Gunfire at Christmas Morning Structure Fire

On Christmas morning 2003, the Los Pinos Fire Protection District, located in southwestern Colorado, responded to a well-developed structure fire involving a sniper. Tom Aurnhammer reports from the scene.


On Christmas morning 2003, the Los Pinos Fire Protection District, located in southwestern Colorado, responded to a well-developed structure fire involving a sniper. First-arriving police officers and a volunteer firefighter in his personal vehicle thought they were being hit by shrapnel and...


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On Christmas morning 2003, the Los Pinos Fire Protection District, located in southwestern Colorado, responded to a well-developed structure fire involving a sniper. First-arriving police officers and a volunteer firefighter in his personal vehicle thought they were being hit by shrapnel and ammunition coming from the fire. No one initially thought they were being shot at.

The Los Pinos Fire Protection District, its headquarters located in Ignacio, protects an area of approximately 325 square miles with a population of about 8,000. The district operates three stations with a chief, a deputy chief (operations and training), an assistant chief (fleet and facilities maintenance), six career firefighters and 12 volunteer firefighters. The district maintains working mutual aid agreements with its bordering fire departments, the Durango Fire and Rescue Authority and the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District in Bayfield. Resources from all three agencies were deployed at this incident.

10 Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting

No building or property is worth the life of a firefighter.
All interior firefighting involves an inherent risk.
Some risk is acceptable in a measured and controlled manner.
No level of risk is acceptable where there is no potential to save lives or savable property.
Firefighters shall not be committed to interior offensive firefighting operations in abandoned or derelict buildings.
All feasible measures shall be taken to limit or avoid risks through risk assessment by a qualified officer.
It is the responsibility of the incident commander to evaluate the level of risk in every situation.
Risk assessment is a continuous process for the entire duration of each incident.
If conditions change and risk increases, change strategy and tactics.
No building or property is worth the life of a firefighter.

Developed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Health and Safety Committee.

At 5:48 A.M., the Los Pinos Fire Protection District was dispatched to a report of a structure fire in the area of County Roads 510 and 512. Prior to being notified by dispatch, the on-duty crew at LPFD Station 1 had received a telephone call reporting a large fire in the same area. The initial call was received by the LaPlata County Central Dispatch Center in Durango and information was relayed to the Southern Ute Tribal Police Dispatch in Ignacio. Both Los Pinos Fire and Durango Fire were paged within seconds of each other by their respective dispatch centers.

While responding, I had heard initial reports on the Southern Ute Police frequency from the dispatcher and from officers who had arrived on the scene that explosions were occurring and that their vehicles were being hit from shrapnel and bullets going off in the fire. Los Pinos Firefighter Charles Talley had arrived on scene just prior to Los Pinos Engine 1. He reported on our frequency that his personal vehicle was being hit by objects and that he was backing out. My initial thought was, what were they doing parked so close to the fire?

I was approximately four miles from the scene and could see a large glow in the sky. I came up on Upper Pine Fire’s frequency and requested additional tankers respond to the scene. Los Pinos Engine 1 arrived at 5:59, established command, and reported fire showing from numerous structures and vehicles. A defensive fire attack was initiated. The crew from Engine 1 had backed into the driveway of the residence and was stretching a line for a portable ground monitor to hit the fire in the main structure.

I arrived at the scene shortly after Engine 1 and assumed command of the incident. In sizing up the scene, I noted that an approximately 2,600-square-foot two-story residential structure was fully involved. Looking from west to east, I noted a white pickup truck burning, a 350-square-foot outbuilding was well involved, a horse trailer that had fire showing from the interior, and another pickup truck that was parked south of the outbuilding was also on fire. All of my years of being a fire investigator did not go to waste – this looked like an arson fire.

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