BUFFALO CREEK, Colo. (CBS4) – An annual family tradition of cutting down a Christmas tree in the wild took a scary turn over the weekend after a Jefferson County family got lost and was rescued after it got dark.
The Fleming family had a permit to cut a tree in the Buffalo Creek area south of Pine on Sunday. The four of them posed for a photo with Smokey the Bear and then headed out to find their tree. After finding the tree the parents got confused about which direction they had come from and got turned around trying to drag the tree back to the car. After a bit more searching for a road they had to call for help.
Tracey Fleming told CBS4 she and her husband tried to keep a brave face for their young children but when they realized their backpack with all the safety essentials like a flashlight, snacks and things to keep them warm wasn’t with them, it made the experience long and concerning. Things got particularly scary when it started getting dark.
Fleming said heading to the high country to cut down a tree is a 7-year family tradition.
“It never dawned on me how far we were getting because we kept saying, ‘Oh, what about that tree, or that one.’ Kept kind of going in all different directions,” Fleming said.
Fleming said it was warm when they headed out from where they parked, but that it got chilly later on.
Watch an extended interview with Fleming about the experience in a special CBSDenver.com video clip.
“I was very prepared when I left the house. I was prepared in the car but I left everything we needed in the car. We had no flashlight. We had nothing. Luckily we had a lighter,” Fleming said.
They started a fire to keep warm. Fleming’s cell phone battery was low but had just enough power to call 911. For about 5 hours they waited together by the fire.
“I felt helpless to the weather, the environment and nature, but I knew eventually we would be found,” Fleming said. “We just took it for granted that we’ve done it before and we knew what we were doing and we weren’t going to get lost.”
Fleming said they talked a lot and played charades to pass the time.
Search teams eventually located the family through their cellphone. It took several hours to find them and walk them out.
Fleming said one of the biggest lesson learned is to not think a cellphone is a lifeline.
Many phones have built-in GPS systems, but she learned from the rescue crew that they aren’t always reliable on the direction because of unforeseen switchbacks, which can get people even more lost.
A special section of the U.S. Forest Service website has descriptions of how to get a permit to cut a Christmas tree on public land in Colorado.