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The Hart of the firefighting effort

Donna Daniels

It’s Wednesday morning in the fire camp.

The firefighters are long gone. A few supply folks are packing up food for the crews in the spike camps up on the Flat Tops. Someone is spraying water on a dry patch of lawn just below the Storm King Memorial.

Incident commander Steve Hart, 57, the No. 1 man on the Coal Seam Fire, sits under the shade of a picnic pavilion, eating chocolate chip cookies and sipping a Mountain Dew.

In less serene moments, Hart is the still point around which revolves the chaos of fielding more than 600 firefighters and supply crews, scores of vehicles, fixed wing aircraft and helicopters.

Hart, a veteran of 30 years of firefighting, is more than up to the task. He has seen it all.

“I’ve had bomb threats, I’ve been shot at,” he said.

The shooting came on a California fire “when we got a little close to a marijuana field,” he laughed.

He fought the Yellowstone National Park fire in 1988. He was on the clean-up team for the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. He’s fought the big fires that broke out west of Denver over the past two years. He was on the 250,000-acre Clear Creek fire in Idaho in 2000.

He’s also become something of a media celebrity. While on the wildfire that threatened Bailey this spring, Hart was interviewed by the Today Show’s Bryant Gumbel.

“I had a minute and a half,” he said, a relatively long time for the usual TV sound bite. “It was 4 a.m. and freezing cold at 9,000 feet. It was fun. It was a new experience for me.”

Fun and adventure are the name of the game for Hart. On his days off, just for fun, he test drives NASCAR race cars.

Hart wants his crews to have fun on the job as well.

“It’s a fun job. I want my team to be relaxed, to be laid back, to laugh,” he said.

Then when the going gets tough, “they have enough room in their stress bucket to be able to handle it.”

He loves the bond that is forged between the members of the incident management team and the firefighters.

“When we `de-mob’ and go back home, the tears flow. We live by each other. If a person messes up, we all mess up,” he said.

Hart heads up the Rocky Mountain Interagency Management Team. Such Type I teams are the elite of firefighting forces, organized along military lines and staffed by people from federal and state land management agencies.

There are 15 such teams in the country. All are sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture, whose umbrella also covers the U.S. Forest Service.

Hart’s home agency is the Colorado State Forest Service, where he works full time for the fire division as a trainer and grant writer.

“Incident management team members are like volunteer firemen. When they get a call, they grab their yellow shirts and join the team,” Hart said.

The Rocky Mountain team is made of members from the Wyoming Division of Forestry, the National Park Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the Boulder Fire Department.

Hart has finance, planning, logistics, safety, air operations and information officers under him.

During fire season, they are on call for fires anywhere in the country, he said.

The incident management system grew out of the chaos of a series of big fires in California in the 1960s, Hart said.

“The agencies had different kinds of management systems and they couldn’t communicate with each other,” he said.

The incident command system was created for emergency response. What makes it work is the same chain of command for every team and uniform procedures, whether it’s for fighting fire, oil spills or dealing with natural disasters, Hart said.

All incident command team members go through rigorous training, which Hart calls “Top Gun” school, a two-week class at the National Advanced Resource Technical Center in Marana, Ariz.

Out of 120 recruits, only 80 will pass.

“In some cases it’s career-ending,” Hart said.

“The minute you get off the bus the instructor is in your face screaming,” he said.

Classes run from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. for the full 14 days.

During the last week, the trainees simulate the conditions of an “incident.” They play the roles not only of firefighters but of politicians with a million questions, disgruntled sheriffs and frightened civilians, he said.

Over the last three days of training, they are given what are called 520s, scenarios that could happen during an incident that they must solve on the spot.

Hart said he judges the severity of a fire not by its size or the number of firefighters called out, but by how many 520s he has to deal with.

He’s had his share on the Coal Seam Fire, little incidents that call for patience and flexibility.

“The (state) Department of Natural Resources doesn’t believe the fire was caused by a coal seam (fire breaking out), so they order a second investigation,” he said. Or one upset citizen calls every day reporting smoke. Or the governor shows up and wants to tour the fire.

“I’m not good at all at that. It’s pretty intense,” Hart said. “On some fires, it’s worthless to be there, because you can’t satisfy anybody.”

Compared to other fires he’s been on, the Coal Seam was “about average” for 520s.

As the fire goes into its second week, Hart is looking forward to reaching the end of his time here. He’s hoping he’ll get to go home to Manitou Springs. Although if and when he does get home, he will be uncomfortably close to the Hayman Fire, the largest wildfire in the state’s history.

“I want to sit in my backyard with a margarita and watch what’s going on,” he said.


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