Its chief's email messages during the fire's first week numbered about 350 and displayed both triumphs and frustrations.
PFA battled the fire while fending off distractions. It weathered political pressures that reached all the way to the governor's office as well as unauthorized use of firefighters' credentials by a photographer to get an up-close look at the blaze in a restricted area.
Above all else, the fire chief's correspondence demonstrates a swelling sense of urgency as the High Park Fire mushroomed from a menacing tiger out of its cage to an indiscriminate titan that consumed 259 homes and killed one person.
A summary of the correspondence that chronicles the High Park Fire's rise through the eyes of Poudre Fire Authority Chief Tom DeMint:
Friday, June 8
All that was burning the day before the High Park Fire broke out were questions about how to decorate a new community outreach vehicle and whom to hire to clean windows at the Poudre Fire Authority.
Saturday, June 9
"Multiagency crews are working a wildland fire west of Fort Collins. This fire has been named the High Park Fire and it is located south and west of the Stove Prairie School. At 13:00 hours it was estimated at 200 acres and growing rapidly," Poudre Fire Authority Battalion Chief Randy Callahan wrote that afternoon in an email to all of the department's personnel.
Callahan's message was the first reference to the fire in DeMint's inbox, but the fire chief already was aware that a fire was burning near Fort Collins. He had called around to learn more when he noticed a column of smoke as he departed for a 10 a.m. recruit graduation ceremony in Greeley. A subsequent email to DeMint from the Colorado Division of Emergency Management showed the first report of the fire came at 5:54 a.m.
Around noon, DeMint was returning to Fort Collins. It was evident to him during the drive home that the fire had grown.
"I knew the complexity of it, how fast it was growing, when we were leaving Greeley," he said. "You could see flames at that time of day. We knew it had potential to move into our area."
Within two hours of the first email to DeMint about the fire, estimates of its size had boomed to 3,000 acres and residents of several subdivisions were put on notice to prepare to evacuate.
But the true gravity of the situation came in an alert from the Larimer County Sheriff's Office confirming the first loss of property to the fire and hinting that it may have harmed someone. Days later that would be confirmed when a body, presumed to be that of Linda Steadman, was recovered from her residence on Old Flowers Road.
"Six structures have been confirmed damaged in the Old Flowers Road area and there are some residents from this area whose whereabouts are unknown," sheriff's office spokesman John Schulz wrote in a statement released that evening.
The day's last report to DeMint, received just before midnight, estimated the High Park Fire at 9,000 acres and warned that it was entering Poudre Canyon near Poudre Park.
Sunday, June 10
"We've lost one structure in (Poudre Fire Authority's) area!" DeMint wrote at 8:52 a.m. in an email to Fort Collins City Manager Darin Atteberry and city council members.
"Preliminary reports of 18 confirmed homes that are destroyed/damaged," Lori Hodges of the Colorado Division of Emergency Management wrote in a 9:30 a.m. email. "It is expected that this number will increase as better information comes in throughout the day."
Two hours later the estimated size of the fire was 14,000 acres. More notices to prepare for evacuation went out to residents, and the sheriff's office closed access to some roads.
"One female has been reported missing by her son," Hodges wrote at 2:50 p.m., bringing slightly more specificity to the circumstances surrounding Steadman.
"This fire is doing pretty much whatever it wants," DeMint wrote in his 4:39 p.m. update to city officials. He noted that the High Park Fire was "much larger" than the 14,000 acre estimate, but that mapping was necessary to confirm the true measure.
"This is bad," the fire chief wrote. "We planned for fires in all of these areas, just not all at once."
Monday, June 11
The morning update from the Larimer County Sheriff's Office estimated the fire at 20,000 acres and reported that a firefighter had been transported by ambulance the day before for heat exhaustion.
"I heard over the scanner that one or two homes burned last night, unknown exact location," Craig Horton of the Fort Collins police department wrote in a 5:42 a.m. update to DeMint. "A deputy told me his understanding was Whale Rock (up Rist Canyon) had several lost homes (he said at least 10). I also heard that Poudre Park (up Poudre Canyon) sustained several losses."
As the fire's acreage and profile in the news grew, so did the outpouring of support for firefighters and affected residents. Offers to join the fire suppression effort from firefighters as near as Johnstown and Milliken and as far away as Switzerland reached DeMint's email.
A staffer for U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., emailed DeMint the congressman's personal cell phone number and welcomed the chief to call it whenever he saw fit.
Inspired by praise citizens had heaped on firefighters and support staff through the Poudre Fire Authority website, DeMint sent a message to all personnel encouraging them to keep up the fight.
