While most Summit County residents witnessed the devastating Front Range flooding from afar, a select few left the comforts of home and headed east for harrowing river rescues to provide medical support to the injured and fatigued, and to coordinate rescue operations for thousands of people.
These highly trained professionals from Summit County Search and Rescue, Summit County Ambulance and local fire departments have been doing their part to protect the life and safety of Colorado residents impacted by floods.
Summit County Search and Rescue
Nine members from Summit County Rescue Group, Summit County Water Rescue Team and the Summit County Sheriff’s Office were called to assist in swift-water rescues near Boulder on Friday.
The team spent the few days crossing raging waters, rescuing nine people, nine cats and 10 dogs.
The team was stationed between Boulder and Lyons. The majority of their time was spent in a neighborhood situated next to what rescue team member Colin Dinsmore imagined was typically a “nice, gentle creek.”
However, he said, that peaceful scene had turned into something terrifying.
“It had overflowed its bank and surrounded entire houses,” Dinsmore said. “People who thought they were originally under no danger found themselves trapped within their homes.”
The work retrieving stranded people and animals and bringing them back to safety was both exciting and dangerous, Dinsmore said.
The animal rescue added another element of thrill into the mix, he said.
“The humans are definitely easier, for the most part, because you can explain to them what is going on, but the animals are completely freaked out,” Dinsmore said.
The rescue team was dispatched to rescue scenes triggered by 911 calls. They would work with local fire departments to get them onto the scene, Dinsmore said.
Rescuers would assess the situation and come up with a plan, along with several backup plans — because if something went wrong, the group would have to act instantly, Dinsmore said.
“We evaluated all the risks and all the hazards, and if everyone accepted the plan, we would move forward,” he said.
Many of the rescues the group performed involved group members crossing the river in a tight-knit formation.
“Everyone is leaning on each other so they don’t get swept away by the river,” Dinsmore said.
The group found their Summit County training — which focuses largely on kayak and whitewater rafting rescues — translated well into flood rescue. All of the rescues operations were performed smoothly, with no incidents, Dinsmore said.
“I was absolutely amazed by our team. We all knew what we had to do, and worked seamlessly together,” he said. “I think that is a huge reason why we were able to accomplish all of our tasks and do it safely.”
Summit County Ambulance
In Boulder County, flooding has reportedly destroyed at least 119 homes and damaged 111 others.
People who were evacuated or rescued from their homes over the weekend were likely airlifted to the municipal airport, where the Summit County Ambulance Service was stationed.
The service was requested to assist with transporting evacuated patients to Boulder-area hospitals on Friday, Sept. 13 by American Medical Response. They had two ambulances on-site through Sunday.
Crews stationed at the incident command center witnessed hundreds of residents being flown in by National Guard helicopters. The vast majority of the evacuees weren’t injured, said Mark Burdick, the ambulance service director who was on scene in Boulder over the weekend.
“Many people were cold and hungry, but most were pretty OK,” he said.
The Summit County ambulance teams treated a patient with abdominal pain, and a fatigued 90-year-old woman. Comforting evacuees was another part of their job.
“Many times, we were just being friendly to people and saying hi. They had been through a lot and it was definitely an emotional time,” Burdick said.
Burdick’s team is now back home in Summit County, along with a separate group of Summit County Rescue Group members who spent the weekend at this site. They remain on-call, but so far have not been called into duty, said rescue group member Charles Pitman.
Three wildland paramedics from the ambulance service remain on flood relief duty in Boulder County.
Paul Camillo is one of the three local paramedics who has been assigned to provide relief from the El Dorado Springs area to Lyons. He’s been surveying the ground to make sure residents are healthy and to provide necessary medical supplies.
“Everybody is doing their best to get help to the people who want help,” he said. “We also have to deal with some people who don’t want to leave their homes because they won’t be allowed back in.”
Camillo is expected to remain deployed for up to 14 days. So far, he said he’s been sleeping in a tent and getting, at most, 6 hours of sleep. While he said he misses his family at home, he’s thankful for the experience.
“It’s something different, and it’s fun to watch people coming in off the helicopter after being evacuated. When they jump out they are so happy they are dry and safe,” he said. “It’s also nice being able to help people in need — which is why I got into this business to start with.”
Summit County Fire Departments
Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue deputy chief Jeff Berino has provided emergency relief after wildfires, spills from hazardous materials, salmonella poisoning, and even frozen cows suffering from blizzard conditions.
He got his first taste of flood response this weekend, along with Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue assistant chief Bruce Farrell and Red, White and Blue Fire Rescue captain Matt Benedict.
“We knew what to experience from our training, but when you address a new issue it’s a steep learning curve,” he said.
The fire fighters returned to Summit County late last night after coordinating emergency response efforts as part of the Jefferson County emergency management team in Golden.
“We weren’t out in the field loading sandbags but were more in coordination, ordering the resources and directing the tasks that Jefferson County was in need of,” he said.
The local fire department leaders operated under FEMA’s incident management system framework to make sure rescuers and responders were in the right place at the right time. They organized resources to make sure responders had everything they needed to conduct on-the-ground work, as well as housing and basic necessities. This involved coordination between hundreds of people and numerous agencies, Berino said.
“It was kind of like herding cats,” Berino said. “It truly does involve a lot of planning to help responders.”
Basically, he said, the coordinators needed to “stay ahead of the incident.” Although Berino said he was happy to help out a neighboring community, he said, the crisis still isn’t over.
“We are shifting more toward damage assessment,” he said. Roads will need to be restored, homes assessed for damage, and utilities reconnected. In Jefferson County, a major rail line was also washed out, he said.
“Recovery isn’t going to take days, we are going to be looking at months,” Berino said.
The fire chief said he took away a few lessons from his experience in Jefferson County.
“One thing I saw when I got in the field was that they were still in disbelief. Some people knew they were in a floodplain but it never dawned on them to get flood insurance,” Berino said. “So whether it’s a blizzard or tornado, wildfire or earthquake we can’t have the attitude, ‘It won’t happen to me.’”
Berino said he also got a renewed assurance in the human spirit from his latest experience in emergency relief.
“There are hundreds of individual stories of people helping each other out and getting done what needs to be done,” he said. “It was a very good cooperative effort.”