ELEPHANT BUTTE FIRE: First responders run the gamut of emotions while fighting a fire so close to home

By Deb Hurley Brobst
Posted 7/28/20

July 13 began as a typical work day for Craig Rothluebber — until the pager he uses in his role as a volunteer firefighter with Evergreen Fire/Rescue signaled a possible wildfire.

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ELEPHANT BUTTE FIRE: First responders run the gamut of emotions while fighting a fire so close to home

Posted

July 13 began as a typical work day for Craig Rothluebber — until the pager he uses in his role as a volunteer firefighter with Evergreen Fire/Rescue signaled a possible wildfire.

Rothluebber let his boss know he planned to check it out. As soon as he left his house, he saw the smoke.

“Immediately your heart rate jumps up a little bit,” he said. “(You think) maybe this is actually the one we’ve been preparing for. At that point your mind just kind of changes. … Now you have to think about what you’re doing, where you’re going and what you’re going to do when you get there.”

The 50-acre Elephant Butte Fire was the first Rothluebber and fellow volunteers Michael Amdur and Clarissa Boggs-Blake have experienced in Evergreen. Rothluebber and Amdur joined Evergreen Fire/Rescue in 2016, while Boggs-Blake is a new recruit.

When fighting a wildfire, emotions run the gamut. Excitement, nervousness, fear — it’s all a possibility.

“I was never really scared, but you’re very aware of the dangers that are around you,” Rothluebber said. “It’s a calming effect for me when we hike up. We know we’re there to do good and to stop this fire.”

For three days, Boggs-Blake worked to protect homes near the fire, while Rothluebber was in one of the first crews to hike up and begin digging the fire line.

“We call it high speed gardening,” Amdur said. “You’re clearing brush and you’re removing fuel. That way when the fire gets up to that point, it has nothing to burn and it can’t continue to spread.”

Amdur, on the other hand, served as a lookout, positioning far from the fire line and hiking the challenging terrain to a spot with a good view point. Among other things, the lookout determines the fire’s direction and whether crews are working the right spots. Amdur also helped decide that air support and evacuations would be necessary.

It’s easy to imagine firefighters moving at high speeds, but it’s much more about precision and thoughtfulness.

“What we’re really doing is staying cool, calm and collected. There’s a lot of communication that’s going on between people,” Amdur said.

And while you go in with a plan, those plans can quickly change. Fire behavior is unpredictable. Ultimately, this is exactly why firefighters train.

“We train all the time,” Amdur said. “And that training really pays off … because we see everything just fall into place. Everyone knows what they need to do.”

Every wildfire comes with its own challenges, but fighting a fire threatening one’s own backyard is unlike any other experience.

“This one was just a little bit different being that close to home,” Rothluebber said.

“When there’s a fire that’s in your own community, there’s an added emotional toll for you,” Amdur agreed.

That’s certainly true for Boggs-Blake, whose home is within the evacuation zone. Boggs-Blake said she has great neighbors who helped evacuate her large animals while she worked the fire.

At the end of the day, the fire was a learning experience that resulted in no deaths, injuries or homes lost.

“If you’re going to have a fire, that’s a good one to have,” Boggs-Blake said. 

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