June 6, 2002
By Richard Walter
When he was 11 years old, David O'Connor experienced what would become a calling.
His mother was a horsewoman and David and his brother, he says, were "to the saddle born."
"It was her idea," he said. "She felt we kids from Maryland needed to learn something about America, its people, its land, its beliefs."
And so, the three saddled up and took off. Across America. On horseback.
"Initially," David says, "the idea was for us to go to California, sort of ocean to ocean, Atlantic to Pacific. But we decided desert crossing wasn't a good idea, so we picked up the Oregon Trail in Nebraska and more or less followed it, though we veered away at the Snake River in Idaho to avoid all the meandering it does."
That 3 1/2-month sojourn across America's midland, with no support vehicles, gave the younger O'Connor a deep insight into the people of America and the variety of animals he saw made him understand that not everyone rides the same way.
That was 1973.
Since then O'Connor has become a name in equine circles. He is a teacher of horsemanship, a professional performer in Eventing, in fact, the 2000 Sydney Olympics winner with the best score in Olympic history. He also was second in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and a member, with his wife, Karen, of the team winning bronze in Sydney.
Eventing may not mean much to local horsemen, but it is trying competition for horse and rider over three days.
The first event is dressage which tests for an obedient, balanced, attractive mount. The horses are not judged against each other; each is compared to the ideal and given marks ranging from 0 to 10. Judges look for horses which are well-schooled, fluid, balanced, obedient, supple, fit and calm. The test is performed from memory and error points are given if there are errors in sequence of movement.
The second day competition is cross country which tests the horse's speed, endurance and jumping ability in four phases: two to four miles of road and track performance, two miles of steeplechase, another six to 10 miles of roads and tracks, and culminating with four to five miles of cross country over fences. It is a test of the horse and rider's confidence in each other. Refusals at rails and fences are penalized; horses and riders are checked for physical fitness and soundness several times during the phase; the highest degree of concern is given to the horse's health and safety.
The show jumping phase is a test of the horse's suppleness, energy, soundness and obedience after a cross-country phase. A course of 12-14 obstacles must be jumped without fault and within the time allowed. Each jump knocked down, each second over the optimum time and each refusal adds penalties to the rider's score.
While the Sydney experience was the top of the ladder for O'Connor, he rates the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta a close second. He and Karen were members of the American team which captured the silver medal there. He said, "The thrill of performing in America before Americans in an event of that stature was unbelievable."
Why are we interested in David O'Connor?
He spent this week at the Parelli Center comparing notes with Pat Parelli and members of the teaching staff, and conducting an Eventing clinic.
O'Connor and Parelli met two years ago in Florida where both were conducting clinics at the same time.
"I'd heard he was there, but our circles weren't close and I was not yet aware of his accomplishments," said O'Connor.
"I guess I kind of cut into their PA system all day long," he said. "At the end of the day I just wandered over there to watch. I liked what I saw and heard. It fit into my own theories on horsemanship in many ways. Then I learned we were both working horse farms just four miles apart in Ocala and we began going back and forth, picking each others brains, and becoming fast friends."
"We think along the same lines," both men agreed. "We want to make people's lives change in relation to their horses and how they work with them."
Parelli said as he got to know O'Connor better, "I found he was not only a champion, but a man who wanted to teach ... a natural teacher."
He said O'Connor changed his own life in a synergistic way. "He opened new avenues for me, for our program. I've always been a learner, vicariously copying other people's stories of success. It was a sort of 'fly with eagles, not with turkeys' theory."
Asked about the appearance of man and horse as a lone entity in dressage competition, O'Connor said, "Dressage is an art form. It should be subtle. If the viewer sees some obvious move, it is wrong. There should be no diversity of movement, just a flow of the action as two beings react as one."
"Horsemanship, sportsmanship and execution are the keys to a successful program," interjected Parelli. "Horse and human skills are intrinsic. On the day of the event, with everything you know about the event and the horse, you both have to execute."
David's sport, Parelli said, is getting to the point "where it's like gymnastics - very advanced, very technical."
Karen O'Connor, while her husband was here, was in Europe working to qualify for the next international competitions.
When they're not on the road, the O'Connors ride together every morning, generally schooling five to eight horses each.
O'Connor got his first taste of top competition in the 1978 nationals, but feels his big break came when he was hired and served four years as the resident rider for the U.S. Equestrian Team. "I got to see the professionals work, see the horses they rode, understand how the two can meld as one and expand my horizons as my own training theories began to develop."
