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Grand Junction fire center ready to jump on wildfires

Donna Daniels

Colorado’s intensifying drought has firefighters worried.

For the men and women of the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Center at Grand Junction’s Walker Field airport, conditions can’t get any worse.

“It’s not going to get any drier. We’ve hit bottom,” said fire management officer Tom Foley.

In anticipation for what could be an intense fire season, the center is geared up with manpower and equipment ready to fight wildfires from the Utah border to the Eisenhower Tunnel.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service staff the center with firefighters out of the Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs BLM field offices and the White River National Forest.

Staff of the center showed off their equipment Thursday, and answered questions about their role in fighting fires in the 5-million-acre service area.

On hand at the center, which sits at the south end of the Walker Field runway, are an array of aircraft that will be called into service for a large wildfire.

On Thursday, crews mixed a bit of fun into a demonstration of firefighting capacity.

A P2V tanker, a former submarine chaser that saw action in World War II, sat on the tarmac running up its engines, then taxied down the runway.

In a few moments it flew past the center and dropped a load of water, dyed red white and blue, out of the back of the plane. It fell in a curtain that resembled the American flag.

Air tankers can drop as much as 3,000 gallons of fire retardant on or ahead of a fire.

“We are one of 12 air tanker bases in the country,” said Winslow Robertson, operations specialist at the center. “Last year we put more retardant down than any other base.”

Fire center

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Fire retardant, or slurry, as it is sometimes called, is ammonium phosphate, the same component as fertilizer, colored red so tankers can track where it lands.

Lined up on the tarmac in front of the center are a Cessna 337 that leads tankers into their target, and a Skymaster air attack craft that is the “eyes” of the firefighting team, flying over the fire to map its extent.

Also on hand is a Sikorsky Skycrane, an insectile-looking helicopter that can carry a large water bucket or a water tank attached to its superstructure.

During the fire season, a crew of eight to 12 smokejumpers are stationed at the center.

Both smokejumper units and up to three air tankers stationed at the center are also available to fight fires across the country, if called upon.

In the parking lot are three “heavies,” massive fire trucks that each hold 750 gallons of water and carry a five-person crew, Robertson said.

A 10-person helitak crew and helicopter is stationed at the Garfield County Airport, he added.

“The helitak and heavies are staffed seven days a week,” Robertson said.

An on-call 24/7 crew is an outgrowth of the National Fire Plan, adopted after the disastrous 2000 fire season, when the Black Tiger Fire destroyed 44 homes just west of Boulder.

Funding from the plan allowed the center to hire more staff, Robertson said.

“It’s the first time the fire crew has been fully staffed,” said Bill Kight, a fire information officer with the interagency fire center, also a heritage resource manager with the White River National Forest in Glenwood Springs.

Ever alert, the crews of the interagency fire center wait only for the signal to roll out on a fire.


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