A Survey of Boulder County, Colorado—One of the Nation’s Most Rugged Areas—Where the Sheriff Handles Rural Fire Calls
BY a statute passed in 1903, the State of Colorado officially placed Sheriffs in the position of fire wardens for their respective counties. It was a fairly unique move, considering the usual establishments for rural fire fighting throughout the nation; and since the statute is merely a statement of responsibility, it has led to equally unique solutions in each of Colorado’s 63 counties.
Up in Boulder county which ranks seventh in the state for population, the solution is geared to a friendly, highly effective form of co-operation among Sheriff’s deputies, ranchers and the professional firemen retained by the county’s two major cities.
The city fire department in the county seat (also named “Boulder”) not only mans, maintains and garages the county apparatus, but uses it when city emergencies demand. A similar arrangement exists in Longmont, the second major city in the county. On technical aspects of fire protection equipment and methods, Chief Emil Johnson of Boulder invariably acts as unofficial adviser to Sheriff Arthur Everson. Johnson, for example, was the one to draw up the initial specifications for the present county equipment.
In order to understand the problems and accomplishments of fire control in Boulder county, you must first understand the terrain—the most important single factor governing rural fire prevention planning.
Only slightly smaller than all Rhode Island, Boulder county is divided equally by the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The foothill line extends almost exactly north and south, a rocky bulwark with peaks up to 8,000 feet. The land east of this abrupt dividing line is rolling prairie; everything west, mountainous. The western border of the county stretches some thirty miles along the 14,000-foot glacier-cradling peaks of the Continental Divide.
Most of this mountain area is wild, unsettled and often heavily wooded. The trees themselves vary with the altitude. Four well-defined belts can be found: The first, and lowest, belt is composed mainly of jack-pine, pinion and cottonwood; next, lodgepole pine and aspen; fir trees and Engleman Spruce occupy the third and fourth elevations. Beyond the Engleman Spruce belt are the barren meadows above timberline. Fifty per cent of all mountain fires occur in the lodgepole pine region. This is also the region which supports fire best of all. The ground is invariably covered with fallen timber and decomposing vegetation which permits a fire to undermine clear to the mineral soil. Once a fire begins smouldering in this “duff,” only arduous physical effort can conquer it. Every foot of the ground must be shovelled, spread out and doused.
Courtesy Boulder Camera
Courtesy Boulder Canera
Farms take up the eastern half of the county, a region laced with arroyos which are usually hidden from sight until you are right on top of them.
Water runs onto the plains in five major creeks (you don’t call them “streams”) which are all fed by mountain glaciers. From the north, these are the St. Vrain, Left Hand, Boulder, South Boulder and Coal Creeks. Each of these is tapped for irrigation purposes and this network of creeks, ditches and stock reservoirs forms the only water supply available to combat rural fires. In the Spring of the year the creeks are wide, deep and swift-running, but the water level drops during the other seasons until—in Fall and Winter—it merely trickles down the creeks in a narrow central channel, and disappears entirely from the irrigation ditches.
Even the stock reservoirs dwindle as the year grows longer until they become mere pools in the center of vast mud-caked bowls.
Number One Problem: Water
Once tagged “The Great American Desert,” this entire plains area is, by nature, arid. The lack or the probable lack of water is the greatest threat in combatting rural fires. On several occasions Sheriff Everson and his men have seen property destroyed completely because the county apparatus had to go too far and take too long to replenish its tank.
Courtesy Boulder Camera
A recent blaze in a farm dwelling some ten miles from the county seat is a case in point. The 500 gallons carried by the tank brought the flames well under control; another 200 gallons or so would have finished the job. There was a well on the property, but it had a weak rate of flow. By the time the apparatus could reach the nearest creek, refill and make it back to the scene, the fire had broken out once more with all its original intensity. The deputies started from the very beginning to bring the flames back under control . . . and again the water was exhausted at a critical point. This see-sawing went on three times. By then the ranch house was a total loss.
This factor of water supply, coupled with the nature of the terrain and the frequent occurrence of fast-travelling grass fires, has dictated the selection of pumps for the twin fire trucks operated by the county. Sheriff Everson and Chief Johnson are agreed on the 500 gallon per minute front end pump. For one thing, this allows the apparatus to nose hubdeep into a creek or stock pond while keeping its rear wheels on hard ground. Knowing the terrain, Everson feels that the suction hose off a side pump might never reach deep water; or, if it did, the truck might readily become bogged down in the muddy floor of the characteristically shallow lakes.
