Valley firefighters help in Northwest
When fires grow too large for one agency to combat, aid flocks in from all over the country.
In 1994, men and women from other parts of the country lost their lives fighting the South Canyon fire. In 2002, crews from out of state helped keep the Coal Seam fire from burning down Glenwood Springs.
This year, fires are raging across the Northwest, and Colorado has been blessed with a mild fire season, so firefightings are out returning the favor.
Aspen, Basalt, Carbondale and Colorado River Fire have all contributed to the cause.
For a small, rural district, giving up a crewmember isn’t an easy prospect.
The federal government pays for the help, but that doesn’t always fill the hole left behind.
Colorado River Fire worked with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control to send firefighter Kevin Carlson along on a three-person engine for 21-day deployment in California.
“It’s a balancing act,” said Colorado River Fire Chief Mike Morgan. “It sure is easier to send aid when your state’s not on fire, but we very well could be next, and we don’t want to have all our resources in California and have a big one happen here.”
That’s less of a concern with emergencies closer to home. Colorado River Fire sent a crew of five to help out during the floods in Boulder two years ago. Moreover, mutual aid is an essential part of how local agencies arrange to deploy 17 people to a structure fire without each district paying dozens of staff members around the clock.
“Nobody can be prepared for everything at once,” Morgan said.
That local network may also help ease the challenge of out-of-state aid.
This year, Glenwood Fire was unable to find the manpower to contribute.
“It’s not that we don’t want to help,” said Fire Chief Gary Tillotson. “We just don’t have staffing for those kinds of deployments. If something happens here at home, I would rather not have to explain to the citizens why the equipment they paid for was somewhere else.”
With districts on either side of him sending crews to the Northwest, Tillotson sees his department’s responsibility to help out their neighbors.
“We kinda have to back each other up,” he said.
It’s not every year that Carbondale and Rural Fire sends a crew out of state, but Jake Spaulding is often one of the firefighters to go. It turns out, the wildfire firefighting world is smaller than you might think. It takes a special sort to leave home for weeks at a time with a moment’s notice.
“You run into the same people, see the same faces,” Spaulding said. “These are the same people who respond to hurricanes, floods, tornadoes.”
Spaulding, along with Brandon Deter and Dean Perkins. recently returned from 17 days on the Bendire Fire Complex in Oregon.
The crew arrived in mid-August, just a couple days after a dry lightning storm blew through and ignited nearly a dozen fires in the Vale Fire District alone.
“It was still ramping up by the time we got there,” Spaulding said.
The sheer number of large fires in the area made for an unusual experience. So far this year, 8 million acres have burned across the country, mostly in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. That leaves incident management teams spread thin.
“We were on a 44,000-acre fire managed by a Type 3 management team,” Spaulding said. “They did very well, but that’s very uncommon.”
Being from a small town, the Carbondale crew made a point of seeking out local firefighters and ranchers to get a sense of the terrain and conditions.
“We put a lot of weight in the local knowledge,” Spaulding said.
Even so, the number of unknowns can sharpen the ever-present knowledge of the risk involved.
“It is scary,” Spaulding said. “When we leave on any fire, we know that we’re going into a dangerous situation. There are firemen dying doing the same thing in the same part of the country.”
In the long run, though, Spaulding believes the practice makes him and the community safer.
“The more we do it, the more we see it, the better we get at it and the better we can serve our community,” he said. “You can’t get this experience in training.”
It also provides an up-close and personal look at the devastation left behind by dozens of fires even bigger than Coal Seam.
“It has a huge impact on these communities,” Spaulding said.
Although many fires are still raging, Spaulding got the satisfaction of seeing the Bendire fire extinguished.
“It’s nice to be able to be there and see the smiling faces of people you helped,” he said.
Meanwhile, some agencies are already sending out another round of volunteers. At least one engine is available in Snowmass, and firefighters are eager to help.
“We’ve called in aid from around the country before, just like these guys are doing right now,” Spaulding said.
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