A team of valley firefighters evacuated stranded residents and pets near Boulder during three days of rescue missions, as historic floods tore apart the Front Range over the weekend.
Led by the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department’s swift water rescue team, the local first responders assisted in the disaster zone from Friday morning through Sunday night.
“That was much more devastation than I’ve ever seen,” deputy fire chief David “Wabs” Walbert said Monday. “This was just total destruction.”
The widespread floods are believed to have destroyed upwards of 1,500 homes and vast swaths of roads and bridges across the Front Range.
A call for mutual aid from Boulder County came over the Aspen dispatch radio at 2 a.m. Friday. Aspen firefighter Frank Bauer, who heads the AVFD’s swift water rescue team, quickly rounded up a crew of six including firefighters from Snowmass, Basalt and Carbondale. They were on the road by 3:45 a.m. and at the incident command post at Boulder Municipal Airport by 8 a.m. Friday.
The crew ran five missions over the following three days there, focusing on search and rescue operations, working from 7 a.m. into the nights. Mountain Rescue Aspen also sent a team to the disaster, which was deployed separately.
The valley firefighters hiked into mountain hamlets like Gold Hill and Salina, and to stranded residents in and around Left Hand and Four Mile canyons, where flood waters destroyed roads and left residents without phones, electricity or means of escape.
With roads out, overall rescue efforts also were hampered by continued rain and steep canyon terrain that kept helicopters from landing in many areas. So the local crew was given maps of areas that rescuers had been unable to reach, and then hiked from high ground to clusters of homes in the remote areas, where they went door to door.
“We were the first contact after the flood for most of them,” Bauer said.
The local crew rescued seven elderly residents, along with six dogs and one pet bird.
Aspen firefighter Frank Bauer during a search and rescue mission in Boulder County over the weekend. David “Wabs”
Walbert is in the background. Valley fire departments sent a team of six to assist with rescues in the devastating floods.
Due to the terrain and lack of roads, the methods of rescue were diverse. They brought one elderly man — a cancer patient with a knee injury — out in a harness via a rope across the flooded terrain. They brought one to a landing zone where a Vietnam-era Chinook helicopter was collecting evacuees. They took some out through wooded trails on ATVs. Others, including a healthy 81-year-old man, hiked out with rescuers over the steep hills.
Many residents, who had stock-piled food and supplies, resisted evacuating.
“Our directive was to tell people to come with us, because there was no estimate on when they would have another chance,” said Walbert.
Though some chose to stay in the disaster zone, the missions helped lower the astounding number of unaccounted for residents.
As of Monday, the floods were believed to have killed six people and left 800 unaccounted for in Larimer and Boulder counties. The tally fell over the weekend, as rescue crews like the one from the Roaring Fork Valley contacted and evacuated people.
“These were hearty mountain folk who had seen a lot,” said Bauer. “They didn’t want to go sleep on a cot in a gymnasium or worry about their pets being in a shelter. They wanted to stay. We said, ‘There’s only so many chances you’re going to get to get out of here.’”
After President Obama declared the floods a national disaster on Sunday, rescue teams from the U.S. Army, National Guard and other agencies arrived to relieve regional first responders, and the local team headed home.
Assisting other first responders around the country in times of need is a priority and point of pride for the Aspen fire department. Its members have gone to fight wildfires in California, to perform rescues after Hurricane Katrina, and to clean up ground zero in Manhattan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. This year, the department also staged fundraisers for fallen firefighters in Prescott, Ariz. and for the resource-strapped department in Detroit.
“I think we represented the community well,” Bauer said. “It reflects well on Aspen that we have such a highly prepared department that can be of service in disasters like this.”
They brought four rescue vehicles into the flood zone, loaded with the diverse gear necessary for search and rescue missions. AVFD’s charitable streak is evident in the flower-patterned paint jobs on those emergency vehicles, which were painted by hospital patients and students from Portraits of Hope, a nonprofit that stages motivational art projects.
“We got some funny comments,” Bauer said of the flower-covered trucks. “But once they found out what it was about, they loved it.”