Mike Blakeman, Rio Grande National Forest public affairs officer, wrote an interesting column about the 2003 Million Fire that consumed 9,000 acres and destroyed 11 homes and damaged six others. Mike stated, “The Million Fire also brought out the best in our San Luis Valley community. People dropped everything to support the firefighting efforts. There was no thought of self, just compassion for others.”
Indeed, some people did drop everything to help the firefighting effort. Some folks in Center learned about the fire by listening to the radio traffic. They filled two 8,000-gallon tankers with water and drove to the then-small fire. When they arrived at the small fire the Forest Service employees refused to use the water because the water hadn’t been “tested.” Reportedly the fire could have been extinguished by the two tankers of “untested” water but bureaucratic regulations were (are) such that homes were destroyed and thousands of acres of forest were allowed to burn before the right kind of water was used on the fire.
Jon McMillan, MD
As so often happens with wildland fires, stories somehow get started, are passed around and then take on a life of their own. The Million Fire was no different and many stories circulated on both how the fire started and how it could have been put out.
As I explained in my column, Rio Grande National Forest employees were taking law enforcement training just four minutes away from the Million Reservoir parking area where the fire started. These employees were the first ones on the scene with firefighting tools and a small 300-gallon Type 6 engine. Firefighters began building fire line around the fire while others laid out hose from the engine. Before they could even start up the pump, the fire took off and was no longer controllable. These were well trained wildland firefighters.
The next people on the scene were from the South Fork Volunteer Fire Department, but the fire had already begun its big run that resulted in 11 homes being destroyed and six others being damaged. Several local water tenders responded to the fire, but there was no corralling it by the time they arrived in South Fork.
I’m very familiar when the water tenders arrived because I helped park them at the South Fork Community Center while a plume of smoke rose tens of thousands of feet above us.
RGNF Public Affairs Specialist