BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4) – It may become the iconic photo of 2020, the symbol of the worst wildfire season in Colorado’s history. And it doesn’t contain a lick of flame.
Only the licking of hands.
It shows an equine odd couple – Adam, the draft horse, and Ennis, the donkey — greeting a trio of humans who were not sure what to find in the remains of a ranch overrun by fire the day before.
Adam and Ennis were turned loose by their owner at the behest of first responders trying to save as many people and animals as possible on Saturday, Oct. 17, the day the Calwood Fire started in the foothills northwest of Boulder. High wind propelled the blaze through the treetops eastward.
Jason Vroman, a Senior Ranger with Boulder County Parks and Open Space, was patrolling near Broomfield at the time evacuations were ordered by fire incident command. He set course for the populated foothills in the fire’s path and radioed ahead for colleagues to begin the task of pulling people out out of the Heil Valley Ranch area.
By the time he got there, “The fire had blown up. The sky was filled with smoke.”
His crews had already taken care of most everyone, including a group of high schoolers from a mountain biking club that was repairing trail, and a birthday party underway at a picnic shelter.
But their work wasn’t finished.
Another ranger told him, “Jason, I’m good, but the Ochs’s are in trouble.'”
Flames were coming over the hillside.
Travis Ochs told CBS4 he has evacuated many times before, talking as if the act is a natural part of mountain life much like shoveling sidewalks is to a suburbanite.
But this one caught him off guard.
“We didn’t realize just how big the fire was.”
As Ranger Vroman drove the final stretch of road to the Ochs ranch, he could see fire coming down the hillside above. A select few trees next to the road were already burning.
He found Ochs and his sister leading Adam the draft horse, Ennis the donkey, and four other off-halter horses toward the first of two horse trailers — neither of which had a truck on it yet.
“They started hooking up the horse trailer and I said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa; we gotta go,” Vroman said. “The fire was coming so quickly, I was concerned it would cut off our escape route.”
Ochs and his sister raced past the trailers and continued down the road.
“We were going as fast as the donkey could,” Vroman said.
“I didn’t have time to be scared,” Ochs added. “We were just running.”
Vroman drove ahead in his Parks truck and radioed other officers with a pair of two-horse trailers, instructing them to intercept the group downhill.
Vroman held open the doors of one of the trailers as the Ochs parade emerged from the smoke. The trailers were too obviously small for Adam, so as the trailers left with the four other horses, Ochs, his sister, and Adam and Ennis resumed their march toward safety.
More than once, Vroman politely mentioned releasing the animals in order to get themselves out of danger.
“I brought it up many times before, to let him know it was an option in my head. It wasn’t in his,” Vroman said. “I totally get it.”
The smoke and wind “was whipping,” as Vroman described it. “What they say about a wildfire sounding like a train? It’s true. It was an intense moment at the time.”
Then Vroman noticed spot fires ahead of them, through the smoke. He radioed his horse trailer crews which confirmed his concerns.
“That was my trigger point,” he said. “I advised Travis, ‘We need to get out, let the horses go, and get in the truck.’ My voice changed. I wasn’t as nice as before. I added a few expletives.”
Ochs doesn’t remember Vroman’s verbage, but does recall the tone. And the urgency.
It was to the effect of, “You gotta let go of that horse and get in the car,” Ochs guessed.
“I think he felt bad he had to be so harsh,” Ochs added. “(But) he was really good. He was just doing his job.”
Whatever the wording, it worked. Travis’s sister told him later, “I don’t know what he said to you, but you turned around and let go of that horse.”
Anyone can understand it wasn’t an easy decision. But it was especially difficult for the man who had brought the two animals together when they were each six months old. Adam was purchased at a draft horse auction. Ennis came from a ranch in Allenspark. The pair had grown up together and grown old together, both now 14 years of age.
Now, by turning them loose in a wildfire, Ochs knew there was a good chance they would die together.
Vroman recalls driving out of the forest and seeing Ochs get out of his truck, two halter leads in his hands that were no longer attached to his beloved odd couple, and looking back into the smoke.
“I knew I couldn’t go back and get them,” Ochs said. “I was pretty horrified at that point.”
Vroman couldn’t let him venture back in. And Vroman didn’t think the animals would survive, either.
“I lost a lot of sleep over that.”
The next morning, Sunday, three rangers and a firefighter ventured onto the Ochs property. One of the Ochs’s three homes was gone, as was a log cabin dating back to the 1800s. The hay barn was completely destroyed.
But the odd couple was there.
“They were a little singed and hungry, but healthy,” Vroman was told. They had licked at the hands of the firefighters, looking for food and water.
Ochs was allowed to return the following day.
“Yes, they were very glad to see me,” he said. “They were thrilled.”
“I could see the entire forest burned completely. Rocks exploded, it was so hot.”
Vroman returned, too, but thought the fire had burned in a patchwork pattern, perhaps a reflection of the speed of the wind that carried it faster than it could consume fuels.
The operation, like everything firefighters are doing this year, was a team effort.
“There’s so many people doing heroic things out there.”
“I’m just thankful we were all able to get out of there alive,” he said. “There were a couple times I didn’t think that was going to happen. It was a happy ending to an otherwise dark and scary day.”
Ochs said Adam and Ennis are a big skittish toward strangers following the adventure. They’ve spent the past few days standing in a small island of grass inside a sea of scorched grassland in their pasture.
They share it with deer.