But the greatest advantage of the front end pump becomes evident in tackling the all-too-common grass fires that beset the region. By the time the apparatus reaches fires of this type, the deputies are usually faced with a blaze whose “front” can be measured in terms of miles.
It would be dangerous and futile to attempt to fight such an extended conflagration from a truck that would become immobilized every time the pump was thrned on. As it is, the driver can cruise along the fire line while a deputy sweeps the blazing grass with semi-fog from the 1-inch booster hose mounted on a reel behind the cab.
Since we have mentioned scattered details, perhaps we should connect them up with a closer examination of the water pumping system used on Boulder’s rural trucks.
The pump is topped with an automatic governor set to maintain a pressure of from 100-120 pounds. It is able to draft and discharge at the same time, or to discharge while the truck is in motion. In addition to 150 feet of 1-inch booster hose operating off the reel, there is a 2 1/2-inch and a 1 1/2-inch take-off. The 2 1/2-inch is employed only when the pump is drafting from a creek or reservoir
If the situation warants, a Siamese coupling may be attached to the 2 1/2-inch take-off to feed an additional pair of 1 1/2-inch lines. Six hundred feet of 1 1/2inch hose and five hundred of 2 1/2-inch are carried.
While the booster line is capped with a three-position nozzle for straight stream, spray or fog, the truck carries only straight shut-off nozzles for the other hoses.
Distance Also a Major Factor
In a county of some 800 square miles, its very size becomes a definite fire hazard. When a fire is being blown by a stiff prairie wind, every mile and every minute spent reaching it multiplies the job to be done.
Similarly, mountain fires that may be only half a dozen miles away may require an extraordinary drive of twelve or fourteen miles before the apparatus can be driven to the scene. In many instances, the devious mountain roads run six to eight miles in order to span two points separated by a single mile of rimrock or canyon.
However, the sparse settlement of the mountain area confines the Boulder Sheriff’s fire-fighting activities fairly well to the plains portion of the county.
Identical pieces of apparatus are garaged in each of the county’s two major cities: Longmont and Boulder. The cities themselves are about twenty road miles apart and centrally located as regards the county as a whole. Many fire calls will be within a ten-mile radius of one or the other of the trucks, but some populated regions are 18 or 20 miles from the fire houses.
Certain features Everson has planned or already built into the trucks help overcome this serious problem of distance. Special two-speed rear axles have been installed to give eight forward shifts. The trucks have already topped 75 m.p.h. and will probably do even better.
When the tank is loaded to capacity, each truck has a gross weight of 12,000 pounds. One feature to be introduced as soon as practicable is an adequate, quick-acting method of dumping the tank. There is invariably a plentiful supply of natural water throughout the mountain region . . . if not on the plains . . . and there is no more need for hauling five hundred gallons of water into the high country than there is for carrying the proverbial coals to Newcastle.
Early this year a fire was reported at Rollinsville, a mountain settlement over twenty miles from Boulder. Knowing that a creek ran within fifty yards of the burning building, a deputy opened the drain valve on the tank as the apparatus roared away from the city fire station. When the truck reached Rollinsville some 45 minutes later, the tank still contained many gallons of water whose weight had helped extend the time needed to reach the fire.
But naturally, the factor of distance can never be entirely overcome. Regardless of modern equipment, two-speed axels and . . . later . . . the quick-acting dump, there is no way of shortening the five, ten or twenty-mile runs to the scene of a blaze.
So Sheriff Everson has been concentrating on prompt reporting of fires and accurate place-identification in order to economize on time. Here much has been done, but there is still room for improvement.
The apparatus, as we have said, is garaged by the city fire department. In order to save seconds, farmers and ranchers have been urged recently to direct all fire calls there rather than to the Sheriff’s office.
As a matter ,of co-operation, a city fireman generally acts as driver of the county equipment. The moment a report comes into the fire house, he gets the apparatus rolling. Meanwhile, the fireman who received the call telephones the Sheriff’s office and relays the information. Everson or a deputy immediately starts after the truck by car . . . no gentle ride when you’re trailing a vehicle that can hit 75 m.p.h.
Fires are located by a seeming haphazard system which has operated with remarkable efficiency. Commonly recognized landmarks are used for orientation:
“A quarter mile north of the old Roberts place.”
“On the St. Vrain, two miles east of the foothills road.”
