Nearby residents recall the day the Church Park Fire erupted |

Nearby residents recall the day the Church Park Fire erupted

Reid Armstrong
Sky-Hi News
Grand County, CO Colorado
Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News
Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News | Sky-Hi News

FRASER – For more than a decade, ski coach and Highland Lumber employee Parker Thomson has lived in Sky View Acres off County Road 50.

He spent the last five years, as the nation’s worst beetle kill epidemic encroached, clearing and thinning dead trees from his 3-acre property. All told, he’s cleared more than 600 trees.

But on the afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 3, the one thing going through his mind was, “Why didn’t I fix that chain saw.” The saw had broken down last year, and Parker took a break from all the clearing this summer.

As he was driving home from the Winter Park Athletic Club at about 1 p.m. on the afternoon that the Church Park fire broke out, he started wondering, “Why are all these people driving so slow?”

Parker looked to the left and got his first look at the Church Park Fire, which would eventually burn nearly 500 acres on the mountainside less than 2 miles from his house.

“From that angle the plume of smoke made it look like an atomic Bomb had gone off,” Parker said. “I got a little closer and then I could actually see flames, and my butt puckered up.”

The fire, which had grown to several hundred acres by then, was on the flanks of Sheep Mountain.

“From my house,” Parker said, “Sheep Mountain is right in your face.”

That’s when Parker started kicking himself for not fixing his chain saw. He started thinking about the few trees he’d left for shade right next to his house and wishing he’d taken those down.

Although Parker and his wife Jeanette had worked to thin the trees on their property, they really didn’t have a plan in place when the reverse 9-1-1 call that came in around 2 p.m. telling them to prepare to evacuate.

“I started wondering how fast could I pack and thinking, ‘Am I forgetting anything,'” he said. He packed some basic sets of clothing, a few personal items and, most importantly, his skis and boots.

“It might take me a while to replace those, and it’s kind of hard to coach in rental gear.”

Parker said friends started calling from elsewhere in town checking on his family and offering them a place to go if necessary.

Nonstop air show

They hung around, waiting for a second call telling them to evacuate and watching the slurry bombers fly overhead.

“Each plane was a little different and every 25 minutes or so the same plane would come back. I don’t know where they were refilling, but for two days it was just nonstop.”

Parker said he had no problem sleeping that night, although his wife woke up about four times to check the dull red glow.

“Once we were over the initial shock, I realized we had done everything we could,” he said. “The cat kennel was at edge of garage – I was really looking forward to driving around with meowing live cats who hate cars.”

Now that the evacuation order has been lifted, Parker said that his first order of business is “to get that chainsaw fixed. … I’m not taking another year off. I’m going to thin out more trees. I was worried about blow down. Now I really don’t care.”

Even the few trees he left for shade are coming down.

Also, “We’re going to have a list of everything we need to take and a map as to where it is. We have done that now. The other thing we are going to do is to start documenting contents of our house so it’s easier if we have to do an insurance claim.”

One bag packed

A little further away on St. Louis Creek Road next to Moose Run, Judi Servoss and her husband Joel Carmichael were finishing up some pre-winter chores on their 10 acres. They hadn’t seen the plume of smoke rising behind them until a neighbor called.

“We have worked really hard to be fire safe,” Judi said. “We have a drill. We knew exactly what we were going to take but, of course, you end up taking more than you plan.

As the fire started growing, the call to prepare for evacuation came in and Judi and Joel started loading the car with everything but their one-eyed dog (Grand Dog Contestant Riley), who they were saving for last.

Judi’s husband pulled out the chain saw and started cutting down the last five or six little trees near the house.

“We’d been talking for years about cutting them, but the next thing I see is my husband with chain saw. They were down in 30 seconds and we was moving them to a ditch with our tractor.”

The next challenge was what to do with the 100-gallon gas tank they keep by the garage to fill up for snowplowing in the winter. They found some friends in Winter Park who were willing to store it and they loaded it onto the truck along with a chain saw and some other things they thought they’d need on the way back into town.”

“The car had more of the stuff we’re saving,” Judi said. “And, we have all our papers in a safe deposit box. I always have one bag packed.”

Once they were ready to go about 30 minutes later, the husband-wife team headed down to the end of the road and ran into about 20 neighbors who were holding an impromptu party on CR 50.

“It reminded me of the hurricane parties my mother used to have. Those impromptu get-togethers really help calm your nerves. They also create bonds in the neighborhoods, which really help us all.”

Everybody was chatting, drinking beer and watching the fire. “It’s terrifying but you can’t stop watching,” Judi said.

Judi and Joel took their fuel tank to Winter Park and then headed out of town to Denver to see her elderly mother, which they usually do on Monday anyway.

“I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep,” she said. “Not that I did anyway, because everybody calls you from everywhere to make sure you’re OK.”

Running the horses

On the other side of Sheep Mountain, at Snow Mountain Ranch, Brian and Deann Buchanan were having a different kind of evacuation experience. The YMCA, which has a very organized fire evacuation plan, had declared a Level 2 Evacuation, which basically tells everyone to start getting ready to move.

From the ranch, Deann said she could see flames rising above the mountain.

“When you see something like that, your heart just sinks to your stomach,” she said. “Emotion-wise, a lot of things go through you. You think about all the dead trees and how everything could go up like matchsticks. You think about the firefighters that are going to be out there fighting this thing. You think about what you have to do have to do and that you have to do it with level head and some type of control.”

The Buchanans, who run Sombrero Stables had about 50 horses to think about evacuating.

“My husband who runs stables was a lot calmer than me,” she said. “With him, everything’s steady and he focuses on the things that need to be done.”

With some help, they ran the horses out of the field near Pole Creek, which is where the fire looked like it was headed, and started sorting them into those that could run and those that couldn’t.

Despite the smoke, the horses didn’t seem to notice anything, Deann said: “They had their heads buried down, just eating.”

If the evacuation had been ordered, all the able-bodied horses would have been run or “Jingled” in this case to the Linke Ranch in Granby.

“When you’re talking about running at least 50 horses down the road, you need to have to have people that can ride and help steer. You’ve gotta have people that know what they’re doing.”

A large, semi-sized horse trailer headed up from Boulder to haul away the draft horses and the older and younger horses that weren’t fit to run. Another trailer was loaded with all the tack and office equipment, wagons were put away and an then they helped an employee who has summer housing on the ranch. Deann also said a lot of people called to help from all over the county, offering horse trailers and trucks with hitches.

“The firefighters, bless them, made it so we didn’t have to evacuate,” she said. “It’s scary to see the smoke, but you know its eventually coming. Nature needs this fire.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Grand County make the Sky-Hi News' work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.

For tax deductible donations, click here.

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User