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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Units from the Durango Fire & Rescue Authority arrived shortly after I did and I was contacted by Battalion Chief Tony Harwig, who was assigned to establish the tanker shuttle group. Chief Jim Piccoli from the Upper Pine Fire District had arrived with his units and he was put in service as the scene safety officer. All units operating at the scene were switched to a common tactical frequency.

Additional lines were stretched to extinguish the peripheral fires and to assist with the knock down of the fire in the main structure. The fire ground was also split into “east” and “west” divisions to help facilitate accountability and communications. Deputy Chief Rod Richardson from Upper Pine Fire had joined me at the command post and I requested that he check to assure that accountability tags had been collected from all of the personnel operating on the fireground.

A number of out-of-place items were noted by the personnel operating at the scene. These items included two rifles sitting against stone pillars that flanked the sides of the driveway, a small liquid petroleum gas (LPG) fired camp stove that was burning on a flatbed trailer in the area of the horse trailer, and an open bottle of wine with a half-filled glass and a vase filled with weeds sitting on a decorative stone wall in the front yard. I had requested that a sheriff’s deputy meet me at the command post. The observations were pointed out to the deputy, and I requested investigative assistance from the sheriff’s detectives for the origin and cause of the fires.

As daylight was approaching, these indicators, along with other information that was coming in was starting to lead me to believe that the vehicles that had arrived on the scene had been shot at, not hit with shrapnel and ammunition going off in the fire.

Shortly after this, a law enforcement officer who had been checking the perimeter of the scene signaled for other officers, who went to his assistance with weapons drawn. I gave a “heads-up” over the tactical channel due to the law enforcement activity, which was shortly followed by the safety officer advising everyone to “get down.” I had a face-to-face discussion with Piccoli, expressing my desire to pull all of our personnel off the fireground due to the potential of an active shooter still on scene. At about this time, the law enforcement officers were calling for medics. The officers had found a subject with what was believed to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the face. The subject was transported to the hospital by Upper Pine Fire’s medic unit.

Once the scene was secured by law enforcement, normal fire suppression operations resumed. As time progressed, mutual aid units were released and a long afternoon was spent overhauling the scene. Additional investigative assistance had also been requested from the Durango Fire Marshal’s Office. The LaPlata County Sheriff’s Office, in conjunction with the other law enforcement agencies on the scene, were conducting the investigation into the shooting.

On Dec. 27, still having questions that we may never have answers to, I met with Harwig and we started discussing the “lessons learned” at this incident. As a presentation is being developed on what we learned, we will be asking the audiences to do the following:

  • Put yourself in the decision-making mode with the information that was available at the time.

  • At the end, we will discuss what we can do better at the next incident to keep our firefighters and the public safe.

  • This is not a critique of all the agencies on the scene that day. Our intent is to make the next scene safer for all responders.

We also know that some of the communications between agencies needs to be tuned up. Looking at the way and by whom each agency is dispatched lends itself to some inherent communications problems:

  • Law enforcement agencies – Southern Ute Tribal Police (SUPD) is dispatched by SUPD Dispatch in Ignacio; LaPlata County Sheriff’s Office is dispatched by LaPlata County Central Dispatch in Durango; Ignacio Police Department is dispatched by SUPD Dispatch in Ignacio (same frequency as tribal police); and Colorado State Police (CSP) is dispatched by CSP Dispatch in Montrose.

  • Fire agencies – Los Pinos Fire District is dispatched by SUPD Dispatch in Ignacio (separate frequency); Durango Fire and Rescue Authority is dispatched by LaPlata County Central Dispatch in Durango (separate frequency); Upper Pine Fire District is dispatched by LaPlata County Central Dispatch in Durango (separate frequency). (The fire departments have a common tactical frequency.)