Only once has the system gone haywire. On that occasion, “the Johnson place” was on fire. Like every other county, Boulder just had too many Johnsons and the truck picked the wrong one.
All cars with the Sheriff’s office are equipped with two-way radio, but the fire truck has none. Once out on the open road, the car picks up visual contact with the truck and then precedes it to the scene of the blaze. If subsequent information from the fire area results in a change of destination or routing, this is immediately put on the air. If, on the other hand, the deputy should reach the destination without finding a fire, he can radio back to Boulder for further instructions.
It is interesting to note in this connection that the department has never been called on a false alarm. There have been times when local ranchers succeeded in extinguishing a blaze before the apparatus arrived, but there has always been a fire when one was reported.
The deputy in the automobile is expected to reach the fire a few minutes ahead of the apparatus. He makes a quick estimate of the blaze, the threat to surrounding buildings, he locates the
water supply and passes on the necessary instructions when the truck arrives.
Whether on the plains or in the mountains, Boulder county officials have learned there is a distinct difference between seeing a fire and reaching the scene. Sometimes a strong wind will dissipate the smoke from a mountain fire so that it cannot be seen at all. The moment the wind pauses, a plume of smoke shoots up and reports come in from all directions. By the time the apparatus sets out. the wind may resume blowing—and the fire apparently disappears. There have been times when the department has spent two and three days tracking down one of these “sleepers.” If the situation seems critical, the local commercial air field readily volunteers its personnel and planes to help out in the search.
But generally there is unlimited visibility throughout the region. Burning wood, tar, brush or oil will throw up a smoke plume that can be easily spotted in a radius of eight or ten miles. Yet even when the apparatus is within a mile or so of the hot core of that plume, unexpected geographical quirks may completely and finally prevent a direct approach. A precipitous canyon, arroyo or dry wash may be the blockade that will force a detour up to five or six miles.
Here is one of the strongest reasons for appointing the Sheriff to the county fire-fighting position. Each man in that office spends the major part of the week travelling the length and breadth of the county. Each is acquainted with the immediate condition of roads and trails, and knows the lay of the land as intimately as the palm of his hand. He knows the conditions of all the creeks; the kind and number of fences that might have to be cut to let the apparatus through; the approximate amount of hose that will have to be laid between water source and building.
Nevertheless, there are places where the high plains can be deceptive to anyone not an actual resident. In order to circumvent any unexpected obstacle, ranchers are instructed to post guides around the fire area . . . local men who know where the blaze is and the best way to reach it from the highways.
Sheriff’s officers also know the people in the various localities around the county; both those that are reliable and those who will only add to the confusion. Their authority is recognized and the ranchers will quickly accept whatever orders and delegations of responsibility they choose to make upon arrival.
In the case of a building fire, the deputy and fireman driver assigned to the call handle the hose at the very start. This usually allows them to quench the worst of the blaze or to direct action toward preventing the spread of the fire to nearby buildings as the occasion dictates. Furthermore, this practice gives the inevitable crowd a few moments to quiet their vigorous, but often ineffective, efforts. As soon as some degree of composure has returned to the group . . . when they have become spectators instead of participants . . . the deputy selects someone to relieve him. He assigns others to get pikes, chemicals or whatever is needed from the truck. From then on, the deputy keeps roving and directing the work of the volunteers. He does not again take the hose unless it must be moved Finto a hazardous position. No volunteer is allowed to take any personal risks at fires.
Aid from Ranchers
Ranchers throughout the county are trained by the Sheriff and the city fire Chiefs in the use of all available equipment. The training period is seldom long, but it is a continuing effort that, more likely than not, becomes very technical.
A professional fireman could feel right at home at Grange meetings where a training talk is being given. The question and answer period inevitably brings out technical details of pressure, discharge rates, comparisons of fulland semi-fog, means of approach to different types of fires and the thousand other details about which he himself would be curious.
Each rancher is keenly aware of the hazard from such natural causes as wind and lightning, the ever-present threat of accidental fires and the obvious delays necessitated by the relative size and impassability of the terrain in which he lives. He is inquisitive about every detail of the apparatus for he realizes that his home and livelihood may someday depend on that knowledge.
By reaching the ranchers at their Grange meetings, the Sheriff has an opportunity to pass along current information on handling emergencies. It was at Grange meetings that Everson changed the system of reporting fires so that all calls now go direct to the fire station. Reminders are given to place guides out on the highway as soon as the report is phoned in. Ranchers are urged to take a critical view of their water supply and, if the flow is too distant or too slight, to do something about it so the supply will be closer to their houses, barns and stables.
