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Rescuers recount plucking hikers to safety as wildfire raged

With a push of wintry weather, Ice Fire near Silverton is now 90% contained
Posted at 1:48 PM, Nov 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-01 15:48:07-05

DURANGO, Colo. (AP) — The Ice Lakes Trail lures thousands of hikers every year to this high-alpine destination west of Silverton in the San Juan Mountains. So when a wildfire recently broke out, cutting off access to the trailhead for dozens of people, rescue workers knew they had their work cut out for them.

A behind-the-scenes look at the emergency response shows how split-second decisions helped save the lives of 28 hikers and three dogs in little more than two hours.

“It was just quick decision-making and risk-management,” said Dennis Fogel, a forest aviation officer for the U.S. Forest Service.

The Ice Lakes Trail is one of the most popular and heavily used in Southwest Colorado, which starts at an elevation of 9,840 feet (2,999 meters) and climbs a couple thousand feet (609 meters) to two turquoise alpine lakes: Ice Lake and Island Lake.

The alpine lakes are commonly featured on best hike lists in Colorado and shared on social media. On any given day in the summer, hundreds of people make the trek to the lakes.

Around 11:30 a.m. Oct. 19, hikers on the Ice Lakes Trail spotted what appeared to be a fire and immediately tried putting it out by hand, said Gilbert Archuleta, chief of the Silverton-San Juan County Fire and Rescue Authority.

But the hikers quickly realized the fire, about seven-tenths of a mile (1.1 kilometers) up the trail, was growing out of control, and they wouldn’t be able to stop its spread. Instead, the hikers rushed down the mountain in search of cellphone service to call 911.

That call came in around 1 p.m., Archuleta said, and immediately, Silverton-San Juan County Fire and Rescue crews responded to the area, about 5 miles west of town, and were the first to arrive at the scene.

“By the time they got out there ... it was already burning so hot,” Archuleta said.

About 2 p.m., the air tanker base in Durango was notified of the fire. Air resources arrived a half-hour later, including a helicopter and an airplane that coordinates aerial firefighting efforts.

“The entire trailhead was involved (in fire), and the fire was already moving uphill from the trailhead,” Fogel said. “It was pretty evident that nobody was going to be able to get down.”

Indeed, more than 20 hikers were trapped above the fire.

Rachel Light-Muller, who is from Boulder but has been staying in Durango, was on the trek up to Ice Lake with her daughter. The couple smelled smoke when they started their hike around 11 a.m., but didn’t think much of it.

“I assumed it was a campfire in the campground,” she said, referring to the Forest Service campground at the base of the Ice Lakes trailhead.

But as Light-Muller and her daughter approached Ice Lake, the smoke intensified, turning from white to black. And then, they saw flames.

“It was amazing how exponential it was in its growth,” she said. “It was obvious we weren’t going to get back to our car.”

The fire sprang to life, scorching several hundred acres of high-elevation forest in a matter of hours. And, it appeared to be jumping above tree line, burning grasses.

Ice Lake, for the unacquainted, sits above tree line at an elevation of 12,392 feet (3,777 meters), surrounded by grasslands.

“You’re really not safe anywhere if there’s a fire,” Light-Muller said.

Greg Anson, visiting from Carbondale, said in a previous interview that he and other hikers visiting Ice Lake grouped together to decide what to do, debating whether to try to find a way to hike out of the area or wait for help.

“There was a little tension whether to wait or hike,” Anson said. “Some people didn’t think they could make it.”

But before the hikers could come to a decision, help was on its way. (Fogel, however, said a group of two or three people reportedly hiked over to Ophir, but those people were never located.)

Fogel said it was obvious the hikers weren’t going to be able to walk down. And it was apparent most of the hikers were on a day trip and not prepared to spend a late October night in the wilderness.

“We ultimately rolled into a rescue mission immediately when the helicopter got on scene,” he said.

The first helicopter landed about 2:40 p.m. to pluck the stranded hikers off the mountain, Fogel said. Shortly into the mission, a crew with Flight For Life showed up to assist ferrying people off the mountain.

Flight For Life was not available to comment for this story.

It took five flights to bring 21 people and two dogs to a landing zone near the Ice Lake trailhead, where they could get into their vehicles and drive out of the area.

“It was crazy,” Anson said. “I’ve never been through anything like that.”

After that mission was complete, Fogel said two other separate groups were spotted farther down the trail at different locations. So, the Forest Service and Flight For Life split up.

The Forest Service’s helicopter went after a group of five people that was trying find a way out and went off trail. By the time rescue crews arrived, the blaze was just a couple hundred yards (183 meters) away.

“It’s a judgment call if you think you can get out,” Fogel said. “Luckily (they were) spotted (because) they were off-trail.”

The group was instructed through a PA system on the helicopter to hike back up the trail to a landing zone. Once there, the hikers had to leave their backpacks because of weight issues and were taken to safety.

The Flight For Life helicopter, Fogel said, located the other group of two people and a dog, who were also directed by a PA system to hike back up the trail to a spot where the helicopter could land.

By 4:30 p.m., just two hours after arriving at the scene, rescue crews had all of the trapped hikers to safety, a total of 28 people and three dogs.

“Once the people were off the hill, safe and accounted for, then we could turn to the actual firefighting part of the operation,” Fogel said.

Despite high winds and extreme drought conditions, firefighters over the course of the week were able to keep the Ice Fire at bay.

A snowstorm earlier this week knocked out the fire for good. It’s expected the Ice Lakes Trail, one of the most popular in Southwest Colorado, will be closed for the indefinite future after being heavily damaged by the blaze.

A spokeswoman for the Forest Service said Thursday morning the cause of the fire, which ultimately burned through 600 acres, remains under investigation.