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Working on the line at wildland fires

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By Sandy Barnes

Firefighter Terri McLaughlin is one of several women in the Evergreen Volunteer Fire Department who respond to calls, including those for wildland fires.

 

A couple of weeks ago, McLaughlin and Evergreen firefighters Jeff Ashford, Byrne McKenna and Bill Atkins joined multiple mutual-aid crews working to contain the massive Black Forest Fire in Colorado Springs.

“On the first day, we had live fire on top of us,” McLaughlin said. “We went to homes and worked on what could be saved.”

She and other firefighters began digging fire lines and tossing firewood, lawn furniture and other flammable items away from the houses, including propane tanks.

“You grab it and get out of there,” she said.

“Day two: that was the day we jumped across a street and saved a house,” she said. “We were actually able to save a house.”

On days three through five, McLaughlin said, she and the crew were driving around the area looking for hot spots to extinguish.

McLaughlin said she also helped protect a school with a prescribed burn around it.

“You want to take out what’s going to burn. You kill its fuel,” she explained.

She and other firefighters also continued digging fire lines to help contain the blaze around them.

“It’s grueling physical work,” she said. “You do have to be in good shape.”

Having live fire all around you also is challenging, McLaughlin said.

“Truthfully, she is not predictable,” she said about wildfire. “I told my husband that fire is bipolar.”

During the week she spent at the scene of the fire that destroyed 500 homes and burned 16,000 acres, McLaughlin said she and the Evergreen crew worked more than 15 hours a day.

“We worked a total of 86.5 hours,” she said.

When a day of firefighting ended, McLaughlin said, she rested in the tent and sleeping bag she brought with her. She and others also stayed part of the time at a high school where there was access to showers and restrooms.

While McLaughlin was gratified that some houses could be saved, seeing the extensive losses was saddening.

“It’s devastating to see a house go down,” she said. “You look around and see beautiful landscaping.”

McLaughlin said she has first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to lose a house to fire, because her sister in Fort Collins lost her home last year in the High Park Fire.

“It is your entire life that is gone,” she said.

However, even in the wake of tremendous losses, McLaughlin said that residents express their gratitude for the firefighters.

“The community gave us an outpouring of appreciation,” in Colorado Springs, she said.