These lectures at the Grange halls are often supplemented by demonstrations; when they are, the ranchers themselves are given the “feel” of the equipment. While Chiefs Johnson and Greeno and Sheriff Everson point out different handling techniques, the ranchers do the actual work. This familiarization is felt to be the most important part of the demonstration—far better than simply showing what can be done.
Whenever a particular fire presents or solves a specific question, word is quickly passed through the county. For example, last summer at a buffalo grass fire, Deputy D. M. Teegarden killed an entire half-mile front of the blaze with a single five gallon knapsack pump. He fought from the burned area and used modified fog to smother the fire rather than drench it. In an arid, sprawling land where every gallon of water is precious, information like this for making the maximum use of available water is of utmost value.
Courtesy Boulder Camera
Nowadays, although the direction and intensity of the wind may yet be the deciding factor, ungrazed grasslands are usually fought from the burned side. Blazing wheat stubble or sparse grass, on the other hand, is more often worked from the unburned side.
The U. S. Forest Service has also confirmed this method of fighting a grass fire by smothering it. Using modified fog, the fireman can raise the humidity to a point where combustion is impossible. This is a far cry from the technique of drowming the area . . . and a far more economical one.
But there are always new problems to replace those for which solutions have been found. One of the current questions around the Boulder Sheriff’s office concerns the use of wetting agent.
In the past the laymen have found that hayand straw-stack fires are the hardest to extinguish. Even when an unlimited supply of water is available, the fire doggedly burrows deep into the stack where it becomes absolutely impervious to ordinary water unless the stack is virtually demolished.
All such fires have been put out only after deputies and rural volunteers pulled the entire stack apart. Almost every forkfull of the hay gets soured in the process and becomes unfit for livestock. So every hay-stack fire has meant a complete loss for the rancher.
However, a short time ago the office purchased a quantity of wetting agent. Since the shipment arrived, there has been no fire on which to test it. Everson hopes that the chemical, when mixed into the tank, will permit water to penetrate deep into the stack and kill the smouldering fire. The manufacturer guaranteed that much.
But what Everson does not know— and it’s a mighty big “but”—is whether cattle will eat the hay once the chemical has permeated it. So far he has not found anyone with first-hand experience to answer that question.
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Another problem that looms large in the over-all fire-fighting picture concerns the railroad hazard. The majority of grass fires seem to have their origins along the several right-of-ways that pierce Boulder county.
In early western history, many devastating prairie fires were directly attributable to sparks from railroad locomotives and the threat still exists. The present day fires also begin with sparks thrown out from locomotive smoke stacks. Such fires occur with distressing frequency, particularly along up-grades throughout the county, and result in charred monuments to careless railroad operation.
Ranchers Underwrite All Equipment
Since the Sheriff’s position as fire warden is only an official statement of responsibility in Colorado, there are no state or county funds available except under special conditions. The Sheriff’s energy and personality are his major assets. And the fact that an effective fire-fighting program has been built and implemented in Boulder county is testimony to Everson’s personal effectiveness. A different man in the job, under the same indefinite law, could limit himself to simply “reporting” and recording fire losses and remain “officially beyond reproach.”
In order to build the sort of protection needed so badly throughout the county, Everson went directly to the ranchers and explained his position.
As Sheriff he was responsible for the protection of their crops, livestock, property and safety against human enemies. If they wished the same sort of protection against the threat of fire, the state’s peculiar statute would authorize him and his officers to act. But the ranchers themselves would have to provide the “tools.”
The idea took root. There were no pressure tactics. Farm taxes would not be raised, and there was every indication insurance premiums would be drastically lowered. No assessments would be made. If the equipment could be obtained, every rancher in the area would receive the protection it offered regardless of their own contribution toward its purchase.
This was the sort of approach that appealed to the Colorado ranchers, and they contributed generously.
Since the first rural fire truck began operating twelve years ago additional money has appeared irregularly but often. If a rancher has a good season, it is not unusual for him to stop in the Sheriff’s office during a trip to town and deposit five, ten or fifty dollars in the fire kitty without solicitation.
More often than not, the contributions are a complete surprise to Everson and his deputies. In addition to swelling the fund for future equipment, such contributions renew the lawmen’s conviction that they are doing an unusual job in this fire-fighting business . . . and a good one.