Active, retired firefighters partner to contain Sand Fire |

Active, retired firefighters partner to contain Sand Fire

Joe Moylan

Fire officials at multiple levels have been bracing for busy times since wildfire season got off to an early start in April on the Front Range.

Although there have been 56 reported wildfires in the Northwest Colorado Fire Management Unit this year, according to the Craig Interagency Dispatch Center website, few incidents have touched Craig and Moffat County residents.

That changed at approximately 5:30 p.m. Tuesday when a fire, likely ignited by a discarded cigarette, torched off U.S. Highway 40 near milepost 79, about 10 miles west of Craig.

The Sand Fire burned an estimated 2,000 acres, threatening residents, homes, and livestock in the process.

Multiple agencies responded to fight the fire, including Craig Fire/Rescue, the Bureau of Land Management, Moffat County Sheriff’s Office, Craig Police Department, The Memorial Hospital in Craig’s EMS, Colorado State Patrol and the U.S. Forest Service.

The Sand Fire was controlled and contained at around 9 p.m. Tuesday, and declared officially out at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday.

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"It was an amazing team effort across all agencies," Craig Fire/Rescue Chief Bill Johnston said. "They all kicked some serious (butt)." Johnston committed 25 of his 28 available volunteer firefighters to the scene.

Upon arrival, the reported 2-acre fire had grown significantly in size and strong winds were pushing the fire east toward Craig rapidly, Johnston said.

Firefighters established a perimeter and began extinguishing flames beginning at the heel of the fire.

Unbeknownst to fire officials, Moffat County staffers and local residents were utilizing motor graders and a bulldozer to construct a firebreak around homes at the head of the fire near Moffat County Road 212.

Though fire officials do not encourage the idea of residents assisting with firefighting operations, particularly without notifying the incident commander, Johnston admits firebreak work performed by residents likely saved homes in the vicinity of Country Road 212.

Officials also credited local businesses BHI and Herod Industries, Inc. for assisting firefighting efforts by hauling water to the scene.

It briefly appeared as if the Sand Fire was going to lay down at County Road 212 about two miles east of its origin.

But when the wind shifted slightly to the northeast, the Sand Fire was once again raging and on course to collide with homes in the West View and Western Knolls subdivisions.

It is a little known fact among the general public that wildfires are generally battled from the heel and along the perimeter rather than at the head, Johnston said. But that strategy changes when lives and homes are in danger.

When the winds shifted and the Sand Fire appeared to be heading toward homes in West View and Western Knolls, Johnston ordered Engine 2 to locate the head of the fire and slow its progress.

Battalion Chief Dennis Jones commanded Engine 2 and the three firefighters assigned to his detail.

"It was very intense there for about two hours," Jones said. "In 23 years of fighting fires I would rank this in my top five in regards to wildfires as far as the amount of heat, smoke and the strong winds that made it difficult to battle our way to the head."

Johnston estimated Engine 2 had about 10 minutes to locate the head of the fire before he would evacuate residents of Western Knolls.

"There was a lot of talking going on in that 10 minutes because we were coming up to the head, but we didn't know it because the smoke was so bad," said Craig Fire/Rescue Lt. Matt Beckett, who serves on Engine 2. "We crested what we thought was just another hill to get a view of how much farther the head was when we saw the fingering and where the fire was beginning to slow down."

Beckett said a number of circumstances assisted in his crew's ability to reach the head of the fire in such a short window of time.

"Without people constructing firebreaks and the (BLM) helicopter's assistance in wetting fuels the fire would have likely reached Western Knolls," Beckett said. "There was a sense of relief when we realized we were at the head and could get it contained before it spread to Western Knolls … a lot of relief.

"And it was a team effort. It's not like we just raced to the head and put it out."

Having committed 25 of his 28 available volunteer firefighters to the Sand Fire meant Johnston left Tyler McWilliams, Justin Fedinec and probationary firefighter Robert Floyd behind to respond to any additional calls.

But they were soon joined by retired firefighters Chris Nichols and Doug Slaight, and Craig Rural Fire Protection District Board member Tony Maneotis.

Byron Willems, fire board president, said it's not uncommon to see old faces "hold down the fort during a major fire event."

And it’s not surprising Nichols and Slaight were among those who offered their assistance, Willems said.

As 20-plus year veterans of the fire department, they were allowed to keep their bunker gear after retirement.

"The nice thing about that particular group of guys is Chris Nichols is a past chief, so your command structure is in place; Doug Slaight operated pumps for 20 years, so he's your pump operator; and the two firefighters and the rookie would end up doing the firefighting,” Willems said. "We could have responded to an extraction, a structure fire or a medical with those guys, so we were covered. Thank God we have retired guys in town that are willing to do that."

Doug Slaight, 58, served the department for 20 years in a number of different capacities.

This was the first time Slaight was on stand-by since his retirement in 2005.

It was a sense of duty that doesn't extinguish with retirement that drove Slaight to pitch in, he said.

"I decided to swing by the fire department to tell them I was available to help," Slaight said. "Chris Nichols was already there and we made the decision to grab our bunker gear. There were just two other firefighters and a rookie at the station, so we knew if another call came in we'd be helping."

With things under control at the station, Willems decided to drive out to the scene to fill air tanks and distribute drinking water to those battling the blaze.

It's a routine Willems repeats whenever he hears multiple sirens responding to a call.

"It's a tough job to give up, but it's also good to be visible to the new guys," Willems said. "I served with a lot of the older guys, so they already know me well, but it sets a good example for the younger guys to see the board president help in anyway he can."

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“I decided to swing by the fire department to tell them I was available to help. Chris Nichols was already there and we made the decision to grab our bunker gear. There were just two other firefighters and a rookie at the station, so we knew if another call came in we’d be helping.”

— Doug Slaight, retired 20-year veteran of Craig Fire/Rescue