Rookie Col. Firefighters Save School from Flames

June 14, 2013
When residents return to Black Forest they should see the firefighters' work tattooed on the forest floor at the school.

June 14--On his first day as a wildland firefighter, Cory Wooldridge did something for which the Black Forest community is likely to remember him: He helped save the School in the Woods.

Wooldridge's crew of five firefighters from the Security Fire Department wasn't the first to come upon the school, a fourth-grade only school in Academy School District 20. Fire pushed closer to the school from the west on Thursday, and the crew protecting were reassigned to a different part of the forest, leaving the school's collection of portable buildings, a greenhouse, teepee and solar-panel project to the Security guys.

The fire wasn't too bad, said Michael Palmer, one of the few paid firefighter on the mostly volunteer crew.

"There was a lot of smoke. You couldn't see the end of your truck," he said on Thursday evening, as the crew prepared to head home after two days on the fire.

At dusk on Thursday, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa met the Security crew before it left the forest, and then went to the school to take a look. The firefighters had long gone -- all they left was an axe, stuck in stump, a water bottle, and a neat ring of black char surrounding the school. The perfectly preserved canvas teepee and greenhouse made the sheriff smile; he had just driven through the black wasteland of Holmes Road, where crown-fire had incinerated house after house.

"The Black Forest community has these little treasures," Maketa said, as he walked through the school grounds. All of the treasures seem to have survived: La Foret, an historic retreat center, Wolford Elementary School and the Black Forest Community Center. The community devotion to its landmarks and history almost surpassed its concern for the homes, Maketa said.

The landscape around the school tells a clear tale. The firefighters forced the fire to circle the school -- it ran around the buildings, and firefighters felled trees and limbs that were too close. The grounds were like a green oasis in a sea of black, where smoldering pine needles emitted puffs of smoke and jets of flame.

On Thursday the school was safe, and quiet. Firefighters from all over the state -- Steamboat Springs, Pueblo, Denver, Genesee -- drove their trucks down forest roads. The Security crew met teams from California, New Mexico and Utah as well, Wooldridge said. Some firefighters were here for a day, others will be here for a typical 14-day wildland tour.

Wooldridge's fire-resistant shirt was a pristine yellow, a sure sign that it had yet to get much wear. He had just made the transition from Security's structure fire crew to the wildland team, he said.

When residents return to Black Forest they should see the firefighters' work tattooed on the forest floor. Particularly at the school's entrance, were a sapling pine tree, planted in loving memory of Gian-Luc Jordan a small stone proclaims, lives on.

Around it, is a black ring of ash, from a ring of fire. Clearly, someone fought to save it.

Copyright 2013 - The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)

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