of homes were without power. Although the tally was not yet in, the county would eventually announce that 45 miles of roads and 65 bridges were either damaged or destroyed.

Highway 36 washout
The flood cut away a section of Highway 36 between Pinewood Springs and Estes Park. Photo by Justin Cowger

The flooded area in Larimer County delegated to the team covered 768 square miles, close to double the size of California’s Rim Fire, the largest in the nation this year. About 1,500 homes had been destroyed in the county, almost three times as many as the Black Forest Fire burned in June, the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history.

Wildland firefighters had to immediately get their minds around a simple fact: You can’t put out a flood. Their job on this mission would be to rescue traumatized people, aiding them however they could.

For most of the team, the flood was their first experience on a non-fire event. Although water-soaked terrain might seem a foreign environment for wildland firefighters, the work required — helicopter rescues in the mountains — was actually right up their alley.


“We’re landing in steep, rugged terrain and that’s where we work,” said Chuck Russell, deputy incident commander. “It’s a large aviation show and we’re comfortable with that. That’s what we do.”

Working conditions would also prove similar. “You know you’re gong to sleep on the ground,” said Safety Officer Rick Barton. “You know you’ll have to work long hours.”

Unlike a fire, where a team maps the perimeter with the measurable objective of achieving containment, handling a flood involved completing a list of tasks. “And when we’re done with the list, we’re finished,” said Planning Section Chief Flint Cheney.

At the start of the incident, speakers at the morning briefing would inadvertently refer to “the fire” being divided into two branches, or flying to “the fire,” until heavy-duty ribbing — and a growing identification with conditions on the ground — erased all thoughts of fire.

The recovery protocol for human remains laid out in the daily Incident Action Plan added an unfamiliar element of urgency to the mission. “Flag off the area,” searchers were told. “GPS the location. Take photos. Do NOT disseminate.”

Documenting such finds was critical in order to provide closure for loved ones of flood victims, said Incident Commander Del Grosso. “There are people who will never be found,” he said. “Even though it’s sad now, it answers that question. So it’s important that we capture that data so that people can mourn and move on with their lives.”

Instead of multiple crews and engines, Del Grosso’s team worked mainly with two urban search and rescue task forces from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). While fire teams are “well-oiled machines,” with opportunities for multiple deployments each year, said Del Grosso, the US&R — pronounced YOU-SAR — task forces are called on less frequently.

The Missouri task force worked at Hurricane Sandy last year. The Nevada team’s last assignment was Hurricanes Gustav and Ike five years ago.

It was still raining when Logistics Chief Loren Wickstrom arrived in Denver. Flooding had closed Interstate 25, so he spent the night in a Denver hotel. On the drive to Fort Collins the next morning, he spotted six Blackhawk helicopters flying in formation up the highway, and knew the situation was grim.

One of his first jobs, positioning the incident command post or ICP, proved problematic. Initially, the team installed itself at the Poudre Fire Department Training Center at Christman Field. But the site was already muddy, with more rain expected, and Wickstrom knew that setting up outside units in the wind and rain would be a nightmare.

He decided to move the ICP, and chose a building at The Ranch Events Center in Loveland without seeing it. “I remember going around and telling the section chiefs that I wanted to change ICPs,” said Wickstrom. “They looked at me and said, ‘Are you nuts? We’re in the middle of trying to get work done and here you want us to move?’”

The team relocated to The Ranch on Sunday, where the supply unit, dining hall and morning briefing could all be accommodated indoors.

For the first 48 hours, problems were coming at them so quickly — and the situation was changing so rapidly — that the team joked about being in a Survivor-on-Steroids episode or an S-720 class. (S-520 is the notoriously difficult advanced teamwork class that all candidates for Type 1 qualifications must successfully complete.)

For example, establishing a command repeater system for a fire would typically involve setting up repeaters at a combination of drive-to and fly-to sites. But the flooding had transformed all the drive-to sites into fly-to sites, just when the weather was keeping all air resources grounded.

Nor could the water, fuel, batteries and Meals-Ready-to-Eat that Logistics Chief Wickstrom was amassing be dropped to stranded survivors. Wickstrom also found that his orders were routed through the county, state and FEMA, with anyone along the way able to reject them.

In general, the number of public and private agencies involved in the flood significantly ramped up its complexity.

Another glitch: The US&R task forces that would be airlifted to mountain towns to search homes didn’t carry Nomex fire-resistant clothing, so a safety exception would be needed to allow them to fly in their cotton uniforms. All wildland crews are required to wear Nomex in the air.

Even when the repeaters were in place, the US&R task forces wouldn’t be able to use the system without checking out fire team radios; their own radios were incompatible. Some Colorado National Guard helicopters used military frequencies, also incompatible with firefighting radio systems.

