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Signal Fire from a Lookout's Perspective


Photo from KOV TV News Helicopter

By Mary Alice Murphy

John Kavchar, the lookout, who reported the start of the Signal Fire a couple of minutes after 3 p.m. Sunday, May 11, 2014, gave the Beat a report on the progression of how things happened.

"An engine crew was at the lookout when one of them pointed to drift smoke," Kavchar said. "I looked more closely and realized it was coming from Meadow Creek. I immediately called Dispatch and let my boss know he needed to call in air tankers. His reply was: 'I've already done that.'"


Last year after the Silver Fire, Kavchar said the Forest Service, knowing that the last and largest stand of mixed conifer in the forest was on the north slope of Signal Peak, had created a plan for when a fire started in the area.

"That plan was immediately put into place," Kavchar reported. "Last year when the Silver Fire began, a lot of resources were on a couple of small fires in the Wilderness, so it took longer to get them onto the fire. This time the resources were available and put right to work putting the fire out."

He reported it took about 25 minutes for the engine crew to get down to the fire, and the blaze was already rapidly growing.

Kavchar's partner, Teresa, a retired lookout, began packing what they needed to take with them when they evacuated.

"I stayed on the radio," Kavchar said. "We had some through hikers on the Continental Divide Trail that Phil, the Hillsboro lookout, had told me on Friday were heading my way and due to arrive Sunday or Monday. We warned them. We also had some dirt bikers, at the bottom of the hill, who, when they saw the smoke, came up to the tower. I told them to head down the trail. Turns out they went down the road to the Continental Divide Trail and took it out to Cherry Creek. They were mature bikers and knew what to do. A helicopter pulled out two people, along with their four dogs, from the Lockney Holdings.

"Around 3:30 or 4 p.m., we headed down the trail," he continued. "It was so windy, we didn't think they would be able to fly, but they did and put down a lot of slurry."

He said he has talked to people about the Whitewater-Baldy burn of 2012, who told him that the aspens are not coming back as fast as they thought they would, perhaps because the soil was sterilized by the hot burn.

Kavchar also guessed that because of all the hazardous, burned timber, which will fall, that the Signal Peak Road might not be open again for a year or two.

When asked about the damage around the lookout tower, Kavchar said he would not return to the area before Sunday because he would have to take training to return to an active fire area. "The trees on the west side of the tower were not burned, because the fire came up the slope and the winds carried it along the elevation line to the east."

He told the Beat he was today, Wednesday, getting out of doing paperwork at the Forest Service office to put closure signs on trails and roads.


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