COLORADO GIVES BACK

June 27, 2002 12:00 am

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Someday Colorado's inferno will be extinguished.

The feelings of goodwill for those working to quell Colorado's flames, however, will burn in the hearts of the state's residents for years to come.

The sacrifices being made by forest fire fighters are not being overlooked by people in the Centennial state and will likely never be forgotten, said Paul Anderes, a firefighter from La Grande who has been in Colorado since June 12.

Anderes, who has fought forest fires for seven years, is among many who have been touched by the generosity of Colorado's people. He said that he has never experienced such an outpouring of support from communities as a firefighter.

"The support has been overwhelming,'' said Anderes, a agriculture and forestry teacher at La Grande High School.

Everywhere Anderes has gone, people have given firefighters gifts such as special T-shirts. On the only day off he has had, a motel owner in Cripple Creek provided him and other firefighters with free rooms.

The support was never more evident than on Sunday when the community of Lake George conducted a memorial service for the five Northeast Oregon and Idaho firefighters who died in Friday's freeway accident in western Colorado.

The dozens of forest firefighters at the service received heartwarming rounds of applause.

"They treated us like heroes,'' Anderes said by phone.

The service was particularly meaningful for Anderes since one of the victims, Retha Shirley, was a student of his. The 2001 LHS graduate was in Anderes' classes at the school and was in a summer firefighting class he taught. People have said that Shirley had a smile and personality that lit up a room. Anderes said that this was a perfect description.

"She is one of those people everyone liked to be around,'' Anderes said.

"I just can't fathom what all of the parents must be going through,'' Anderes said.

He said that Friday's accident has had an impact on all of the firefighters in Colorado.

"It has affected everyone, even if they didn't know them (the victims). We are all part of the firefighting community,'' said Anderes, who is with GCT Land Management of La Grande.

Anderes said that the situation in Colorado reminds him of the summer of 2000 when Montana was hit by one of the worst fire seasons in its history.

Fires are acting very erratically in Colorado, just as they did in Montana, Anderes said. The fires in Colorado are generating an incredible amount of heat. Anderes witnessed one that melted an aluminum lawnmower engine.

One reason that that fires have been hard to contain is because the humidity level has been low. Anderes said that it has been as low as 3 percent. Fires begin behaving unpredictably when the humidity level falls below 20 percent, Anderes said.

Fire crews are having a much easier time saving houses where people have removed fuels from their property such as wood and plants, he said. Anderes is urging people in Northeast Oregon to do the same before the fire season begins here.

"Once the fires start it is too late,'' Anderes said.