Firefighters Bold Plan Praised

Wednesday, September 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BOULDER, Colo. (AP) — A wildfire was rampaging toward a cluster of 100 mountain homes, and the flame-killing slurry raining down from air tankers was evaporating seconds after hitting the fire.

The pilot of a spotter plane, watching trees ignite like Roman candles, calmly radioed fire commanders on the ground: ``We're going to have a problem.''

The commanders quickly plotted a bold ambush: They would light another fire to burn up the fuel and stop the large blaze before it could reach the houses.

``It worked,'' fire operations chief Jim Dunn said of the controlled burn Tuesday night after firefighters contained the original 1,087-acre blaze.

If the plan hadn't worked, the intentionally set fire could have destroyed those homes.

The decision Sunday to set a controlled blaze stopped the flames and saved the 100 nearby homes and possibly 100 others, residents and fire managers said.

Fire managers normally take a cautious approach to intentional fires, especially after a prescribed fire intended to clear underbrush near Los Alamos, N.M., last May got out of hand, destroying more than 200 homes and forcing the evacuation of 20,000 people.

But the Boulder fire was making a dash for the homes, and Dunn and the others knew they had to act quickly. Incident commander Joe Hartman approved their plan and members of the Alpine and Pike's Peak hot shot crews lit the fire.

``The responsibility weighed on us, knowing that if it got away, there was nobody else to blame,'' division chief Justin Dombrowski said. ``But after the smoke cleared and no homes were lost, I thought, `Wow! It worked!'''

By Tuesday, evacuated residents had returned home and firefighters prepared to leave.

``Those guys were amazing,'' said Ginger Graham, a resident whose home was saved.

``On Sunday we thought for sure that fire was coming this way,'' said George Hart, a retired geologist and Louisiana State University professor whose home was in the path of the blaze.

The burnout scorched about 300 acres, Dunn said.

In Oklahoma, wildfires fueled by strong winds damaged or destroyed at least 18 homes Tuesday and closed roadways north of Oklahoma City as firefighters battled them for a second straight day.

So far this year, fires have blackened nearly 6.9 million acres around the United States in what has been termed the nation's worst fire season in a half century.


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