Three of us–my buddies Chuck Hyatt and Tom Greenup and myself–were fishing the Roaring Fork River last April. In the morning we saw smoke way off in the distance. It was blowing away from us, and we knew that ranchers performed controlled burns, so we kept fishing. The wind was howling, and at noon the smoke had grown to an acre-size cloud and changed directions. The more we watched it, the bigger and closer it got. We started to leave, but the sky quickly changed from blue to white as the smoke thickened and blew over us. Soon we were flanked on three sides by flames, and we had nowhere to go except across the creek.

I had trouble getting into the creek because my bad right knee was aching from running around, so I grabbed a branch on this big bush along the bank for support. But the bush exploded into flames. And I mean exploded. Next thing I know, I’m on my back underwater, looking up as the flames shot across the creek. The second time I came up for air, the fire had moved.

We all dashed for the highway about 100 feet ahead, dodging spot fires all the way. My knee still hurt, and my waders were heavy with water. Meanwhile, the fire was right behind us. We had to scale a retaining wall to reach the highway. I glanced at my burned left hand, which looked like meat hanging off bone. At last, I plopped onto the highway, and water came pouring out my waders. The next thing I recall is waking up in the ambulance.

Along with my left hand, I suffered third-degree burns on my head and second-degree burns on my face. One day in the hospital, when my wife was there, I looked in the mirror and said, “You are one ugly son of a bitch. But I sure am pleased as punch to see you.”–As told to Colin Kearns

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