Union firefighter Jacob Heller said there were many victims of flooding in Colorado who were completely cut off from civilization after raging waters destroyed many roads.
Heller was part of a Missouri rescue team who provided aid in the Loveland, Colo., area after severe flooding wiped out infrastructure and knocked out power to much of the area.
“I was in awe of the destruction of the flood,” he said. “It was really moving quick — there were boulders the size of cars in people’s driveways.”
Heller was deployed with Missouri Task Force 1 (MO-TF1) from Sept. 16-23.
The damage he encountered was unlike anything Heller had seen.
“Imagine the Flat Creek flood of 2000 spread over three counties — that’s what I would equate it to,” he said.
Two other Union Fire Protection District firefighters, Billy Williams and Assistant Chief R.B. Brown, also were deployed with the MO-TF1.
Other Union area members include Kevin Wissmann, with the Saline Valley Fire Protection District and a retired member of the Union Fire Protection District, and Mike Schaefferkoetter, with the Arnold Fire District.
Heller’s brother-in-law, Jason Pellin, a land surveyor from Washington, was part of the team with his rescue dog Phantom.
MO-TF1 is a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search and Rescue Task Force based in Boone County. The team is sponsored by the Boone County Fire Protection District and is designated as the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) response team for the state.
The mission assignments included search and rescue missions for an area west of Loveland, Colo., including several smaller towns and large subdivisions which were cut off to vehicular traffic since the floods began,
“There were a lot of missing person, but it wasn’t so much that they were missing, but cut off because the infrastructure was destroyed,” Heller said.
Rescue teams would go to small subdivisions of five to 10 homes that were separated by as many as 10 miles from other residences.
Heller added that some residents chose not to leave, and most were reluctant until they were shown photographs of the damage in the area, and the roadways leading to their homes.
“We showed them the pictures of roads, told them they were not going to be able to get out,” he said. “We told them it could be months, or years, before they could be repaired.”
The only way that many of the homes could be reached was by helicopter, and then by foot.
“The majority of the houses were off the grid — they ran off solar power,” Heller said. “They are very resilient and self-sufficient people.”
He added that the people were flown by helicopter from their homes to base camps.
“It was disheartening to see these people leave with a suitcase and not know when they were going to come home again,” he said
Teams were given maps by the forestry service, and then instructed to make contact with the homeowners in a particular area. There were several times that Heller and his team members were unable to access homes at all because of rushing water.
In those instances, the homes were reached by a different team coming from another direction.
“We couldn’t cross high water obstacles,” Heller said. “They would have to come in the back side.”
While out there, the rescue crews helped winterize the homes, and marked homes with GPS coordinates to record that they had been there, Heller said.
Many of the teams were stationed for several days in the communities in which they were working.
According to the Boone County Fire District, the teams provided large area search, assisted with air evacuations of hundreds of victims and pets, provided humanitarian aid, provided medical treatment and evaluation and targeted searches for missing people identified on the missing persons list. This list consisted of 250 people when they arrived and now that list is down to 29.
“I want to thank my family, sponsoring agency —Union Fire and Ambulance — for allowing us to go up there,” Heller said. “It was a very unique opportunity and I am very glad to be part of it and be able to assist people.”
He added that the crew members don’t get paid for training, but do get paid for deployment.
“It does take a toll on family,” he said.