As rain continued to fall, little could be done over the weekend. But late Monday morning, the clouds finally lifted and air operations began.

Over the following week, firefighters and US&R teams loaded evacuees in the cut-off mountain communities onto Chinooks and Blackhawks, spent days trying to convince the reluctant they needed to evacuate, and helped construct temporary evacuation roads made out of logs.

Rescuers moved systematically from house to house, establishing contact with residents and checking to make sure that everyone was out. The distance between mountain homes surprised some of the US&R members. Chinooks delivered UTVs to help searchers cover more ground.

Residents and their pets were then loaded onto the helicopters either on the ground or by hoist extraction. After a short flight to Fort Collins, they were driven in school buses to an evacuation center at Timberline Church to be picked up by friends or welcomed into a temporary shelter there.

In a lesson learned from Hurricane Katrina, evacuees were never asked to leave their pets behind. As a result, besides rescuing 1,232 people — almost all of them by helicopter — the team brought out parrots, lizards, chickens, rabbits, a ferret, a turtle, dogs, cats, a pot-bellied pig, a bowl of fish, a snail named Gary, and a tarantula named Rosie.

Firefighters unload crated pets.
Firefighters unload crated pets from a Chinook evacuation helicopter at Christman Field in Fort Collins. A total of 582 pets were evacuated. Photo by Tom

One helicopter arrived at the helibase at Christman Field with 14 evacuees and 13 pets.

On the first day of air operations, 430 people and 150 pets were airlifted from the communities of Storm Mountain, Glen Haven, Fish Creek, Waltonia, Drake, Pinewood Springs, Big Elk Meadows and The Retreat. Over the following days, rescuers performed target searches to continue whittling down the list of missing people.

Some residents didn’t want to evacuate. Later in the week, when people were out walking their dogs in undamaged neighborhoods under clear blue skies, trying to get them to understand “that they were literally on an island” was a challenge, said Task Force Leader Cliff McClure.

“They’re very independent and self-reliant people who just didn’t understand how desperate their situation was,” said Branch Director Ross Wilmore.

Elderly people especially didn’t comprehend how difficult it might become to care for themselves for up to a year, or perhaps longer, while roads were rebuilt. They worried they would become a burden on society, if they left their homes.

The rescue teams returned repeatedly to Pinewood Springs and Storm Mountain to try to talk people into leaving. Showing them photographs of the destroyed roads, they warned residents that when they ran out of propane and generator fuel, there would be no resupply.

In several communities, people banded together to fix up little-used dirt backroads to allow them to evacuate with their vehicles. In Pinewood Springs, the Payson hotshots from Payson, Ariz., spent two days patching a washed-out section of Highway 36 into an former stage coach road, built more than a century ago.

Wyoming hotshots creating temporary road
Wyoming hotshots and the Larimer Count fuels crew pump fuel across an impassable section of the Pingree Park road to allow residents and the Colorado State University Forestry Camp to run generators on the other side. The logs on the road were replaced with sturdier logs, laid length-wise instead of cross-wise. Rocks were placed on top of the logs, followed by dirt and finally pine boughs. Photo by Rick Barton.

“They chopped down a bunch of trees, stripped them down to logs, laid them down and covered them with dirt to make a passable road,” said Paramedic Jeff Woffard.

The 100-foot section was so steep, narrow and rocky that many people asked firefighters to drive their vehicles over it for them. “The rule was you needed four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive with some enhanced clearance,” said Woffard. “You wouldn’t want to take a Toyota Camry over there.”

About 120 vehicles evacuated on the make-shift road. Other people rode or walked horses out to waiting trailers. “So it was a useful little road they put in,” said Field Observer Kent Ellett.

The last convoy out left Sunday morning, September 23, when all but five members of the Pinewood Springs fire department evacuated the community. About 50 residents elected to stay. Many have staged cars above Pinewood Springs, so they can commute back and forth to Estes Park. “It was 80 miles of driving just to have a car a mile from your house, but that was the only alternative,” said Woffard.

On Storm Mountain, an old U.S. Forest Service Road and a right-of-way through private property was turned into a temporary evacuation route.

“There were probably more than 100 people working with picks and shovels,” said Task Force Leader McClure. “We found the access and then they were working from sunup to sundown, wallowing in the mud.”

More than 300 people were eventually evacuated from Storm Mountain by helicopter or by road. An elderly couple resisted until a neighbor snuck over in his skivvies one night and shut off their well. Unable to make coffee the next morning — and assuming their well was broken — they finally relented.

“We made friends for life up there,” said McClure. “I had a gal up there; her name was Dottie, and she was a hoot. The helibase up there was never a somber place. This gal made us steak and eggs, and brought us a bottle of champagne.”

