When the U.S. Forest Service asked Ron Largent, general manager of a major gold-mining operation in Colorado, for the use of some extra-heavy equipment to fight the Hayman fire, he was more than happy to help.
Cutting strings and red tape, in a matter of hours Largent and his mine operations superintendent, David Tolhurst, arranged for two behemoth bulldozers – Caterpillar D-10 bulldozers, which the Forest Service specifically requested – to be hauled 25 miles north, from the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mine near Cripple Creek to Lake George, where a command center for fighting the fire had been set up. With their super-wide blades the “dozers” could cut firebreaks relatively quickly to halt the advance of the inferno that was raging out of control.
But when they arrived, the Forest Service in an about-face decided it didn’t need the bulldozers and couldn’t find a use for them – saying in effect, thanks, but no thanks.
“It was pretty incredible,” says Bill Newman, operations project manager of Ames Construction, the Denver firm that transported the bulldozers to Lake George. “[The Forest Service] had requested that equipment.”
Newman recalls, “There was myself and two of the mine’s operators and transport drivers, and the chief of police from Cripple Creek, and we were just looking at each other like, this can’t be happening; this can’t be real. People are losing their homes here, and here is the free use of equipment and they’re turning it away.”
With 137,000 acres of woodland laid waste by the Hayman fire and 133 homes lost, many residents of the area are scratching their heads over the decision. Others are very angry.
The fiasco began Wednesday, June 12, with a call from a staff person in Rep. Joel Hefley’s, R-Colo., Colorado Springs office to Largent. The fire was just 4 days old, but already showing the promise of being Colorado’s biggest in over a century.
“He (the staff person) said he knew about us, knew we had equipment and wondered if we would be willing to loan some to the Forest Service,” said Largent, recalling the conversation.
Largent agreed, and when an official from the Forest Service contacted him a few minutes later, he gave him a list of equipment the mine could provide. Next morning he learned the Service had selected two D-10s as well as a smaller D-8, which was owned by Ames Construction.
The D-10 is a monster machine. Two stories high, its 16-foot-wide blade can knock down anything in its way, including trees.
“There’s not a tree in the forest that these dozers couldn’t push out of the way – they’re huge,” said Largent.
To cut a firebreak, “basically, you would cut a four-wheel drive road. That’s where you knock down the trees, take the soil and fuel out of the way and pile it to the side, and dig it down to unburnable material,” he said.
Largent further explained that though the damage would be considerable, his company would have been willing to repair the road without charge, replacing the moved earth and replanting the strip. In time, it would be completely restored.
With two D-10s, a firebreak 35-feet wide can be created relatively quickly – and time was of the essence.
Transporting two giant bulldozers along a highway is no simple task. It fell on Tolhurst to work out the details.
Tolhurst and Largent drove to the command center at Lake George the following morning, Thursday, to find out what would be required, where the dozers were to be taken, and what work was to be done.
“We talked to a number of people from ground support to logistics where they coordinate the efforts and resources to fight the fire,” Tolhurst told WorldNetDaily. “At that point we left, and I was instructed to make it happen.”
Back at the mine site, Tolhurst arranged with Ames Construction in Denver to bring down a couple of special trailers that could haul the D-10s fully implemented with the blades and ripper shank on the rear.
“Normally when they’re transported all that stuff is taken off due to the size and the weight,” he said. “But it would have taken an extreme amount of time to prep something like that, and once you got them to an area they’d have to be reinstalled.”
Everything was coming together. Permits normally required were waived. Red tape was sliced. Tolhurst called on support from the Cripple Creek Police Department to escort the vehicles to keep the road open; Police Chief Gary Hamilton drove the escort car himself.
Nothing was to be left to chance. It was a race against the clock and the wind-driven flames of the fire.
Largent did not return to the command center, but Tolhurst did – the convoy arriving at about 3 p.m.
‘They’re too big’
In his words: “So we secure all this. I get support from the Cripple Creek Police Department to escort us there, and when we get there they took me over to the operations trailer, and the first words out of their mouths are, ‘I didn’t order these dozers. I don’t even want them; they’re too big.’”
Tolhurst paused briefly, then continued, “As we got into the conversation, the logic behind the decision was that the dozers were too big and would be too destructive. They would tear up too much ground. They were working the fire with some D-5s, D-6s – they have an eight-foot blade on them, where my D-10s have a 16-foot blade.
“We went back and forth. … There were some people in favor of it; there were others that were not in favor of it. I truly felt like I had slammed into a little bit of an empire-building program going on – like, ‘if I didn’t request them, I’m not going to use them. Who sent these without my approval and my blessing on them first?’
“I explained that we were there to support them, that I was prepared to bring mechanics, fuel trucks, service trucks to maintain and do everything required to support the dozers. They said, ‘Well, if we choose not to use you we’ll pay you for your time and everything else.’”
But, in Tolhurst’s view and that of the company, it’s not a matter of money, and he tried to explain this: “There are 200 team members here at the mine that are affected by this fire. We’re here to do our part. Tell me what I can do to help you, and we’ll do whatever we can.”
