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Big Creek Forest Fire - Sunday July 30th

July 30th Sunrise
Red Sky in the Morning, Sailors take Warning...
Sunday July 30th, 2006 - 6:25 AM

Athin layer of white ash coated my deck and stuck to my shoes when I ventured outside to watch the sun rise over a smoke choked valley. To the south, where the fire started, the sky above the mountains was bright blue and clear. To the north a steady stream of smoke poured into Paradise Valley. The fire still appeared to be moving north and away from my home and business. I felt grateful and relieved. I started to cook my breakfast and boil tea water on the propane range. It seemed odd that the range still worked. There must be a way to turn off the propane at the tank in case of fire I thought to myself. Wouldn't the fire department automatically do that as a precaution? Later I heard that volunteer firemen visited everyone around 6 PM on Saturday night with orders to evacuate. Two 1,000 gallon propane tanks sat like small missiles pointed at the side of my house and were cause for concern. Last week, one tank held 700 gallons, while the other was empty.

Ridge Smoke
Early morning smoke pours into Paradise Valley
Emigrant Peak Smoke
6:27 AM A smoky haze obscures Emigrant Peak
Bambi and Mom
6:26 AM A frightened and confused Bambi with mom in my front yard
Light Smoke
6:28 AM Light smoke but no flames mark
the northern ridges just beyond my home
A word from our $ponsor, Ads by Google
Branford Bike Shop
I emptied the shelves of Branford Bike and carefully
placed the inventory in the basement bomb shelter

Like any other morning I ate my breakfast, showered, shaved and prepared myself for the day. Around 8:30 AM my best friend Bill called from Connecticut. We talked about the fire, national politics and the mid-east war. At 9:00, three hours after the sun rose, two helicopters started to noisily ferry water to the fire west of my home. Around 9:30 I noticed a small grass fire blossoming on the first ridge north of my property. I ended the conversation with Bill and called 911. I told them who I was, where I was and requested that they send a fire pumper truck up to put out the small grass fire. I calmly explained that if it spread down the ridge and crossed Sagittarius Skyway it would enter the Douglas fir and Aspen forest that bordered my home. If it spread further south down the ridge it could also burn a small but beautiful log cabin just 1/4 mile away. The 911 operator said that he would pass the information on to the proper authorities. His response was light, airy and non-committal. It left me with a sinking feeling in my stomach but strengthened the resolve in my spine.

 
Grass Fire
11:02 A small grass fire burns on the next ridge

Inever heard or saw the fire pumper truck but the helicopters did make a few water dumps on the nearby grassy ridge fire. The situation did not look good so I started to fill a backpack in preparation for hiking out. I also decided to fill the basement bomb shelter with Branford Bike inventory, paper work, computers and if time permitted, some of my personal possessions. The shelter was designed to withstand a nuclear blast so it should survive a mere forest fire I reasoned. I worked for two hours at a quick pace and made great progress. I checked the ridge fire at 11:02 and snapped the photo to your right. After a quick lunch I labored fiercely for another two hours.

 
Water Drop
11:40 AM A helicopter water drop subdues
the grass fire but is unable to put it out

Every 15 minutes I checked the progress of the nearby grassy ridge fire and looked for fire engines or fighters. I thought about calling 911 again but I still had merchandise to put in the bomb shelter. Around 1:15 the fire engine and fighters had still not arrived and the grass fire was crossing Sagittarius Skyway at the bottom of the grassy ridge. No helicopters on Sunday dropped water on my property so it was tinder dry and ready to burn. They went directly over my house and around my property several times that morning. I wondered if my property was blacklisted. Would someone in command make a deliberate decision to let the fire follow its natural course through my property? I knew that fire fighter safety was paramount and sometimes houses were allowed to burn rather than risk lives defending them. But those situations were rare I thought and one that could only be made at the scene of a fire. Blacklisting a property seemed to cross an ethical line. The purpose of a taxpayer funded public fire department was to fight all fires in their district. The classic argument against private fire departments was that they would only defend the property of paying clients.

It was time to leave. I hurriedly added a few personal treasures to the shelter; my bible, a few books, photos, gifts and letters from friends and family, some favorite clothes and my cowboy boots and hat. Then I went upstairs to the loft closet and pulled out a box of letters and photographs from friends and family. Many were decades old. I saved them for each brought back pleasant memories when reread. It was a box of small treasures. As I stepped towards the staircase I felt like someone grabbed me by the shoulders. The unseen person shook me firmly and said "Tim, you have to go, NOW". I dropped the box and its contents were scattered on the floor. I looked down in amazement but heeded those words. I ran downstairs, grabbed my waiting mountaineering pack, a cowboy hiking hat and my camera from the kitchen table.