Repairing Road
Wyoming hotshots pass rocks hand-to-hand to fill a bog on the Pingree Park Road. Three major water seeps on the road produced boggy areas where vehicles were getting stuck, preventing residents from Pingree Park and other areas from evacuating. Photo by Rick Barton.

Near Pingre Park, the Wyoming hotshots, from the Bighorn National Forest in northern Wyoming, traded gas for the use of a small dump truck, and spent all day hauling six loads of rocks to fill in a boggy area on a narrow road, passing the rocks hand-to-hand. A home-made sign tied to a tree commemorated their work: “Roadwork courtesy of the Wyoming hotshots,” it read.

Wyoming hotshots repair road
Wyoming Hotshots’ chase rig tests the newly reinforced road bed before the public attempts to cross. Photo by Rick Barton.
Wyoming hotshots repair road
Wyoming hotshots lay dirt on rocks they’ve placed in the first seep. Photo by Rick Barton.

When a mentally ill woman was discovered living with scores of rabbits — along with dead rabbits on her sofa, in the freezer and under her pillow — Woffard kicked off the infamous Bunny Roundup by calling in a Blackhawk.

“Did you just say rabbits?” the incredulous pilot asked.

The woman was immediately airlifted out for treatment. She had been convinced aliens would show up and bring her dead bunnies to life. “Apparently the arrival of a bunch of Chinooks didn’t help that much,” said Task Force Leader Jason Cowger.

The removal of the rabbits took a little longer, prompting some banter at morning briefings:

Air operations branch director: “We need to resolve if the rabbits came off today or need to come off tomorrow. I’ll track down the rabbits.”
Planning section chief: “This is no time for Elmer Fudd jokes.”
Safety officer: “I’m afraid if they don’t track down the rabbits soon, they’ll be more of them.”

Humane Society personnel were flown in to handle the roundup. Four especially speedy rabbits evaded capture, but more than 100 were placed in 60 boxes, filling up a Blackhawk.

“A Blackhawk full of bunnies,” said Cowger. “The most expensive bunnies in the world.”

A helitack crew member contributed a Pinewood Bunny Roundup graphic to the Incident Action Plan, featuring a bearded firefighter, a Chinook and a unicorn.

By the time the team left on September 24, the missing list of about 1,000 people had been completely cleared.

Their flood deployment proved to many firefighters that the incident command system, originally developed to handle wildfires, worked in other settings, too. Within a few days, they were able to work seamlessly with the US&R teams and with local firefighters in flooded communities.

Branch director Wilmore knew the teams had gelled when he walked through the dining area one evening and noticed “our guys interspersed among their guys, laughing and joking.” Paramedic Woffard called his wife to tell her they were “adopting” one of the evacuated Pinewood Springs firefighters to stay in their basement.

“I’d work with these guys again in a heart beat and I know everyone else on the team feels that way, too,” said Wilmore.

Working on the floods also provided wildland firefighters a rare opportunity to establish an emotional connection with the people they helped.

“Some people are paralyzed,” said Woffard. “They don’t have a job, they don’t have a house, they don’t have a car — it’s stuck on the mountain. If you sit down and take the time to listen to them, it makes your heart hurt.”

At one of the final morning briefings, Incident Commander Del Grosso praised the firefighters and US&R members for their sensitivity and compassion.

“You’ve touched people’s lives,” he told the assembled crowd. “They’ve gone from having no hope to having inspiration and some hope going forward. You made a difference — and it’s important that you realize that.”

Branch Director Wilmore said he had to focus on the task at hand during the incident, temporarily pushing down the human side of the disaster.

“After I go home, I’ll think about the human element,” he said, “and I’ll think about it for a long time. It will be profound for me.”

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4 thoughts on “Firefighters assist with Colorado floods”

  1. I was one of the many people stranded in the ‘Upper Buckhorn’, which is just over Pennock Pass from where this wonderful Hot Shots repaired Penigree Park Rd. which made it possible for us to get out. This article only highlights some of what the rescue workers did of course. Before the road was fixed a group of hard core off roaders helped some not so hard core 4 wheel drive trucks with supplies for us through those same mud bogs. Never been so happy to see anyone in our life. Among other things they brought a supply of medically needed oxygen for 2 of our residents. We can never thank them enough!!

  2. My brother is Shane Del Grosso and I am incredibly proud of him and all of the men and women who participated in the search and recovery of the Colorado flood. Congratulations to all on a job well done! These men and women know the true meaning of hard work and we are grateful for their service.

    1. Proud, indeed. You last sentence says it all about these wonderful firefighters – “These men and women know the true meaning of hard work and we are grateful for their service.” They should be training America!


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