Published June 18, 2013

Copyright by The Colorado Springs Gazette

SIDE STREETS: Eavesdropping while heroes worked

By: Bill Vogrin

A firefighter battles a blaze in a garage in Black Forest outside Colorado Springs on June 13, 2013. Photo by Jerilee Bennett/ Courtesy of The Gazette

Last week, many of you no doubt watched on TV and read the newspaper in horror as wildfires raged around the Pikes Peak region.

I wasn’t watching much TV. I spent most of my days eavesdropping on heroes.

Specifically I was listening to police scanners, following the sometimes intense, sometimes heartbreaking, always riveting radio traffic so I could write minute-by-minute updates for on the Black Forest fire.

For up to 12 hours each day, I listened to three scanners and heard the conversations of heroes doing battle with a monstrous wind-whipped wildfire that raged through about 14,200 acres of the parched pine forest just beyond Colorado Springs’ north boundary, killing two and destroying 502 homes.

A year ago, I had tuned in to listen as crews fought the Waldo Canyon fire. I listened in awe, often, as battles unfolded on the mountainside. Same was true in Black Forest. The scanner drama rivaled the golden age of radio.

But there were no sound effects. This was real life.

I could hear the sense of urgency in the voices of firefighters as they faced the immensity of their job and the danger posed by trees exploding into flames and racing through the treetops.

I caught myself sitting and listening in terror – not writing as I was supposed to be – as minidramas unfolded amid the chaos of the fire fight.

They were incredible conversations between first responders trying to save lives and property from a searing, surging, roaring wildfire that generated temperatures that melted aluminum and choking smoke and ash.

I heard supervisors snap off commands to crews to get to safety. Trees were torching overhead and they were in danger.

At one point a state trooper was trapped on a seeming dead-end by flames, only to escape through the haze on a side road.

There were despondent calls from crews who had to back away as propane tanks ruptured or cars exploded and fire consumed another house.

There were many conversations from firefighters relieved and celebrating when they stopped fire from spreading beyond a burning garage or shed to the nearby house.

I heard angry conversations about cars blowing through checkpoints into the fire zone, being chased down by police.

And I heard sympathetic talk between frustrated officers at checkpoints who had to deny access to apoplectic homeowners desperate to go home to retrieve a pet or medicine or check on a stubborn neighbor who refused to evacuate.

Worst were the repeated calls I heard from officers frantic to help terrified animals they found trapped, suffering or dead. Some were chained or locked in fenced yards. Others were simply running wildly.

“Can we get animal control out here immediately?” one officer asked urgently. “This horse is burning but still alive!”

I could hear the horror in his voice. It was hard not to get emotional just sitting and listening.

Of course, when all you have is voices, the mind tries to fill in the gaps, generating images of the scene as I imagined what exactly the firefighters were facing. It couldn’t be as bad as I imagined, I told myself.

Then I saw the helmet-cam videos taken by firefighters of trees being incinerated by towering flames raging in every direction.

I saw the heartbreaking photo of Facebook friend Ted Robertson’s chimney amid burning trees and the smoldering foundation where his home once stood.

I saw a powerful photo of a lone firefighter staring down towering flames consuming a barn.

And I saw chilling shots of Sundance, a horse with gaping fire burns.

It was probably every bit as bad as I imagined.

After Hayman, Waldo Canyon and Black Forest, I’ve had enough catastrophic wildfires. But if I ever do cover another one, you won’t catch me in front of the TV. I’ll be the one sitting by the scanners.

Eavesdropping on heroes.