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On Red Canyon’s fire lines with Garrett Kennedy

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On Red Canyon’s fire lines with Garrett Kennedy

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By Nicolette Toussaint

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Sopris Sun Correspondent

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Garrett Kennedy was enjoying his day off on Aug. 12 when the phone rang. At around 1:30 p.m., a wildfire had broken out along County Road 115, approximately three miles southeast of Glenwood Springs. Within about 45 minutes, Glenwood Springs and Garfield County firefighters knew they needed help battling the blaze. The Carbondale Fire District got a call and so did Kennedy.

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That day, Kennedy, who is a firefighter and paramedic, dealt with seven other issues: “car wrecks, smaller fires and rescues,” including an injury due to a fall in Marble. Those problems don’t hold off when there’s a big blaze like the Red Canyon fire.

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But by 6 p.m. on Monday, Kennedy says that the Red Canyon fire had “grown to about 150 acres, and people could see it from here. We were getting calls from all over.” Kennedy handled calls, dispatched crews and equipment until around 10:30 that night. He was back at 6:30 the next morning for what turned out to be a scorching day.

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Kennedy’s crew of six — including Carbondale firefighters Ron Kroesen, Logan Piccolo, Tom Morelli, Ken Clark and Adam Bugner — went up County Road 115, joining more than 60 men and women dispatched from all over the Roaring Fork Valley, and even from towns as distant as Fruita, Montrose and Golden. 

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“Tuesday started off slow. We had a fire line around the blaze,” Kennedy recalls. To create a fire line, crews cut brush and trees with chain saws, then dig a trench at least foot wide. “For us, the job was mostly pulling hoses, finding hot spots, digging them up and squirting water on them. Making sure the fire didn’t get outside the perimeter.”

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But it did.

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“About noon, the hot spots started flaring up,” Garrett says “and around 1 (p.m.), it just blew up. The fire started moving toward Lookout Mountain,” where Garfield County ordered the evacuation of 20 homes.

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During Tuesday’s long battle, water-tender trucks carted water up County Road 115 to refill brush trucks that hold 200-400 gallons of water that runs out quickly. “You have to conserve water,” says Kennedy. “You can make it last longer if you fight the outskirts of the fire and don’t squirt into the middle where it won’t do any good.

“What was burning was all pinion, juniper and sage brush. It burns hot, right down to the ground,” says Kennedy, who, four days later, is limping a bit from scrambling around the steep hillsides.

Dirty work

Firefighting in the canyon was dirty, smoky work, done in full sun before a roaring fire.  Falling trees, fleeing animals and rocky terrain were constant hazards.

“You’ve gotta stay hydrated, and it’s almost impossible to drink enough water,” Kennedy warns. “It’s hard, especially if the wind starts blowing and you get dust in your eyes and ears. We don’t want anyone going down with heat stroke, because then we would have to get an ambulance up there.” Kennedy kept eye on the crew, watching for dehydration. “If they get slower or stumble around, or get red, then I know.”

Kennedy got back to the Carbondale fire station at about 7 p.m., cleaned and prepped equipment, and finished his day at about 10 p.m. 

The Red Canyon fire — which burned a mixture of private, BLM and Forest Service land — was soon upgraded to “a federal fire,” which commands resources from the computerized national Resource Ordering and Status System (ROSS). Eventually, 211 people battled the 390-acre blaze, along with two helicopters, 17 fire engines and one bulldozer. Dozens of tents were pitched around the Carbondale Middle School and caterers rolled out meals in the parking lot.  

On Tuesday, Kennedy slept at the station. He was back at 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday for a 26-hour shift. Then back again Friday for another 72-hour shift.

It’s hot, dirty, dangerous work, and not particularly well paid. So why did Kennedy, who has been a professional firefighter in Carbondale for nine years and a volunteer before that, choose to be a firefighter?

“I like helping people,” he says. “I like protecting lives and property. The biggest thing that influenced me was my dad.”

Garrett’s dad, Mike Kennedy, was a Carbondale volunteer firefighter for 25 years and now serves as the vice president of the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District’s board of directors. 

Of the Red Canyon fire, Garrett says, “Everybody worked hard and nobody got hurt. We kept everyone safe. That’s good news. But with the wind and the lightning, it’s easy to have a fire start. If you see one, call 911. Don’t try to just fight it yourself. They get out of control all the time.”