Official: Public taking risk in fighting wildfires |

Official: Public taking risk in fighting wildfires

Dennis WebbPost Independent Staff

A local firefighting official says he appreciates the good intentions of citizens who take it upon themselves to fight wildfires, but wishes they would leave the job to the experts.Hal Coombs, assistant fire management officer for the Upper Colorado Interagency Fire Management Center, said he’s worried about the danger people put themselves in by responding to fires.”The risk to them is pretty high. We can’t say, ‘No, you won’t,’ but we do discourage it because of risk,” he said.Citizens were the first to respond to a fire in the Mitchell Creek area at the western edge of Glenwood Springs Friday.Firefighters have training in areas such as identifying safety zones in case a fire acts up, and have access to information such as weather forecasts, Coombs said. They also can take advantage of equipment such as fire shelters and protective clothing, and benefit from air support.He worries that members of the public don’t understand the risk involved. While most of the time things turn out all right, there’s always the possibility of a fire blowing up and people getting killed, he said.Coombs said a man in the Rifle area was burned just last year when he used a track hoe to try to fight a fire.Even a blaze such as 2002’s Coal Seam Fire wouldn’t have been worth losing someone’s life to fight, Coombs said. The fire claimed 29 homes, some in the Mitchell Creek area, but no residents or firefighters were injured.The 1994 Storm King Fire also threatened the Mitchell Creek area, but no homes were burned. However, 14 firefighters died 11 years ago this week when that fire blew up on Storm King Mountain.The fire resulted in some second-guessing from residents who thought crews should have responded to the fire earlier. Some said they had wished they had put it out themselves when it was small.Coombs, who worked in the area during Storm King, noted that firefighter resources were limited at the time because of the number of fires in the region.While crews don’t respond to all fires, Coombs wouldn’t want to see the public trying to fight those fires instead.”There’s a lot of fires we don’t even see that just go out on their own,” he said.On the other hand, Coombs has seen a lot of fires that members of the public think they have extinguished, but heat remains and the fires still need to be checked.”They probably thought they had it out but there’s still a lot of heat left in it and it can still come along to haunt you,” he said.Coombs worries about firefighters not being made aware of fires that can flare up again.A Battlement Mesa fire in the 1980s consumed several thousand acres after local firefighters thought it was out, Coombs said.He said crews first became aware of Friday’s Mitchell Creek fire after it was observed from the air. At that time, people already were fighting it, which means they probably had known about it for a half-hour or longer without calling it in.”I get a little nervous about that kind of attitude,” he said.”The proper response is to call 911,” he said.”They’re well-intentioned people; I’m not knocking them at all. They’re very conscientious citizens – don’t get me wrong. But they’re also taking a risk.”

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