DENVER (AP) — Pinned down by fast-approaching flames and overcome with smoke near homes on a small road with no outlet, Colorado State Patrol Master Trooper Travis Hood and his partner Trooper Shane Johnson began to wonder about their safety.
They had arrived at the scene of the Marshall fire on Dec. 30 and heard crackling over the radios that homes on Dyer Road had yet to be alerted of the rapidly moving wildfire.
“There was no access to the neighborhood by car,” Hood said. “So we parked along Highway 36, jumped fences and ran from door to door yelling for people to evacuate.”
But with 100 mph winds, the two were quickly overcome with smoke. They lost sight of their cruisers and were forced to seek shelter in the corner of nearby houses. The troopers had to wait almost 30 minutes before the smoke cleared enough for them to return to their vehicles.
“Our safety became quickly compromised because of smoke, wind, dust and fire in just a matter of seconds,” he said.
Shaken by how quickly the fire had overtaken them, the two troopers, who’d come from Adams County, decided to head south onto McCaslin Boulevard off of U.S. 36.
With fire on both sides of them, they drove slowly down the smoke-covered road while hearing the thunderous explosions of homes and businesses burning on either side of them. They passed the large Town of Superior sign and then, to their surprise, saw a horse in the middle of a circular roundabout in what is normally a busy intersection.
“Houses to the west were fully engulfed, trees were on fire, embers were flying everywhere and stuff was exploding all around us,” Hood said. “Then I see a horse in the middle of all of this. It took a while for my brain to process all what was going on around us.”
Hood got out of his car to see what he could do to capture the horse. At first, it moved away, but as he turned back to his car, the horse followed him. “He came up to me quietly as if looking to be rescued.”
A fire truck stopped long enough to throw a utility rope out of the window.
“I don’t even know what department it was but the rope was just long enough to put around the neck of the horse,” he said.
“I later learned the horse was known to be head shy, but because I think he was scared and had problems seeing, I was able to carefully walk right up and put the lead on him no problem.”
Willie is the name of the horse. A retired working horse about 12 to 14 years old, he was popular in Original Town Superior, living in a pasture where passersby and neighbors visited him daily.
Owned by Cody and Robin Russell, he was let out of his pasture the day of the fire by Cody’s brother Casey Russell in an attempt to save his life. Casey, with his cousin Steven Bednar, was able to get to the house, but had no time to save any of the family’s belongings. They got to their homes just in time to open the pasture gate, let the horse go and to get Cody’s dog LuLu out of his house before the fire overtook them. The horse ran.
Hood and Johnson decided to stay with Willie until help arrived.
That help came in the form of Boulder County Mounted Search and Rescue Team members Jana Ward and Brooke Sprague. The pair fought flames, wind and road closures to get to Willie almost four hours later.
“It was chaotic, crazy and scary,” Ward said. “We saw all these businesses in flames: a hotel, the Tesla dealership. As we pull into the circle there is a state trooper holding a horse.”
Through Cody Russell’s girlfriend Kaylee Kocher-Royer, who was able to track the horse down, Willie has been reunited with his family and is safely recovering on a ranch in Boulder. The only injuries he had were to his eyes, which were red and sore from the smoke and ash.
“When I found him at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, he was in good shape considering what he’d been through,” Kocher-Royer said.
Though it took days for Hood’s eyes to recover from the ash and soot in the air when he was on scene, he said, “I am really proud of what we did. Everything was moving so fast. It was so chaotic and crazy. We were definitely in the right place at the right time and did the right thing when we needed to.”