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Looking back: the High Park Fire in hindsight

There aren’t many indicators that associate professor of sociology Pete Taylor wrangles fires on the side.

His office is quiet and surrounded by other faculty on the bridge of Clark B. Bookshelves are stacked high with books on sociology and the economy — his specialty. The stack of papers on his desk might have something to do with his research on agricultural water use or environmental flows.

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A few old pictures his 9-year-old daughter drew are tacked to the wall next to his desk.

The only hint that he has another life as a volunteer firefighter is the beefy pager that he keeps within hands-reach. If a fire broke out and he was needed, he would know instantly.

Although he is only called out on a few fires a year, Taylor has the same training as the full-fledged firefighters.

“We’re volunteers, we do this periodically, at all times of day and night, but we don’t do this every day,” he said.

Taylor is a company officer at station 11 near Redstone Canyon. When the High Park Fire burned it’s path through the mountains, these were some of the highest risk neighborhoods.

For the first day, no one knew exactly where the fire was burning.

“No one had any idea what it was doing,” said Capt. Sean Jones, a career firefighter and CSU alumni who was one of the first to detect the true magnitude of the fire.

“It was a smoke column you could see from the highway,” Jones said.

When Jones’ team reached the opening of Rist Canyon in the early hours of the morning, they were met with a mile wide fire front.

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“No one knew how big it was,” Jones said. “People didn’t understand how far it had progressed.”

Along with Taylor’s volunteer units, there weren’t many fire fighters for the first few hours.

“It spread very quickly. We saw aggressive fire behavior last year that none of us have ever really encountered before,” he said.

At the time, Taylor did not know that his house would soon be in the path of the flames.

The work his team did protected the high risk neighborhoods by conducting controlled burns. This deprived the fire of fuel, slowing its destructive path.

By the third day of the fire, it was classified as a Type 1 wildland fire — the most serious fire, which required a huge chain of command to keep the control efforts organized.

Soon over 2,000 people were there, according to Jones.

“We knew that this was going to go way big,” Jones said.

Then residents were evacuated, including Taylor.

“We were evacuated for about two weeks. I think the back burns stopped that front of the fire about three quarters of a mile from my house. It was close,” he said. “We’re really grateful that we were spared, but a lot of people did lose everything.”

Taylor, along with many other families, ended up staying with friends in Fort Collins.

According to him, the evacuation period was unnaturally long because the fire kept jumping around.

The dry weather and intense nature of the fire was unpredictable. Often the “point protection” which firefighters like Jones worked on, seemed effective, but the fires still managed to leap over the controlled burn areas.

Even at night, when fires are less aggressive, the High Park Fire was unnaturally dangerous.

“Usually fires ‘lay down’ at night when humidity goes up and temperatures drop, the fire activity goes down, but the past few fires have been different. I’ve saw trees torching at 3 in the morning, just exploding,” Taylor said.

After about two weeks, the fire was wrestled into submission by firefighters from all over the country.

“I really appreciate the people that do this all the time — the firefighters and the people who travel all around the country during fire season. They’re the ones who really made the difference,” Taylor said.

“It’s impressive to be involved with this group. These are pretty amazing people who do this as careers. It’s a real privilege to be a small part of that.”

In more ways than one, Taylor found himself tied to the fire. He risked himself and his home during the fire, but managed to come out on top.

Collegian Senior Reporter Mariah Wenzel can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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