"We have lost structures in our jurisdiction but not without valiant efforts to save them," he wrote. "For each structure lost you have saved literally hundreds."
DeMint highlighted that the well-being of the firefighters was a chief concern of the evacuees, who had problems of their own to fret.
"Their faces show fear, despair, and hope. Most don't know if their home is standing our (sic) not," he wrote to members of his department. "However, they all ask about your safety, your well being and if you're getting rest. I tell them that you are concerned about their well being and that you are doing everything you can to protect their homes."
Neither firefighters nor fires took a holiday during the High Park Fire. An overnight structure fire in Fort Collins injured two Poudre Fire Authority firefighters, although not seriously.
Tuesday, June 12
Tracking destruction was the first topic to greet DeMint on Day 4 of the High Park Fire. An email from a Poudre Fire Authority battalion commander included mapping of the 398 homes endangered by the fire. Forty of them were in the Poudre Fire Authority's jurisdiction.
Candace Phippen of the Larimer County Building Department described in an email to DeMint how mapping and GPS imagery was in development to identify damaged and destroyed structures. A county employee was assigned to collect information about destroyed properties including owner names, addresses, parcel numbers and the source of the information about the buildings' fates.
DeMint's noon update to city officials read: "The fire is around 40,000 acres. Sheriff Smith and I are estimating that over 100 structures" had been damaged or destroyed, including three primary residences in Poudre Fire Authority's district.
"This number is much higher but we are unable to get into the Whale Rock subdivision to count," DeMint wrote. "We know that fire burned through the area with full impact. This will be a significant loss."
One firefighter working in the area outside of Poudre Fire Authority's district encountered a rare instance of residents whose demands exceeded their gratitude.
"We had two residents evacuating the Stuart Hole Fire that told us if their houses burned down they were going to sue us," the firefighter wrote to DeMint. "This is the first time I have heard that kind of comment."
The city got word to firefighters that afternoon that employee assistance programs were available to help them cope with what they had experienced during the fire.
DeMint presented an update on the fire to Fort Collins City Council and announced for the first time that at least 20 homes in his department's district had burned.
The 9:30 p.m. update from the sheriff's office estimated the fire to be 43,372 acres and 10 percent contained.
"Residents who have refused to evacuate from Poudre Canyon have been hampering fire operations," sheriff's Office spokesman John Shulz wrote in a press release that DeMint received.
"There has been one citizen fatality," the sheriff's office confirmed for the first time.
Wednesday, June 13
Insufficiently equipped for the monstrous fire, Poudre Fire Authority accepted the charitable offering of the El Pomar Foundation. The philanthropic organization had offered help to fire departments battling the High Park Fire.
The local department asked for $5,390 for additional equipment.
"We simply lack the essential safety equipment for each person and lack the resources in our budget to furnish this," wrote Bob Poncelow, chief of the Poudre Fire Authority's community safety arm, in his request to El Pomar.
The department sought emergency fire shelters, backpacks, shirts, gloves, helmets, headlamps and goggles.
The department also stretched its human resources. An email went out seeking a replacement for a firefighter who had volunteered to work Father's Day for a peer but was unable to because he had been deployed to the High Park fire for the next 14 days.
Overtime for round-the-clock firefighting crews and other expenses associated with battling the High Park Fire had cost Poudre Fire Authority approximately $80,000 in the first three days, Poncelow informed El Pomar.
Thursday, June 14
Poudre Fire Authority firefighter Donn Maynard sent out an email blast to all of the department's personnel that captured the all-hands-on-deck spirit of the brawl against the High Park Fire. He lauded Battalion Commander Jim Pietrangelo's willingness to get in the trenches.
"I haven't seen a (battalion commander) working a hand tool other than a pen or a radio in a long time," Maynard wrote. "He was out there looking for spots with the rest of us."
The High Park fire isn't entirely extinguished, but it is fully contained and the threat of damaged structures or loss of life is all but behind us. The fire's progress was halted at just over 87,000 acres.
As Poudre Fire Authority spokesman Capt. Love said during a tour of the burn area on June 21, "The fire got ahead of us. It was not only difficult to see, but the fire was spreading quickly."
"We were outstripped."
About the story: The Coloradoan applied the Colorado Open Records Act to acquire email messages to and from Poudre Fire Authority Chief Tom DeMint for the seven-day period beginning the day before the fire started. A similar request is pending with the Larimer County Sheriff's Office.
Written by Patrick Malone
(Copyright © 2012 Fort Collins Coloradoan, All Rights Reserved)