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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What follows are our thoughts on the lessons learned:

  • Ammunition exploding could mean gunfire until proven otherwise.
    • Things do explode in well-developed structure fires. This incident should heighten your awareness.
    • Ammunition will ignite when exposed to flame and high temperatures (above 250 degrees Fahrenheit). Be cautious of low-energy fragments.

  • A law enforcement representative with decision-making authority is needed at the command post.
    • The incident command system still works.
    • A unified command with law enforcement may have given us information earlier at this incident.

  • Don’t assume you will be OK at an incident because you have always been OK after other incidents.
    • Complacency is one of the most serious causes of accidents on the fireground.
    • The attitude that, “this is just another routine call, just like all of the other calls that I have returned safely from,” is an attitude that kills firefighters.
    • Every call must be treated as the most dangerous call of your career.

  • Evacuation of all the personnel operating at an incident for reasons such as potential building collapse, lack of fire flow, worsening conditions, etc., is OK.
    • These reasons should also include unknown situations!
  • To stage or not to stage?
    • That decision should be based on information, your comfort with conditions, prior experiences in area, or law enforcement request.
    • The decision to stage or not to stage rests with the company officer or person in charge of the first arriving unit.

  • If you decide to stage:
    • Notify dispatch and other responding units of your intention and location.
    • Consider the hazard at hand and stage far enough away to avoid becoming part of the incident!
    • If the fire station is within a half mile of the incident, it may be the best place to stage. Just be ready to respond.

  • Keep in mind that crowds may be an additional hazard.

  • The best plan may be to retreat to insure the safety of your personnel.
    • If you and your crew are in eminent danger, call for law enforcement assistance immediately!
    • Make sure dispatch understands the urgency of the situation.

  • Your department issued you a helmet for a good reason. Wear it!
  • In some incidents it may be necessary for law enforcement to deliver the patient to you at the staging area.

Along with the lessons learned, we want to provide some reminders and food for thought when firefighters respond to incidents that have a potential for violence. What is a violent incident? Any response to shootings, stabbings, cuttings, assaults or any other type of incident in which fire personnel may be exposed to harm as a result of a violent act.Speculation into the Speculation into the shooter’s motive continues, and reports have been written and filed by the various agencies involved in this incident.

It took a few days to sink in, but I had received one of the greatest Christmas gifts of all time: everyone who responded to this incident had returned to quarters.


Tom Aurnhammer is deputy chief of the Los Pinos Fire Protection District in Ignacio, CO, in charge of operations and training.