The fire chasers
July 1, 2012
RIFLE, Colorado – At just past nine o’clock in the morning, Clay Fowler was nervously chewing his way through yet another toothpick.
Fowler, a stocky, barrel-chested man who wears scuffed work boots and a blue polo shirt, stood in front of a large map of central Colorado, marked with color-coded polygons showing land that he is charged with protecting from wildfire.
As the fire management officer for the central zone of the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit, Fowler oversees a vast swath of public land from his office near the Garfield County Regional Airport in Rifle. His team of 34 firefighters, who work for one of several federal agencies, are charged with mobilizing at a moment’s notice to fight fire in central Colorado.
This year, as historically dry conditions and high winds fuel a growing number of wildfires throughout the state, Fowler has plenty to worry about, and he seems to be going through toothpicks at a breakneck pace.
“Red is high priority public land,” he said, chewing as he gestured at a crimson parcel just off Interstate 70 near Rifle. “There could be cultural resources there, or even watersheds.”
Fowler pointed to a forested parcel south of Parachute, and noted that as of Thursday, two small fires there were the only ones actively burning in his zone.
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The Interagency Unit is broken into three zones, covering 4.5 million acres from the Utah Border to the Eisenhower tunnel atop Colorado’s Loveland Pass. The central zone stretches from north of Meeker to south of Aspen, and west from near De Beque to Glenwood Canyon.
Fowler is formally employed by the federal Bureau of Land Management, but some of his firefighters work for the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service, as well as the BLM.
From its base in Rifle, the unit deploys a range of firefighting resources, including three fire engines, a seven-member initial attack crew that fights emerging wildfires around the country, and two firefighting helicopters, equipped with 10-member crews. Both of the choppers are currently fighting the massive High Park fire west of Fort Collins.
The proximity of Fowler’s unit to the Garfield County Regional Airport allows air tankers fighting wildfires nearby to reload with flame retardant at the Rifle facility. Tankers often take off from the Fire Management Unit’s dispatch center in Grand Junction, so refueling in Rifle saves them valuable flying time.
Pat Thrasher, a veteran firefighter of 38 years who is the unit’s fire information officer, said firefighters in the unit focus primarily on “initial attack within the central zone.” That means responding to small fires and snuffing them out before they can grow.
“Initial attack” is defined as any fire response within 24 hours after a fire is reported, while “extended attack” refers to any action after that.
Should a fire grow beyond the capacity of Fowler’s unit, he coordinates with the interagency fire dispatch in Grand Junction to pull resources from surrounding jurisdictions. Several of his firefighters are currently aiding crews from the western zone with the Pine Ridge fire, which was detected Wednesday in the hills near De Beque and had grown to over 12,400 acres as of Saturday – it was 25 percent contained.
This year, there are likely to be numerous blazes that demand firefighters from multiple agencies.
“We’ve been busy since early March,” said Owen Johnson, 28, who has been a firefighter for the last 10 years and with the Rifle-based unit for the last two. According to the BLM website, high fire season in Colorado doesn’t typically begin until May.
“All of our indices are far worse than 2002,” Fowler said, referring to the year when the Coal Seam Fire burned 12,000 acres outside of Glenwood Springs, “and they are far worse than 1994,” the year when the Storm King fire killed 14 firefighters west of Glenwood Springs, the event that led to the creation of Fowler’s unit in the first place.
Fire danger is calculated in part based on the “energy release component” of dry fuels, which measures the potential heat that certain fuels could add to a fire based on their moisture content.
Samples collected and analyzed by Fowler’s firefighters suggest that the tremendous concentration of dry fuels present in the region has pushed the danger of both large fire days and multi-fire days to unprecedented levels.
“People start getting puckered up at the 90th percentile, and we are well above the 100th percentile,” for fire potential, Fowler said. “We have never been where we are right now.”
At mid-morning on a recent day, firefighters crowded into a stripped-down conference room at the central zone headquarters for a daily briefing.
Engine Captain Matthew Ringer led the group through a video presentation that mapped lightening strikes in western Colorado from the previous night. There had been five, he said, from a mixture of wet and dry storms, meaning that some dropped precipitation, while others did not. The majority of storms in the next 24 hours would be dry, increasing the risk that lightening strikes from those storms could spark a fire.
As Ringer spoke, some firefighters scribbled notes onto small spiral pads, while others listened impassively.
Others gossiped about light rainstorms they’d seen previous day, and they spoke the way UFO watchers do when they’ve seen an alien spacecraft. They, more than any other western Coloradans, seemed to be yearning for rain.
In a few minutes, many of them would head out on daily patrols to the sites of recent lightening strikes to look for smoke, and nip any emerging fires in the bud.
The patrols, according to Fowler, have been occurring since June 22, when Garfield County enacted Stage 2 fire restrictions that prohibit open fires, use of charcoal grills, any kind of fireworks, and smoking cigarettes outside of an enclosed building or vehicle.
As the briefing ended, Ringer recited a list of firefighting resources, including crews, engines, tankers, and helicopters, that were available from surrounding jurisdictions.
“Resources in the western zone are busy,” Fowler said, referring to their focus on the Pine Ridge fire. “But they can be here if you need them.”
His comment highlighted the unit’s strong focus on inter-agency cooperation.
“We all respond to fires, then sort out whose fire it really is,” he said. “Once you get to a fire, uniforms go away.”
This month, fire crews from as far away as California and Tennessee have flocked to Colorado to help fight the state’s ever-growing list of wildfires. But Thrasher, the fire information officer, said it can be challenging to work with crews not familiar with Colorado’s dry climate and mountainous topography, which can make accessing fires more difficult than in flatter country.
“We need to keep people on the ground who know the territory,” he said. “When we get outside help, we often marry it with a local [fire] engine.”
After the briefing, in a nearby hangar that’s home to the unit’s fire engines and other vehicles, firefighters Brad Snyder and Sam Robinson hunched over a workbench, repairing their chainsaws.
The two men, members of the central zone’s elite initial attack crew, had just returned from several days fighting a fire north of Gypsum. Now they were back in the rotation, patrolling and fixing equipment until another assignment arose.
“In this job you’re never really off, and you have to be flexible,” said Snyder, 31, as he tightened some bolts on the body of his saw. “They’re pretty good about giving us days off if they think we need them.”
When fighting large or stubborn fires, firefighters can work as long as 14 days straight before they are granted two days off. In the most extreme conditions, that stretch can be extended to 21 days.
“It’s a mental game. If you start going downhill, you’ll go down pretty fast,” Snyder said.
Both Snyder and Robinson, who is 23 and spent two years as a firefighter in Boulder before coming to Rifle, are seasonal employees. That means they lack the health benefits that permanent employees enjoy, and they take several months off in the winter before returning for another fire season.
To become a wildlands firefighter, rookies must endure 40 hours of fire school, which covers the basic science of fire and weather dynamics. They must also take a class to learn to operate and repair a chainsaw, a tool that firefighters seem to treat with the attention and respect that soldiers afford their guns. Finally, before each fire season, every firefighter must pass a work capacity test, which involves running three miles while wearing a 45-pound pack, in under 45 minutes.
Despite all of this, and despite the daunting fire season ahead, Snyder and Robinson aren’t complaining.
“I like the physical and mental challenge of the job,” Robinson said, as he sharpened the teeth on his saw. “I get bored easily, and with this job, you never get bored.”