PEACH VALLEY — Advances in both weather forecasting and communications have resulted in some of the biggest changes in wildland firefighting in the 20 years since weather played a big part in the loss of 14 lives on Storm King Mountain.
When a dry cold front on July 6, 1994, blew a relatively small lightning-caused fire west of Glenwood Springs into a raging inferno, catching a team of federal wildland firefighters off guard, Internet and cell phone technology were both in their infancy, observed Tim Mathewson, an instructor at the Colorado Wildland Fire and Incident Management Academy being held at Coal Ridge High School this week.
Most types of hand-held mobile communication devices were a thing of the future, and even radio communication was crude compared to today’s capabilities, he said.
Today, through multi-agency cooperation, which is a major focus of the biannual academy training sessions, information about changing weather and how that might affect a fire incident is an instantaneous computer key stroke, text alert or Twitter message away from getting to the people in the field.
“Technology has also definitely allowed for weather forecasts to improve, and our warning systems are far more advanced,” said Mathewson, a member of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center in Lakewood, who is teaching classes this week about how weather affects fire behavior.
And, because younger firefighters come into their training already savvy in how to use that technology, getting new recruits up to speed in their field capabilities is enhanced, he added.
Trainees like Phillip Foy and Joshua Clark, two University of Northern Colorado students and Air Force ROTC cadets who are interning with Mathewson’s BLM unit, are taking his weather course at this week’s academy.
“We’ve spent the last day and a half learning about topography and different fuel types, and how weather patterns can impact fire behavior,” Clark said. “It’s also our first exposure to operational forecasting in the fire environment.”
In early 1994, the state’s first interagency wildfire training session was held over five days in Black Forest, ironically the site of Colorado’s most destructive wildfire in terms of property damage just last year.
The importance of interagency cooperation and communication took on even more importance in July of that inaugural year for the academy with the tragedy on Storm King Mountain.
As a result of what officially became known as the South Canyon Fire, “the mission of the academy took on a higher level of importance as a venue to respond to the growing demand for wildfire leadership training,” according to a history of the Colorado Wildfire Academy.
This week, more than 550 students, including members of municipal fire departments, rural fire districts, federal wildland firefighting agencies, tribal lands firefighters, interns and trainees with the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, are taking part in a variety of training sessions.
Classes cover such things as basic wildland firefighting, crew leadership, rescue techniques, equipment operations, incident command procedures, and how to operate an emergency operations center for a large event involving evacuations and coordination with communities.
Attendees range from young, green recruits to seasoned veterans such as Vaughn Jones, who is training to be an incident commander.
“Obviously, a lot of what we’re doing here is giving our newer firefighters and responders the basic training they need to go out and do their jobs,” said Jones, a firefighter for 19 years who is now with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
“The purpose for me is to learn how to oversee an incident management team,” he said.
The academy includes attendees from 22 different states, some coming from as far away as New Jersey, Virginia, South Carolina and Florida to learn about incident command and emergency operations systems, said Greg Heule, information officer for the academy.
The academy is held twice a year in January and June, moving to different locations around the state. The last time it took place in Garfield County was in 2004, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the South Canyon Fire.
In preparation for the upcoming 20th anniversary commemoration, money raised from several events at this week’s academy, including a silent auction, skeet shoot, golf tournament and barbecue, will go to put on a special July 6 barbecue dinner and gathering for relatives of the 14 people who lost their lives on Storm King Mountain.