He went to his first international competition in 1986 and while riding the circuit that year met Karen. "It was a time when I suddenly realized the woman I wanted to share my life with was right next to me ... and we could talk with each other about living a life with horses."
The couple have no children of their own, but delight in teaching children although, he said, "We find it easier to go our separate ways when we're teaching."
They own 19 competition horses which they keep in Virginia where they manage a 1,000-acre horse farm in The Plains. The same farm runs about 50 other horses for their sponsors on the circuit.
Every competition he enters, O'Connor said, must be treated as a new event. "At the upper level the number of competent competitors is greatly reduced. All of them are capable of winning on a given day. International success gives us a platform to teach from, to expand ideas that are not mainstream in the competitive world.
"Our teaching theories have been self-taught," he said of both his and Parelli's operations. "We've always had a feeling in common with the animals and those similar feelings have led to our meeting like this. I came here to see new ideas examined and tried, to practice some of my own ideas, to hope that another element of the training regimen will fall into place."
"The ideas are basically the same," Parelli said. "It is a question of how you adapt. Once you know how to do it, you just do it. Learning the principles of horsemanship is like learning a new dance. Once you know it, you can go on to another one."
"Horse language is the same," said O'Connor. "Once you've learned one, you've learned the basics of them all."
Admiring the beauty of the Parelli site, O'Connor promised he'll be back. He was heading from Pagosa to Texas for a cutting horse clinic and will be heading for home for a few days after that.
"Success with horses," he said "touches emotions like you've never felt before." Seeing a beginner learn that his or her horse will tell them when it is happy, is "just like getting a piece of your favorite candy. A treat for the moment, and then you look for the next breakthrough."
By Tess Noel Baker
Two Pagosa Springs High School graduates were killed in a single-car rollover northwest of Cortez June 2.
Kevin Patrick Kirby, 22, of Montrose, and Lauren Cameron White, 19, of Pagosa Springs, died when the SUV in which they were riding left the road and hit a power pole before rolling to a stop.
According to Colorado State Patrol reports, the 1995 Toyota 4 Runner was headed south on Colo. 666 when it left the road. The vehicle traveled down an embankment, went airborne, then hit the large pole. After impact, the SUV rolled twice, coming to rest on its wheels.
Kirby, a 1998 graduate of Pagosa Springs High School, and White, a 2002 graduate, were both back-seat passengers.
Morgan Egg, 19, of Pagosa Springs, suffered breaks of both upper arms and fingers on her right hand. She was transported to Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez then to Mercy Medical Center in Durango. Wednesday morning she was listed in fair condition at Mercy. The driver, Justin L. Bartle, 20, of Pagosa Springs, was treated and released at Southwest Memorial.
According to the accident reports, alcohol was not a factor in the accident, nor was vehicle failure detected. Everyone involved was apparently wearing a seat belt, but the vehicle did not contain an air bag.
Services for White are scheduled today at 1 p.m. in the First Baptist Church in Pagosa Springs. More information can be found in her obituary on page A4.
A memorial service for Kirby is set for Friday at 4 p.m. in the Calvary Chapel in Montrose. His obituary on page A5 contains more information.
By Tess Noel Baker
Two members of Pagosa Springs pioneer families died this week within hours of each other. The two men, both in their 80s, died in startlingly similar fashion. They were both working outdoors, driving all-terrain vehicles. One was inspecting ditches; the other was checking area television translators.
According to Colorado State Patrol reports, Lloyd Clark Jr. was south of Pagosa Springs May 31 driving up a horse trail three miles east of U.S. 84 on Service Berry Mountain when his ATV flipped over, pinning him beneath it. The machine landed on Clark's head and chest, killing him before it could be pulled off.
Archuleta County Coroner Carl Macht said Clark was headed up to check on a translator when the accident happened. At one time, Clark serviced as many as 66 translators and radio transmitters all over the Southwest. He was still maintaining nine at age 87.
Ray Macht, 89, an area rancher, was out checking ditches when his ATV became high-centered on a rock. His son, Carl, found him lying unconscious next to the still-running machine.
Carl Macht said he received word his father was missing just after he finished notifying Clark's family of the accident south of town. Ray Macht had left to check the ditches earlier that day and hadn't returned. Carl took out his own ATV and found his father who had apparently tried to rock the machine off the impediment until he fell unconscious. Macht was dehydrated and heat from the engine block burned 30 percent of his legs. He also had a weak heart.
