Rifle center meant to lead nation in wildfire fighting

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Will Grandbois / Post Independent |

RIFLE — The next big thing in firefighting might come out of Rifle.

You probably won’t see any more planes taking off or plumes of smoke rising from controlled burns when the Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting takes up residence at the Rifle Garfield County Airport. But researchers at the center plan to be hard at work as soon as August, with a goal to have something developed at the center implemented statewide by the 2017 fire season.

“Initially, we see ourselves taking a lot of the information that already exists out there,” Center of Excellence Interim Director Melissa Lineberger explained at a news conference Thursday. “Academics are doing great research, but they’re not getting it into the hands of firefighters. What we want to do is sort of be that mediator.”

She said center organizers with the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control expect to complete a job description for the director soon, followed by a “rigorous” selection process that could take two or three months. After that, they can began hiring the remaining eight full-time staff members, who will occupy an existing building that is being vacated by Garfield County.

“We’re using the same technology and techniques as when we started 50 years ago. We have to learn from what’s happened in the past. … This center will give us the opportunity to do that.”Mike MorganColorado River Fire Rescue chief

“We’ve worked with actual firefighters to hear what they think we should be researching,” she said.

Specific concerns include re-examining a policy that prohibits nighttime attacks on fire from the air and deploying aircraft that use spot tracking to see through clouds of smoke and provide intelligence for crews on the ground.

One such plane was on display outside a hangar Thursday as Lineberger and an array of local and state officials gathered for what felt more like a celebration than a press conference.

Winning the opportunity to be home to the center was a coup for Rifle, which beat out bigger Front Range cities, including Fort Collins and Colorado Springs.

“Colorado is leading the country in the way we’re going to employ technology to fight wildfire,” said Dave Toelle, regional fire manager for the Department of Public Safety’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control, the state’s main wildfire oversight agency. He characterized the proposed center as “one of a kind.”

“We’re going to take the research that’s been done and actually apply it,” he said.

“We’re using the same technology and techniques as when we started 50 years ago,” said Colorado River Fire Chief Mike Morgan. “We have to learn from what’s happened in the past. … This center will give us the opportunity to do that.”

Rifle assistant city manager Kimberly Bullen told the crowd she’s being doing metaphorical cartwheels since she got the news. Bullen has been involved in the process since shortly after legislation authorizing the center was passed in May 2014. She helped put together a proposal before the February 2015 deadline, and was among the first to hear that Rifle had been selected over five other communities.

Garfield County Manager Andrew Gorgey was similarly excited.

“This truly was a team effort,” he said. “Today, the state is taking a step forward to fight back.”

Garfield County Commissioner Mike Samson went a step further.

“This is just the beginning,” he said. “A wonderful thing has happened here, but you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

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