Emptied Shelves
By noon most of the Branford Bike merchandise
was safely stowed in basement the bomb shelter
Empty Branford Bike
Branford Bike inventory, computers, records and some
personal possessions were added to the bomb shelter
 
Branford Bike Bomb Shelter
One of three, packed to the ceiling
rooms, in the basement bomb shelter

At 1:45 in the afternoon I walked out into the 100 degree plus heat with my 30 pound mountaineering pack and by force of habit, locked the door behind me. I was startled by a huge roar coming from behind the house and up the western ridge. It sounded like ten freight trains were rolling over the hill and into my back yard. I stepped off the deck and away from the house. All around me a huge, powerful and steady blast of furnace hot air was sucking pine needles, grass clippings, cedar mulch and small branches off the ground and drawing them into the fiery orange and gray clouds that towered at least 1,000 into the heavens. Later I learned that some debris would travel up to 30 miles before falling to the ground as charred twigs and needles. "I should have left 15 minutes earlier" I said to myself. For the first time that day I was scared but I refused to let panic seize control of me. The tops of the fir trees that gracefully lined my driveway 100 feet away were exploding like roman candles. The nearby grassy ridge fire moved into my side yard and was burning briskly. Flames were less than 50 feet from the Branford Bike warehouse and garage and quickly bearing down on it. Sagittarius Skyway and my driveway were ablaze and impassable. This is not a good situation I thought as I jogged to the front yard and hurriedly snapped a few parting shots. I allowed myself 10 seconds for one last look before I turned, ran into the smoky forest and followed my pre-planned escape route.

Unknown to me I had human company on that fateful afternoon. On the road above my house the Incident Commander and Emigrant Fire Chief was traveling alone in a pickup truck and watching the fire. As I fled the flames he took pictures with his personal digital camera. Later he told me that my house caught fire under the eaves and burned quickly. I got the impression that it was quite a show.

 
Last View of my home
1:48 PM My home has only a few minutes of life left in her
 
Neighbors Home
1:55 PM The fire storm rages above my neighbor's home
and engulfs the ravine I barely escaped from

Ichose to stay on my property and I accepted the risks I faced. I did not expect anyone to rescue me and fortunately I had no intentions of calling 911 again. So I put the cover on my camera lens and ran as fast as I could through my densely forested front yard and down a steep, half mile ravine towards my neighbor's backyard on Hercules road. I crashed through the thick forest and dense underbrush. A stiff, painfully hot and powerful wind surrounded me and then raced up the ridge behind me. Small branches that I snapped in my haste along with a steady flow of fir needles were greedily sucked into the fire storm at my back. I gasped for air; each breath was more difficult than the last in the hot, smoky air. My tongue was dry, heavy and felt swollen. Red hot embers and ash fell like snow from the sky. My cowboy hat kept my hair from burning while long pants, leather hiking shoes and a thick shirt protected my body. I thought of all that was good in my life, family, friends; people who loved me and needed me in their lives. I was deeply frightened but I refused to let panic grasp me. I slowed my pace a little, caught my breath and then jogged further down the hellish ravine.

 
Forest Fire surrounds Tim Brockett
1:57 PM The fire storm engulfs my home and
business and then attempts to surround me

At 1:53, just 5 minutes after I left Branford Bike I stumbled into my neighbor's back yard. I was parched from the intense heat and thankful to have survived the lightening quick journey down the treacherous, debris strewn ravine. The roar of the firestorm and the furnace hot winds were still intense. I looked to my right and was shocked. Another fire storm was ripping down the canyon 1/4 mile away and headed straight towards me. I knew that Hercules road, South Glastonbury's main road into the hills, was directly in front of me. I took comfort in that thought because I imagined that fire fighters and pumper trucks would be clogging the road. Relative safety was only a few hundred feet away I reasoned. I painfully resumed jogging in the blistering heat with my 30 pound pack which now felt like it weighed 300 pounds.

 
Hercules Road
1:56 PM Hercules road is eerily empty. The bright orange
flames above my neighbor's home and to the right
are consuming my home and business

My comforting thoughts vaporized when I ran into my neighbor's front yard. An inferno raged above me while another exploding fire storm was racing down the canyon towards me. Hercules road was a barren dusty track that might as well have been in the Iraqi desert. As I ran down the road I was painfully aware of the war zone I was in. Death pursued me from the ridge above and the canyon behind me. I stared death in the face, took its picture and hustled away down the eerily empty Hercules road. A hot and dusty half mile later I swung right on to Sagittarius Place. Another explosive fire storm was cresting the ridge to my right and coming down the canyon 1/4 mile ahead of me. Now death was staring at me. I ran on, betting that I could move faster than the fire.

Scared Chickens
2:11 PM In a few minutes these could be oven roasters
Empty Vehicles
2:12 PM Empty vehicles on Sagittarius Place
 
Spallone Home
2:18 PM A fire storm threatens Rich and Kay Spallone's
beautiful new home on Sagittarius Place

The "Dead End" sign recently posted on Sagittarius Place took on a new meaning as I fled past it in the searing heat. The deafening roar of the approaching fire storms surrounded me while the blast furnace wind pulled everything loose from the ground into the clouds. Hot swirls of dust and debris engulfed me as I tried to out run the deadly inferno. In what seemed like an eternity, but was only a few minutes, I saw buildings and a house at the end of the road. I passed a chicken coop and then sighted a frightened and whimpering pet dog who crawled under a deck for safety. Lovingly tended lawns, a four car garage and a small boat lined one edge of the long and empty driveway. A fierce fire licked at the nearby ridge while menacing orange and gray clouds exploded all around me.