The Forest Service officials had a suggestion. Though they couldn’t use the dozers near Lake George, perhaps they could be taken up to an area called Deckers, where more equipment was needed. Newman, who was in charge of the transporting, checked the maps and saw that there were several bridges that would have to be crossed, but which could not support the weight of the bulldozers.
“Each of these dozers weighs well over 200,000 pounds,” Newman pointed out. “You just can’t haul them anywhere.”
So he made an offer. The Forest Service had six smaller bulldozers at Lake George.
“What we can do,” Newman told the officials, “since the transports and dozers are here, we can unload them here, and you can use them for whatever you want, and we will take two of the smaller dozers that you have here now – and we will transport those for nothing up to Deckers where they need more equipment.”
The Forest Service wasn’t interested and declined the offer.
With officials unable to reach a decision that afternoon, Tolhurst left the dozers overnight, returning the next morning at 5:30. Nothing had changed.
“It was just the same thing,” he said. “Nobody knew where to take them; nobody really wanted to use them. They were concerned about crossing the streambed. There were some sensitive plant issues – they thought I might destroy some plants if the dozers went through. At that point in time I suggested that if they weren’t going to use them, I’d better take them back.
“And they said, ‘that’s probably the best.’ So I had them hauled them back to the mine site.”
Neither Largent nor Tolhurst could recall the name of the incident commander who was in overall control of the fire-fighting operation. It was Kim Martin, who has been transferred to another fire.
Steven Frye is the current incident commander.
WorldNetDaily asked Frye if he could provide any insight on why the D-10 bulldozers were refused.
“I don’t think they were refused,” he said. “My understanding is that when the bulldozers arrived here they asked where they were to be used and what their assignment would be, and once they had a chance to look at where that assignment was they realized that they couldn’t get the transport vehicles that the bulldozers were on [over] to the location. They would have to walk the bulldozers a couple of miles at least to where they were asked to work.”
That is, Frye explained, the dozers would have to be taken off the transporters and driven through the woods to the starting point.
“The decision was made that it didn’t make good sense either tactically or logistically,” he said. “So there was no refusal of the offer. It was more that the tool didn’t fit the job.”
Frye added that the kind of equipment preferred is “much more mobile, nimble, able to move around trees and up and over rocky ground.” Small dozers, such as those already in use.
“I think that there’s a perception that in this case bigger is better, and that is not necessarily the case,” he said.
Frye said he was not aware who had made the initial request or if that person were fully aware of the size of the bulldozers that had been requested. He said he did not know why the request for bulldozers that large had been made.
Reactions to the Forest Service’s decision are mixed.
Contacted for comment, Press Secretary Sarah Sheldon in Hefley’s office – which had conducted the original liaison work between the Forest Service and Ron Largent – said that the congressman agreed with the Forest Service and the incident commander’s decision “absolutely.”
“We suggested that the mine provide trucks to take equipment up and assist in the fire, and when the trucks got there they were told by officials that the trucks were just too large, that to get into the forest they were simply too large to be used,” Sheldon said.
“And that’s fine with us. These people have been brought in because they’re professionals and they know how to fight the fire. And if they say that they can’t use that [equipment], that it can’t be used – that’s fine,” she said.
WorldNetDaily pointed out that the idea was that the equipment requested by the Forest Service was for cutting a wide firebreak, but that the idea was scuttled by the incident commander on the grounds presumably that it would tear up too much ground.
“And we totally backed him up on that,” said Sheldon. “He (the incident commander) was called in because of his expertise in fighting fires. And the congressman respects that judgment. He is on the ground and knows what is needed and what is appropriate. So the congressman absolutely backs him up.”
But Biff Baker, a former U.S. Army Airborne Ranger and Libertarian Party candidate who is challenging Hefley in the upcoming election, is not so sanguine about the refusal of assistance.
“The miners and families in Cripple Creek are justifiably angry over the wasted effort, knowing they could have helped but were stymied by the U.S. Forest Service,” he said. “But the problem isn’t because of the ordinary employees within the Forest Service and the firefighters; it’s with those in its higher-level management. That’s where mistakes tend to be made.”
Upon learning of the Forest Service decision, Kent McNaughten, a resident of Crystola, declared, “I’m a homeowner in the area threatened by this fire. The Forest Service calls it a ‘monster.’ I’m incensed that the Forest Service has decided to fight the fire with one hand tied behind their back. They’re fighting a bear with a peashooter. They needed a rifle, and when it was offered, they declined it.”
Asked if he thinks building a firebreak would have saved homes and large areas of forest, Largent replied, “It’s hard to say if you’d have saved one or 20 or 10 – it’s just so difficult to say if it would have helped. I could be wrong. I’m not a fire professional, and I don’t know. … Maybe we could have saved one; maybe we could have saved a bunch. But I’m not going to criticize the Forest Service people; I don’t live in their shoes. I don’t have the facts as to why they made certain decisions.
“But from a personal point of view and from what I’ve heard, which are just rumors, it does seem that there are assets that are not being utilized.”