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`Self-contained city’ of hundreds shares common mission

Tamie Meck

A city of more than 400 literally popped up Monday afternoon on the rolling green grounds of Two Rivers Park.

The city, expected to grow to about 600 inhabitants later this week, includes a complete food catering service and mess hall, showers and bathrooms, a medical unit, a full-service clerical team, sleeping quarters (in the form of dome tents), office quarters and a command hierarchy.

Each resident of this new community has one common goal: to contain and extinguish the Coal Seam Fire that has devastated Glenwood Springs and surrounding areas since it blew out of control Saturday afternoon.

This is firefighter central.

“It’s a real functional, organizational structure,” said Steve Petersburg, the planning section chief for the Rocky Mountain Type I Incident Management Team. “It’s a self-contained city.”

Prior to making its home at Two Rivers, the team was based on the Carter Jackson ranch south of Glenwood Springs.

This community, explained Petersburg, a retired National Park Service employee from Rangely, includes numerous federal, state, county and city agencies, as well as fire crews and other specialized units from around the country. All of these units and agencies coordinate to fight the fire.

As of Monday afternoon, about 435 people were involved in the effort, said Petersburg, speaking over the hum of a slurry bomber circling the smoke and flames on Red Mountain.

Three firefighting crews were on the scene and about 10 more crews are expected to show up today, bringing the camp’s population to more than 600. Fire crews will work in two shifts – day and night – until their job is done.

Petersburg said it would be ideal if there were more firefighters living in this temporary community, but competition for firefighting crews is high all across the country.

With at least seven major fires in Colorado alone, including the Hayman Fire near Denver, which exploded to a 75,000-acre blaze by Monday afternoon, firefighting resources are in heavy demand. Ideally, said Petersburg, about 23 crews and at least three more air units should be on this fire.

“We’re operating at about 60 percent of what’s optimal,” he said.

Foremost in this operation is conservative use of resources.

One “weapon” being used on the Coal Seam Fire is a Radiometric Thermal Imaging System. The system includes a heat-sensitive camera, mounted on a helicopter, which takes pictures of the area within the fire’s perimeter.

From the photos, a geo-reference map is produced which identifies the area’s hot and cool spots. One day’s map can be compared to the preceding day and areas to identify and pinpoint areas that are still hot enough to re-kindle. Using a Global Positioning System (GPS), fire crews can “play seek and destroy with the hot spots,” said Petersburg.

Petersburg said that he has seen the system used to detect tree roots smoldering underground which could have burned undetected before re-surfacing to burn outside the control line.

“By pinpointing these areas, we can really focus our limited resources,” he said. It’s a very cost-effective way to fight the fire because it saves time and resources. “We can reduce the time our crews are exposed to all of the hazards of this area. We reduce the risk that they run.”

A batch plant, where slurry, a fire retardant, can be mixed locally, is also in the works. The planes that have dropped slurry on this fire thus far have come out of Grand Junction, which takes time and resources. Helicopters, also in demand, have been ordered to drop the slurry. However, said Petersburg, a Type I helibase manager is needed to command the fleet, and they are also in big demand.

Petersburg also explained why more slurry hasn’t been dropped on the fire. First, conditions have to be just right, since slurry is a retardant, not a fire extinguisher. It’s best applied when it can be followed up by crews working on the ground, and crews are scarce.

Second, visibility must be good. “The visibility was not good this morning,” he said.

Third, pilots are limited in their number of flight hours, so they have to fly when their services can do the most good.

Conditions must be just right for pilots, he said. Wind and poor visibility put the lives of pilots in danger and it’s not worth the risk.

“Safety really is our first priority,” said Petersburg, recalling the 1976 Battlement Mesa and the 1994 Storm King fires that resulted in fatalities.

As of Monday, the team was focusing its efforts on the Red Mountain area and in preventing the fire from spreading into Three Mile, a residential area west of Glenwood Springs. The fire to the northeast, which is making its way to the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, isn’t in a populated area. With so few resources, the energy is best focused on Red Mountain, said Petersburg.

Petersburg anticipates a long, hot, dry, and very fiery summer for firefighters everywhere.

“This is our third assignment,” he said, “and it’s early June.”


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