Garage
2:14 PM A four car garage and boat are in the fire's path
Fire Storm
2:14 PM Another home between two grassy hills awaits its fate
 
Menancing Fire
2:42 PM The fire consumes grassland I
clambered over just 15 minutes ago

New flames shot over the ridge and started to descend the canyon towards me as I reached the end of Sagittarius Place. Just like the scene of the grassy ridge fire that set my yard ablaze there were no trucks or firemen here to subdue the hungry inferno. It roared on, completely unchecked. The few helicopters and tanker planes above were still dropping their loads to the west and north of me.

The home threatened by the flames was lovely. I felt anger and sorrow that so much time and work by its owners would soon be consumed by the raging wild fire. Brushing away a tear I clicked off a few more photos. I made a promise to share them with the owners if I survived to tell my story. At least they would have pictures of what used to be their slice of heaven on earth.

Anarrow, twisting and steep ravine awaited me at the end of Sagittarius Place. I scrambled down the scree covered slopes trying desperately to stay upright. I picked myself up from one fall and saw blood dripping from my wrist. A 1 1/2 inch gash crossed the artery in my right wrist but did not puncture it. I was grateful that my blood oozed from the wound but did not spurt. I wiped it on my pants leg and quickly moved on. With every step forward I slid two to three feet down the ravine on the loose, jagged and too hot to touch, piles of rocks. Finally I reached the bottom and started to catch my breath while hiking through the dense underbrush. As I turned the bend and looked to the end of the narrow and steep walled canyon a familiar sight appeared; a rising plume of smoke. The fire was doing its best to break my will and mock my efforts to survive. I was beyond tired; I was exhausted from the intense heat, parched from the ferocious blow torch winds and my flesh was torn and bleeding. I rested for a moment and then slowly placed one foot in front of the other while climbing the steep south canyon wall. I refused to look up least despair overwhelm me. Steadily I climbed in the intense heat and wind. Eventually I clambered over the last searing rocks and stood on the ridge top. Much to my relief, the lower section of Hercules road was only 150 feet away.

 
Wisps of smoke
2:46 PM Wisps of smoke rise from a fire consumed landscape

Alunar landscape, charred, blackened and dotted with wisps of smoke stretched from Hercules road south and west to the horizon. The fire consumed almost everything in its path as it raged through here on its way to my place on Sagittarius Skyway. When given permission and the resources to fight the inferno, the fire fighters performed well. Many homes and buildings to my south and west were intact even though the grassland and forest surrounding them was devastated. To my west and north were many more homes and buildings. Their fate seemed to remain in God's hands because from what I saw, pumper trucks and ground fire fighters had yet to reach them today.

 
Escape from hell
3:05 Escape from hell. The massive fire storm
seen from Route 89 and Dry Creek road

Ihiked down lower Hercules road and turned left onto Libra Drive. Now I was headed back towards the fire so I could get my Jeep and complete my escape from hell. I no longer had the energy to run so I settled into a fast walk. A firestorm raged hill tops just 1/4 of a mile away. The swirling winds and intense heat barely fazed me. What did startle me was the sound of vehicles on the road behind me. I swung around and watched in disbelief as three pumper trucks and a convoy of water tankers roared up Hercules road and headed towards the burnt over area I just escaped from. My house burned over an hour ago I thought. Maybe there are still a few houses left that they can save. "Better late than never" I said to myself as I turned and continued hiking down Libra Drive. I reached my Jeep in about 10 minutes. It was fine but the advancing fire was only a few hundred feet away. I climbed in, said a prayer of thanks to God and completed my escape from hell on earth.

At 3:02 in the afternoon my escape from the clutches of death was official and complete as I dictated my name and address to a deputy at the Dry Creek road and Route 89 checkpoint. I was exhausted and numb from the shock of my journey through hell. I wreaked of smoke and dried blood was caked on my wrist, arms and legs. A sense of exhilaration slowly crept into me. Fresh sweat cooled my exposed skin while my lungs gulped in the relatively fresh, clean mountain air. I was alive and deeply happy. My heart sang and my cracked, dry lips smiled. Today I stood eyeball to eyeball with death several times. I took its photograph and slipped from its claws with each encounter. Death relentlessly pursued me over burning hills, through flame choked canyons and down scorched and lonely roads. Today I won the battle. Tomorrow I would discover, how much of what I left behind, survived.

 
Fire Map
Contour map of South Glastonbury
Courtesy of Newwest.net

The contour map shows the houses in South Glastonbury. The red line shows an intermediate fire line. By mid-Sunday afternoon the fire spread from my home to were I parked my Jeep on Libra Drive. The path I traversed on Saturday evening, which ends at my home and Branford Bike on Sagittarius Skyway, is drawn in yellow. The path I followed away from my home on Sunday, through the fire and to Libra Drive, is shown in orange.
Due north is straight up. Note that the fire came from the west and moved east. Storey Lake can be seen to the east and slightly north of Golmeyer creek. It was a filling spot for the water dumping helicopters. Unfortunately most of the Glastonbury roads are not depicted on this map.

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