LOUISVILLE, Colo. — As houses ignited like matchsticks in Louisville and Superior on Dec. 30, firefighter engineer Patrick Kramer pumped water, deployed hoses and documented firefighters' efforts to save homes.
The Longmont firefighter and public information officer snapped dozens of photos from the front lines of the Marshall Fire.
"I didn’t take time away from fighting fire and being there for my crew, but I knew I had to document some of it," Kramer said.
Kramer said he expected to be off duty last Thursday. He was eating lunch with his daughter when he saw the smoke plume rising from Boulder County. He knew before his phone buzzed he'd be heading into work.
“Initially, we thought we were headed to a wildland fire," Kramer said. “As we got into Louisville and heard structure after structure after structure was being burned, it heightened our sense of risk, and also just like, ‘this is not what we thought we were getting into.’”
Winds were gusting 90 mph, driving flames and flying embers into homes and businesses. Kramer recalled the shock of hearing the Element Hotel was on fire.
“Not being dramatic, it’s almost indescribable," Kramer said. "I’ve never ever been in weather conditions that severe.”
Kramer and his crew initially got to work on Troon Court, north of Avista Hospital, where the fire was consuming homes in a matter of minutes.
“Those winds and that fire would preheat the house next to it and then catch that house on fire and then it would spread to the next house, to the next house, to the next house," he said. "We just tried to get ahead of it and stop what we could."
During the most intense firefight of his life, Kramer followed his instincts from his former career as a photojournalist. He took out his phone and started snapping pictures.
“I didn’t even think about it, to be honest," he said. "It’s just something I thought I just had to document."
Kramer spent a decade working at the Longmont Times-Call, where he was once the newspaper's chief photographer.
“That’s what got me into firefighting, actually," Kramer said.
During the firefight on Dec. 30, Kramer said he would take 30 seconds here and there to record video or take a photo.
"Because I knew -- I knew right away this was a grand event," Kramer said.
The Marshall Fire was unlike anything a firefighter or journalist had seen. Kramer said he witnessed well over 100 homes burn.
"It was depressing, to be honest, to work so hard and to gain so little," he said.
Still, Kramer is confident his crew saved homes.
“We did everything we absolutely could to save their house, to save the house next to theirs, and sometimes we were successful and sometimes just Mother Nature completely took over," he said.
Of the dozens of photos Kramer captured, one from Troon Court sticks with him. Two homes erupting in flames fill the frame. Pieces of the homes appear to be in mid-collapse as dark smoke fills the sky. A Corvette in the driveway is still intact, but it won't be for long.
“I’ve seen this picture a hundred times now, and I’m just like, ‘wow.’" Kramer said.
The images Kramer captured are the kind a newspaper editor might pick for the front page, but they're still processing in a firefighter's mind.
“We saw houses that we never thought would burn when we went into these neighborhoods," Kramer said. "Within an hour, they were gone."
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