Officer watches bear struggle against flames
Mesa County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Phil Stratton had a front-row seat for the inferno on June 29.
A veteran of a wildland firefighting team, Stratton is no stranger to the unpredictable nature of fire ripping through dried brush and trees, but this one topped them, he said.
Especially the lasting image of the bear against the flames.
“It was an incredible firestorm to watch,” Stratton said.
He got the front row seat when Sheriff Stan Hilkey asked him to remain near mile marker 54 along Interstate 70 in De Beque Canyon.
If the Pine Ridge Fire were to jump the river, it would be there and Stratton would be the one to let officials know about it.
Stratton took up his post about 6 p.m. on the safe south side of the river as the fire roared toward him.
Soon after he arrived, the fire crested the ridge on the other side of the river.
The fire was blazing in both directions along the opposite ridge and began burning downhill when flaming logs began tumbling off the ridge, setting spot fires in the brush as they fell down the cliff faces, Stratton said.
Galleries of cottonwood exploded into flame before him as fire tornadoes — think of dust-devils of flame — danced in the wind.
It was about 8 p.m., as Stratton was brushing sparks and firebrands off his clothing, that he looked across the river.
Then he saw the “little black bear, it probably weighed about 100 pounds,” step out of the brush.
“He’s backlit with the fire and looking across the river, you could almost hear him,” Stratton said. “It was tragic because there was nowhere for him to go. He was looking at me like, ‘Can you help me here cause I’m going to get burned?’ ”
Had he not been there, the bear might have crossed the river there, Stratton said.
After what seemed to be about three minutes of a cross-river standoff, the bear turned and headed upriver.
“The fire was burning in the direction he went, but it didn’t take off like it did back to the west,” Stratton said.
Further upstream, the bear might have been able to cross safely, then move to greater safety across the interstate, which by then had been closed.
“I never saw him again,” Stratton said. “I hope he made it.”