Battalion Chief Jim Schanel had been told to go home that day. But he wound up directing the city's makeshift effort to subdue the Waldo Canyon Fire after it surged into Mountain Shadows on Tuesday, June 26.
For 12 hours, Schanel didn't even stop for a drink of water as he barked orders to trucks, engines and hand crews in efforts to halt the fire's march eastward. Had sparks taken hold in Ute Valley Park just east of Mountain Shadows, the fire could have raced to Interstate 25 and beyond, he says.
"If it got into the bluffs, we were in trouble," Schanel says. "You had that knot in your stomach, thinking, 'If we don't stop this, nobody's here to do it.' You wonder, 'Am I even gonna get out of this myself?'
"I'm not lying to you," he adds. "I was terrified. You're a big, tough guy, but when you're facing that, you know this is beyond what we can manage."
In a 90-minute interview at Station 4 on Nov. 9, Schanel and Capt. Ed Breece agreed to sit down over a map of the burn area and stiff firehouse coffee to talk about how the Colorado Springs Fire Department finally overcame being outflanked by the magnitude of the fire and tamed the monster.
A slow start
Schanel, 55, is the department's most highly trained and experienced wildland firefighter, with 25 years on the force. But he'd been sent home Tuesday morning for rest, despite federal firefighting officials' warning of worsening weather conditions, after working 24 hours straight in Cedar Heights.
Around 4:30 p.m., Schanel saw a towering thundercloud over the city and he self-deployed, slogging through heavy evacuation traffic. When his pickup truck broke down, he caught a ride to Station 9 on Garden of the Gods Road. Finally, about an hour later, he arrived at the impromptu staging area on 30th Street in a fire utility vehicle. That was minutes after Capt. Steve Riker, serving as incident commander that day, had called for firefighters to retreat into safe spaces.
Schanel, however, decided to size up the blaze. Although, per Schanel, Riker remained incident commander into Wednesday morning, Schanel drew up the plans for how the fire would be attacked. (Schanel says he never saw Chief Rich Brown at the fire that night.)
Heading north on Flying W Ranch Road by himself, "it was a lonely drive," Schanel says. "I really thought, 'I'm going to see an engine or two burned over.' I had not been in an environment where firefighters had been at so much risk, so quickly, in my career."
He could see that flames had swept through drainages at Alabaster Way, Mountain Shadows Open Space and Lanagan Street. Homes steamed, fire jumped from house to house, and sparks showered. The heat was so intense — it would later blister paint on engines — he knew firefighters couldn't get within 500 feet without endangering their respiratory systems.
With no pre-placement of resources before the cloud collapsed and mutual aid not yet on scene, Schanel made a "Hail Mary" plea. He called for 15 strike teams — or 75 engines — "knowing the order could not be filled in time to effect a change," as he writes in his report.
In the interview, he says he really needed 150 engines, but had only 15 to 18, for the entire Mountain Shadows area when the fire started gobbling up homes. "We needed tons of stuff right now," he remembers, "and it wasn't going to happen."
He returned to 30th Street, where Riker had a map of Mountain Shadows. "I just drew with a black dry-erase marker, I said, 'Riker, we need to stop it here, here and here'" — the area north of Chuckwagon Road, the Parkside neighborhood on Majestic Drive, and a lower portion that included Lanagan.
He put himself in charge of the diciest branch, north of Chuckwagon, while Breece and District Chief Troy Branham took charge of the two southern areas, considered a separate branch.
Making their stand
Their only chance, Schanel figured, was to "box" the fire, by preventing flames from taking hold east of Centennial Boulevard, north of Vindicator Drive or south of 30th Street. "We take into consideration man-made or geographic features that allow us to hold it," he says. "Paved streets gave us our best firebreak in surface fuels and gave us accessibility."
Schanel positioned some of the 13 to 15 engines he had on Flying W Ranch Road and the others on Rossmere Street and Linger Way. "You take that small group and you say, 'Where can I anchor and make small victories?"
Down south, Breece and Branham had only five engines for the south branch to which they had been assigned.
"As a firefighter, you have a lot of ownership," says Breece, who's been with the department for 23 years. "You have that feeling that you know you can make a difference and you want to make a difference. The issue became we didn't have the resources to commit to that. There were too many structures [burning] at both ends [of Parkside], so we couldn't safely put anyone in there to stop that."
Then about 8 or 8:30 p.m., Schanel, Breece and Branham got lucky. The U.S. Forest Service released hot shot teams, and engines arrived in the firefight. "By policy they're not supposed to engage structures directly," Schanel says, since wildland firefighting and structure firefighting demand such different training and equipment. "I said, 'I know this isn't your environment, but can you help?' They said, 'Yeah, we're here to help.'"
Schanel directed the big engines to hook to hydrants, a risk when fire is actively spotting and could trap firefighters. He used the lighter-weight Forest Service trucks to protect the rear and ordered the small trucks and hand crews to squelch spot fires, cut burning decks from homes, and catch burning trees.
"If they had not been there, we wouldn't have held the fire. It would have been impossible," Schanel says. "There were too many spots going on, too many ignitions, too much leapfrogging over us. When they showed up it was like a godsend. We were losing the battle. We were trying as best could, but we were just limited in resources."
Breece says the Forest Service doubled his number of engines to 10 — all he had until Pueblo County Fire arrived at 11 p.m. with more. Finally, at the height of the firefight, 70 engines stationed throughout the subdivision pumped water at a rate ranging from 500 to 1,250 gallons per minute, Schanel says.
In the end, Parkside would lose 141 homes. Schanel's crew, though, would save all but 18 homes total on Rossmere and Linger. And two roads where Breece resolved to make a stand, Wilson Road and Champagne Drive, together lost just 14.
'How you learn'
During the firefight, Schanel says, communications faltered. Various agencies used incompatible radios and frequencies, he says; even Springs firefighters weren't able to reach a commander, fire reports show. Schanel blames part of the Springs problem on some 50 to 60 transmissions per minute flooding the radios.
In addition, mutual aid engines drove into the fire without checking in, and some Springs firefighters were confused about who, if anyone, was the commander.
"There were people who were without leadership initially," he says. "Not only did it race way past our capability, it raced way past our experience level to manage it.
"I'll be honest with you," Schanel says, "at one point, I really thought some firefighters were going to be badly injured. That's a scary premise. These people will do anything for us. I thought, 'We have to stop it, and if we don't stop it, there's nobody else left.'"
Looking back on it now, he hopes the situation triggers better preparation.
"I hope we can all come together in a room and work things out for the future," he says. "That's how you learn. From a systems picture, this was pretty new to everybody. Not to give people excuses, but when a community is insulted with something of such magnitude, we are more vulnerable than we thought. I think for the future we should pay attention to what Mother Nature is telling us and plan better."
For him, the scramble only let up when dawn broke over the smoldering heaps of 345 homes, and he thought to grab some water.
"I was running on adrenaline," he says. "I never remember being this tired in my life."