Grand Valley Fire Protection District conducts fire mitigation efforts
As the U.S. Drought Monitor continues to show most parts of Garfield County under the most immense “exceptional drought” tier, the Grand Valley Fire Protection District continues to prepare for the worst.
“We kind of anticipated this coming into it just from predictions of weather patterns,” Deputy Fire Chief Chris Jackson said. “I just kind of knew we were going to get it hot and heavy initially early on, and then it would kind of be a little bit of a lull, and then toward the end of the season, we can anticipate high fire potential as well.”
Numerous fire mitigation projects are currently underway in the Parachute and Battlement Mesa communities. Landowners with properties located in vulnerable positions are being contacted by the local agency in an effort to clean up vegetation and space out shrubs, Jackson said.
The Colorado River Fire Rescue district, meanwhile, has completed mitigation projects in the spring and winter months.
“Right now we have our wildland guys that are out on deployment,” Colorado River Fire Rescue Chief Leif Sackett said. “We have some folks on the Sylvan Lake Fire, and then we also have some folks on the Deep Creek Canyon Fire in Montana.”
But this year Grand Valley is having to carry out duties amid a lack of seasonal personnel. They’re currently in the hunt for four seasonal employees to fill two two-person crews, Jackson said.
Jackson said he suspects COVID-19 is perhaps to blame, but it’s most likely the substantial amount of openings offered by other agencies.
“There’s a high demand all over the place,” Jackson said. “The federal firefighters — the (Bureau of Land Management) — they recruit hundreds of folks annually, then we have state resources that are looking for firefighters.”
The BLM is right now offering at least 35 fire-related job openings posted on ZipRecruiter.com. Salaries and hourly wage range vastly, but the average is about $51,000 per year.
A Grand Valley Fire Protection District team supervisor makes anywhere from $22 to $26 an hour, depending on qualification and experience. A seasonal firefighter partnering up with the supervisor makes anywhere between $12 and $18 an hour, which also depends on qualifications and experience.
“We try to make sure that the hourly compensation is competitive. Our board has always held to the fact that we want to try to maintain our wages in the top 25% just so that we are competitive and folks have an incentive to come work for us,” Jackson said.
But after posting jobs this season, the GVFPD didn’t receive many qualified individuals, Jackson said.
“So what we’ve done instead is we’ve opened up an additional position for our existing members,” he said. “So now instead of two additional personnel a day, we have three.”
Leaving the positions open could delay response time, Jackson said.
“But we are fully staffed 24/7 between our full-time and part-time and volunteer members,” he said.
“We usually have full staff daily.”
The department currently has 43 trained personnel, from the level of basic firefighter all the way up to captain. The department also employs emergency medical services, including EMTs and paramedics.
On a daily basis in the summertime, potential staffing could be up to 10 personnel, Jackson said. In the off-season, it’s down to six.
Meanwhile, the district’s current budget of $4.6 million supports three “type six” brush trucks, two “type one” fire engines, two water-supply tenders and three ambulances. The department also has some ATVs and snowmobiles.
So the district has an adequate supply of personnel and equipment to conduct initial attack features, Jackson said.
“But if we started to get into a large catastrophic fire, it would require some mutual aid and some other assistance from state and federal resources to get a handle on it,” he added.
Jackson has been with Grand Valley since 2012, and between then and now he has encountered a pretty significant increase in call volume.
Jackson remembers the annual call volume hovering somewhere in the 700 range. In 2020, the district saw about 1,200 calls.
Of those calls, the Spring Creek and Wallace Creek fires come to mind, Jackson reminisced.
“I think it was in (2014) we had the Spring Creek Fire that was started by a lightning strike, and that turned into a pretty big one,” Jackson said. “We had federal entities here for several weeks mitigating that fire.”
But, even as a total of eight wildland fires actively consume parts of Colorado, according to an online incident information system, Grand Valley is still actively trying to recruit.
The fire district has maintained yearly partnerships with Colorado Mountain College and Grand Valley High School. Every fall they teach emergency medical response courses to interested students.
Jackson said this year the Grand Valley Fire Protection District is going to offer wildland training to help prospective firefighters or graduating seniors become certified.
The help, of course, is always appreciated.
“I mean, we’re in an exceptional drought, which is the highest drought you could ever be at,” Jackson said. “And we just don’t have the water to keep things hydrated.”
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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