Smoke from the Colorado Springs fire

Mountains through the smoke from the Colorado Springs Waldo Canyon fire. This area, across I-25, was in flames the night before (Wednesday). The air is hazy with smoke that sticks on your clothes and waters your eyes, but it’s nothing like the dark, thick cloud that was there the day before. You can’t see it in the photo, but a gnat-size helicopter carrying hundreds of gallons of water flies back and forth gathering water to pour on the wildfire.

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

We like to get outside a lot here in Colorado Springs, but not these days. The record-breaking heat has been like an oven, and a thick haze of smoke burns at our eyes and lungs.

Early this week, we stayed in our air-conditioned homes or businesses listening the local news, which told us the latest on the wildfire that threatened our western city boundary. Still, it was relatively peaceful.

We heard nothing different, and the only evidence most of saw was that huge plume of smoke in the distance. It was sometimes hard to believe that the only thing that stood between us and destruction was a thousand dedicated, highly trained men and women. It was hard to imagine they were actually out there, in that intense heat, smoke, and roaring flames hundreds of feet tall.

And then, two nights ago, it hit home, literally. Officials were about to have their daily news conference when behind them, flames suddenly licked over a ridge with homes below. It surprised everyone. The fire pounced at sixty-five miles per hour down on a subdivision. Devastation.

And the firefighters faced it head-on. Many homes were burned, but many were saved. They fought the fire back.

Today there’s only smoke again and the charred remains of homes burned to the ground. But many still stand thanks to these brave men and women.

Beth’s Tips for Preparing Your House for a Wildfire
Beth Nelson

Beth Hubbard

  1. Close windows, doors, and the garage door.
  2. Shut blinds and curtains to keep out some heat.
  3. Close the vents, like to the basement and garage, to shut out smoke and burning embers.
  4. Leave equipment such as ladders, axes, and chainsaws where firefighters can see them. They may not have a lot of equipment, but they have the skills to use it. If they have time, they may stop.
  5. Hook up your hoses.

Remember that you don’t have to wait for an evacuation order. Prepare, and leave calmly, when you want. You may beat traffic too.

We like to hike here and love our rugged terrain. But for most of us, a couple of hours of hiking up and down a gentle mountain path and we’ve had it for the day. These firefighters tread where we never go. No gentle paths for them. And they do it for hours and hours on end. It takes a special person.

Beth Hubbard is one of those. She’s a paramedic who has fought many a wildfire in the Alaskan wilderness. She’s also my daughter. My other daughter, Leigh Ann, a freelance writer, interviewed her especially for The Survival Doctor.

Clear the Brush and Find the Spickets: What to Do Before the Evacuation

TSD: If you live in a woodsy area, you’re supposed to clear brush around your house. But does that really matter in a huge wildfire?
BH: Yes. The pictures show it as one mass of fire. But sometimes it’ll go right around the house; sometimes it’ll go right over the house.

Also, you want the firefighters to look at your house and say, that is a defendable house. If they know a fire is coming their way, they’ll have a preplan, and they’ll have categories: “These houses are absolutely defendable, these houses we’ll get to if we have time, and these houses, we need to cut some trees down if we have time.”

: Before the interview, you told me people can hook their hoses up to spickets before they’re evacuated. Why would they do this?

BH: This is kind of area-dependent, but you can hook your hose up to the spicket, so 1) it’ll be obvious where the spickets are, and 2) if they have time, and if they think that it’s wise—like if they don’t think that it’s going to run the city out of water—they will turn your water on, drench the place, and then hopefully the fire wouldn’t hit your house.

Danger Clues

When a fire’s nearby, Beth says:

  1. Watch the weather. If there’s low relative humidity (RH) and high heat, “all you need is a little fire, a little wind, and you’re burning.”
  2. Remember that the fire doesn’t have to be next door to threaten. A gust of wind and an ember is all it takes sometimes.
  3. Consider your topography. If you’re uphill, you’re in more danger. As the heat rises, it dries out everything in front of the fire, and the embers also hit quickly up top, “so it just runs right up.” (If you have a Santa Ana wind, though, it can blow downhill.)

For up-to-date wildfire information in Colorado, Beth recommends the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center.

Out here we go by wells. This isn’t really for a bunch of houses in the city.

: Should people place the hose strategically?

BH: No, you don’t have to. If it were me, I would place it on the ground as opposed to on the driveway—somewhere where they could just click it on and run. Because sometimes that fire’s coming so fast, you see this house, you’re like, OK, stop, these guys have it all set up; all we have to do is click a faucet. They’ll jump out, do that, jump back in the truck and go.

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Evacuate? Yes. Lock Your Door? Um … Whatever You Think.

TSD: Have you seen people staying behind during an evacuation order?
BH: Yeah. If they tell you to evacuate, then you need to get out because what’s going to happen is 1) you’re going to die, or 2) you’re going to kill a firefighter who tries to save you.

And also if you have horses, take them out before the evacuation order. We come across a bunch of people that have left horses behind because they get the evacuation order and they run.

So there are these horses that you either leave in the fenced area and allow them to burn to death—a slow and horrible death—or you let them out and let them run across the fire and spread across the roads and literally kill firefighters because the roads are so smoky you can’t see anything. You know where your other people are, but when a horse comes across the road, you hit them, and you die. Or do you shoot the horse?

Firefighters resting in the woods

Beth’s crew “about halfway through cutting a saw line. We were all pretty hungry and beat right about then.”

: They say to lock your door before you leave. You’ve said you would leave yours unlocked if you felt like it was a safe area. Why?

BH: Here, if you get surrounded by fire, there is no way to protect yourself against it if you’re a firefighter just because of the way our ground is. That’s what kills firefighters. So if we find a house, we’re going to break into it if the doors are locked.

Or if the fire’s coming through and your door is unlocked, they can come in, take care of some stuff that maybe they see inside the house that could be done—maybe you left a window open, maybe the shades aren’t drawn.

And if it’s a big fire, there’s mandatory rest periods by the federal government, but it’s not for a long time. So you can work on the line for a very long time on a fire in the middle of nowhere, and maybe all you have are MREs to eat and a little warm water to drink. So if you can come in and just get some good food and get some good water, you’re feeling a hundred times better, and in repayment they’re going to take care of your house as best they can.

I would put a sign on the front door. [Laughs.]

Firefighter wildfire camp

The camp where Beth’s crew slept, occasionally, while fighting a wildfire in Alaska.

And your vehicle: Make sure the windows are rolled up, and then I would leave the vehicle unlocked with the keys in it.

: Why?

BH: If it’s not in a good spot, if they think it’s going to burn over, then they can move it.

Wildland firefighters—I’ve never worked with another group of people that have such good hearts, and they really, truly believe in what they do. They have to.


Update: Beth has since started a wilderness medical-survival school, Solace of Safety, in Anchorage, Alaska. Check it out here.