Stories from the fire: Personal accounts from the scene of the 18K-acre Dead Dog Fire | CraigDailyPress.com

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Stories from the fire: Personal accounts from the scene of the 18K-acre Dead Dog Fire

Troy Zufelt, Artesia Fire Chief

Artesia Fire Chief Troy Zufelt took this photo from his truck of smoke billowing behind his family’s home in the small community of Blue Mountain near Dinosaur Monday afternoon. Wind gusts up to 70 miles per hour were blowing the uncontrollable fire straight towards Blue Mountain, reaching within a quarter mile of several homes, when the winds shifted eastward, Zufelt said.

Artesia Fire Chief Troy Zufelt sat in his pickup truck at the Zufelt Ranch Tuesday afternoon, a high point overlooking the northwestern edge of the Dead Dog Fire, which was now calm.

The day before, the fire burned hot and fast with wind gusts up to 70 miles per hour driving it straight toward Zufelt's family home in the small community of Blue Mountain.

Smoke billowed thick and high right behind his home. But while his family was busy evacuating, he was across the street fighting hard to protect his neighbors' homes.

"It's pretty scary when you're seeing your own backyard fill with smoke while you're off protecting someone's else's," Zufelt said

The fire moved so fast that it was too dangerous for firefighters to even try to stop it as Blue Mountain residents evacuated. It was a sheer stroke of luck or divine intervention that the winds changed shortly after the fire ran into a raised section of land on top of which perched the railroad lines leading to Deserado Mine to the east.

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The berm bought residents just enough time for the winds to shift, Zufelt said, blowing the fire east towards Deserado instead of north towards a handful of rural residences.

Kevin Chandler, Copper Mountain firefighter

Copper Mountain Fire/Rescue firefighter Kevin Chandler, from Frisco, was one of hundreds of firefighters called to duty to help fight both the 17,731-acre Dead Dog Fire and the 1,000-acre Hunter Fire in Northwest Colorado this week. Firefighters set up tents on the Colorado Northwestern Community College campus in Rangely Tuesday, where the incident management team set up a command center.

Wildfires can blow up fast, and when they do, an entire network of local, regional and federal wildland fire crews are called in to try to tame the flames. From digging trenches, to cutting trees and shrubs, to dropping fire retardant and water from planes and helicopters, crews work day and night to contain the fire.

Copper Mountain Fire/Rescue firefighter Kevin Chandler, 20, is one of at least 125 of firefighters who responded to the Dead Dog Fire this week. After two long days of fighting back flames, he's all smiles back at the tent city that is popping up at the incident command center on Colorado Northwestern Community College's Rangely campus.

"I love it. It's fun," Chandler said, especially "today, we were right there cutting trees (along the fire's edge). We were right in it."

Crews often rise at 5:30 a.m. to get a jump on the fire before the winds kick up. On Monday, Chandler and his crew put in a 13-hour day when the fire was at its most intense and then pitched their tents out in the field.

"Yesterday, we were getting goggles on and getting sand burns on our faces, it was blowing so hard," he said.

Bryan Nielsen, Dinosaur resident

Dinosaur resident Bryan Nielsen reported that the town was still on an evacuation alert, and some fellow residents were nervous after witnessing two large fires in the area in two weeks: the Milemarker 166 Fire and the now nearly contained Dead Dog Fire.

Dinosaur residents were on edge earlier this week, as the Dead Dog Fire quickly blew out of control, threatening the nearby community of Blue Mountain.

It was the second wildfire in two weeks to char nearby landscapes. The Milemarker 166 fire left 2,000 acres of scorched earth just over the Utah border when it was contained May 31.

"These two fires we've had in the last two weeks are the closest we've ever had," said Dinosaur resident Bryan Nielsen, who's lived in the town of 300 people for about 11 years.

Residents remained on evacuation notice Monday and Tuesday, though the threat appeared less by late Tuesday unless winds changed.

"People got all panicky," said Nielsen's co-worker at Loaf 'N Jug Tuesday evening. " It's been crazy around here."

"A lot of people have just their essentials packed," Nielsen added. "My sister has a 72-hour kit for the cat."

The nearly 18,000-acre Dead Dog Fire was 95-percent contained as of Friday leaving no significant structure damage — except for more than 50 power poles — putting area residents' minds at ease for now.

"It's a busy start to the fire season," Nielsen said.

Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1795 and follow her on Twitter @LaurenBNews.