"It wasn't like the accident," said Carl, who is also a paramedic. "This could've happened to anyone. He was out living his life and just got himself in a position he couldn't get out of."
Ray Macht regained consciousness on the way to Mercy Medical Center long enough to speak with his son and say goodbye. His temperature at one point reached 104.4 degrees. Doctors at the hospital were very caring, Carl Macht said, working to control the pain and treat burns. The family was at Ray Macht's side when he died the next morning.
By John M. Motter
Fireworks of all kinds are banned throughout Archuleta County until further notice, Sheriff Tom Richards announced Wednesday.
The fireworks ban joins a growing list of bans triggered by an all-encompassing drought that has seized the area. Already banned are all open fires and outside domestic watering except under conditions allowed in Level 1 water conservation rules enacted by the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District.
At the same time, Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District has no plans at the moment to adopt Level 2 water restrictions, according to Carrie Campbell, general manager.
"The mandatory Level 1 ban just went into effect June 1," Campbell said. "We'll need a couple of weeks to analyze the results. I expect it will be a month before we enact Level 2 water rationing if that becomes necessary.
"I want to point out that, just because Level 1 allows watering every other day between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., that doesn't mean people have to water," Campbell said. "The more successfully people save water now, the better the chance that we won't have to get to Level 2 rationing. We are watching the situation closely and we will go to the more restrictive Level 2 if that becomes necessary."
The fireworks ban became effective Wednesday morning immediately following a conference with Warren Grams, Richards said. Grams is chief of the Pagosa Fire Protection District. By state statute, the county sheriff is the ultimate fire authority in the county.
No change in the fireworks ban is expected until the area receives sufficient moisture to reduce the local fire threat to a safe level, Richards said. Included in the ban is the detonation of all private and public fireworks, including the traditional Pagosa Springs and Arboles Fourth of July shows.
"I hate to interfere with anyone's enjoyment of the Fourth," Richards said, "but I have to be realistic about the priorities. The way conditions are, a fire could be devastating to life and property in the county.
"If there is enough moisture," Richards continued, "we could lift the ban overnight." Richards added that the two public fireworks displays will be evaluated as the July 4 date approaches.
In a move related to the fireworks ban Richards ordered Wednesday, the Archuleta County Commissioners agreed Tuesday to authorize a resolution calling for a ban on fireworks in the county. The resolution is expected to come before the commissioners June 18 for action.
By John M. Motter
The eyes of the nation's western firefighting elite are focused on Pagosa Springs, fearful that one careless match or one blistering lightning strike might ignite the tinder-dry forest which makes the area a desirable recreation destination.
Tuesday night a slight amount of precipitation sprinkled Archuleta County and dusted the highest mountain peaks with snow, slightly decreasing immediate fire danger.
Even so, the drought classification of the Four Corners area, including Pagosa Springs, has been upgraded to Exceptional, the worst possible classification included on the U.S. Drought Monitor which tracks drought conditions across the United States as compiled by the National Weather Service, Climate Prediction Center, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"Conditions there are the worst since at least 1977," said Chris Cuoco, senior forecaster and fire weather program leader for the Grand Junction National Weather Service office. "We have only anecdotal information as a basis for talking about the years before 1977 in your area. Only an area in Montana has a drought rating as bad as the Four Corners area."
In response to the drought severity and its attendant fire threat, a multi-agency task force linked by state-of-the-art communications is poised, ready to pounce on the first sign of smoke. United are firefighting agencies stretching from the Pagosa Fire Protection District through the Pagosa Ranger District Office in Pagosa Springs upward to regional, statewide and national agencies.
The idea is for a local strike team to rush to a site, assess the magnitude of danger, and either stamp out the fire immediately or call for help.
"The whole key is to reach and contain any blaze before it spreads out of control," said Jim Shepherdson, assistant fire management officer for the Pagosa Ranger District. Bob Frye is the local Forest Service fire management officer.
Central to the success of the entire fire containment approach are intergovernmental cooperative agreements, a multi-agency dispatch center in Durango, and precision weather forecasting by the National Weather Service.
"When I get on site and appraise the situation, if I think it necessary I can call and receive help almost immediately," Shepherdson said. The call is made to the Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch headquarters. Personnel have been brought in from across the nation to help staff the Durango office.
An example of the cooperative approach focused locally occurred Tuesday. A National Weather Service forecast predicted a slight disturbance would move across Archuleta County Tuesday afternoon and evening producing lightning strikes.
