Colorado: 3 wildfire deaths first since 2002
OLNEY SPRINGS, Colorado ” John Schwartz became a volunteer firefighter about five weeks ago, seeing an opportunity to go from fixing neighbors’ cars and trucks to being an even bigger help.
Terry Devore, 30, had recently become fire chief of the Olney Springs Volunteer Fire Department after serving 10 years with the department. Both died when their fire engine drove into a ditch after a fire weakened bridge collapsed. They were rushing to a fast moving fire Tuesday that scorched 8,900 acres and forced the evacuation of Ordway, a nearby town of about 1,200 people.
“We headed to Ordway because they knew, we knew, they needed help,” Devore’ father, Bruce Devore told Denver station KDVR-TV Wednesday.
Devore is also a volunteer firefighter and was in a truck right behind his son’s.
“And when we looked in front of the truck there was no road left. And all we seen was a fireball in front of us, and like down in a hole where the bridge had been,” he said. “It was just basically an inferno. And it’s not been easy, basically, things are rough. It’s my baby…”
About two hours after the deadly accident Tuesday, pilot Gert Marais, 42, of Fort Benton, Mont., died when the single-engine plane he was flying to drop retardant on a fire at 9,000-acre fire at Fort Carson crashed.
Marais went by the nickname “Jerry” and was a veteran firefighting pilot.
The three deaths were the first of firefighters battling wildfires in Colorado since 2002, when nine firefighters died in the worst fire season on record, according to records kept by the Boise, Idaho-based National Interagency Fire Center. With the state tinder dry at the height of the drought that year, wildfires destroyed 235 homes and charred 915,000 acres, including the 137,000 acre Hayman Fire southwest of Denver.
John Schwartz, 38, was a single father of four boys, ages 15, 11, 6 and 4, his father John Schwartz Sr. told The Gazette. He raised cattle on a 40-plus acre ranch and worked as a correctional officer at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility, a state prison. He loved to hunt and shoot with his boys.
“He was just a nice, fun-loving guy,” his father said.
Schwartz signed up as a firefighter after speaking with DeVore, who was also an officer at the prison.
DeVore was married with four children, Crowley County Coroner Karen Tomky said. His children ranged in age from 4 to 10.
“The visibility was terrible, a lot of black smoke and dirt,” Tomky said. “The bridge must have collapsed ahead of time and they fell into a ravine.”
Bob Anderson, superintendent of the Fort Benton school district, where two of Marais’ children attend school, said the pilot moved to the Montana town about six years ago.
Marais and his wife, Esme, have three sons and a daughter, Anderson said.
An experienced mechanic, Marais often worked on Anderson’s planes, and one of Marais’ rebuilt planes sits in Anderson’s hangar.
“He is a wonderful person to have working on an aircraft,” Anderson said, adding he was a “perfectionist.”
Marais talked about flying airplanes in his native South Africa, Anderson said.
The family was preparing to move to Colorado, where Anderson’s company is based. He was flying for Aero S.E.A.T Inc., based in Sterling and under contract with the Colorado State Forest Service.
A storm that brought snow and rain to the state Wednesday helped firefighters contain the Ordway fire, which destroyed eight homes. Snow fell at Fort Carson, which calmed the fire and allowed about 800 evacuated residents to return home.
Steve Segin, a spokesman with the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, which helps organize the federal response to fires, said there’s no apparent connection to Tuesday’s deaths, which happened during the first major fires of the 2008 fire season.
“Firefighting is inherently dangerous, whether the fire is five acres or five thousand,” he said. “You can only mitigate so many things with safety measures.”
In 2002, five firefighters from Oregon died when their van overturned on Interstate 70 near Parachute while on their way to fight the Hayman fire. In separate aircraft crashes near Estes Park, two crewmen died when their plane broke apart and a helicopter pilot died in a crash. Another firefighter died near Bayfield when a tree fell on him.
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