The immediate local response was to send out a surveillance plane, dispatch ground monitoring crews, move a helicopter to the Pagosa Springs area and give a heads-up to a Hotshot crew.
In Archuleta County, the Forest Service maintains satellite weather monitoring stations on Devil Mountain and Sandoval Mesa. Weather conditions from those locations and other monitoring sites in the San Juans are immediately available to Forest Service firefighting personnel and also to the National Weather Service.
The Forest Service also monitors moisture conditions within the forest. Moisture readings and other data are integrated by a computer program.
One technique for measuring moisture involves weighing pieces of grass, bushes or trees. The same pieces are then dried in an oven and weighed again. A moisture index is obtained by comparing the wet and dry readings. Other measurements are also taken and a fire danger index developed.
One of the local moisture readings is down to 4 percent, "dryer than kiln-dried lumber," Shepherdson said.
National Weather Service meteorologists who specialize in analyzing weather conditions conducive to igniting or spreading fires keep firefighting agencies posted. They issue a fire danger warning indicating four relative degrees of danger with "fire weather watch" and "red flag'" warnings at the most dangerous end of the continuum.
When fires are raging, such as the recent fire near Canon City which destroyed from 80 to 100 homes, a specially-trained National Weather Service incident meteorologist joins the firefighting crew at the site. By analyzing weather conditions specific to the fire, the incident meteorologist helps develop the strategy for attacking and containing the fire.
Several groups of firefighters responded to a fire north of Durango last weekend. The same, or an equivalent response can be expected in the Pagosa Springs area.
Currently available locally is the 20-member Craig Hot Shots firefighting team and two crews stationed at the Durango-La Plata Airport.
One of the crews stationed at the airport is the Durango Helitack crew, a group of eight men and one woman. When smoke is reported, this group loads onto one of two helicopters based in Durango and flies to the fire. Upon arriving at the scene, the crew is unloaded and begins work. The helicopter drops 325 gallons of water from a bucket at the end of a 100-foot line.
The second group at the airport is the air tanker base. This base has supplied air tankers, each with over 133,000 gallons of fire retardant, since April 29. The Durango base serves not only Colorado, but parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah.
Meanwhile, temperatures June 4-8 are expected to be above normal across the region. Above normal precipitation is likely in the Rocky Mountains from Wyoming down to New Mexico, according to a forecast released by the National Drought Mitigation Center.
By Tess Noel Baker
Everyone's talking about it: the drought, the lack of rain, and thereby the lack of lightning. Which means fire officials are pointing to people as the probable culprits in a series of recent fires in the county.
Pagosa Fire Protection District Chief Warren Grams said cigarettes dropped or thrown from vehicles are likely suspects in three recent fires.
"We are so dry right now, with a little wind, a cigarette can start a major fire," he said. "Luckily, that hasn't happened yet, but there have been a couple close calls."
Monday morning, nine firefighters and four trucks responded to the Shooting Range Fire four miles east of Pagosa Springs near Mill Creek Road to assist U.S. Forest Service personnel. A Forest Service helicopter was also used to help squelch the fire, keeping it to under an acre. Grams said flames did reach a couple of trees.
On May 31, firefighters spent several hours putting out a fire on Prospect Avenue near the Vista Trailer Park. Grams said 27 firefighters and four trucks responded to the scene at 5 a.m. The fire was contained by 7:30 a.m. but rekindled later in the day. Firefighters returned to squelch the remaining embers.
Sixteen firefighters and four trucks responded to a fire on the Pagosa Springs Riverwalk May 21. That fire burned 1.5 acres, coming close to two structures. Firefighters used an estimated 7,000 gallons of water over a period of more than two hours containing the blaze, saving both buildings from damage.
Hot coals or a cigarette thrown out with the trash are the likely suspects in a fire at the Transfer Station on Trujillo Road Tuesday afternoon. Manny Trujillo, assistant fire chief, said trash in a dump truck started to burn and was dumped in an open area to try to protect the truck. Nine firefighters responded to the scene when flames edged closer to some trees. The fire was out in about an hour and a half.
The exact cause of all of the fires remains under investigation, but human sources, probably involving cigarettes, are suspected. Grams said smokers should remain inside a structure or vehicle and place lit cigarettes in appropriate containers. At no time should lit cigarettes be thrown on the ground or tossed from a vehicle. People should also be careful of what they throw in the trash. Paint supplies, oily rags, cigarette butts and coals from outdoor grills can all start fires, given the current dry conditions.