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Keep firefighter safety top priority

Heather McGregor and Dennis Webb

The pattern is familiar: a dry winter with too little snow, a spate of hot summer weather, a spark in the tinder-dry backcountry, and a stiff wind to feed a huge wildfire blow-up.

We have seen it in Battlement Mesa, on Divide Creek and on Storm King Mountain, and we saw it again this weekend in South Canyon. This time, the fire spread east across Red Mountain and north up Mitchell Creek and onto the Flat Tops.

After two days of smoke and fear, the fire is still out of control.

It could still be fed by winds down into central Glenwood Springs, or eastward across Iron Mountain to Glenwood Canyon.

Glenwood Springs is now under the protection of a federal Type I fire management team, led by the unflappable Steve Hart of the Colorado State Forest Service. Hart has called in more air tankers, helicopters and engineers and ordered ground crews, which are expected to arrive today and Tuesday.

So far, the fire has been fought from the air – the safest strike zone for a volatile, blow-up fire. But air attacks from slurry bombers and helicopters are only as effective as the ground crews that come in behind to cut fireproof lines and pummel cinders into cold oblivion.

Some residents have begun to question and criticize the strategy to hold off on placing ground crews on the fire.

Have they forgotten the lessons so painfully learned in 1994 with the Storm King Fire? In that blow-up, 14 firefighters died and 49 narrowly escaped from the path of a wind-driven blow-up.

Certainly, the nation’s fire establishment has improved its methods. Now, firefighter safety is the top priority as crews work to protect private property. Communication is emphasized, as illustrated by the widespread warning of pending fire hazard due to high winds, hot temperatures and low humidity.

But better methods don’t negate the basic truth that it’s very hard to outrun a wildfire.

After Storm King, many people whose homes were left intact said if they could, they would exchange their possessions and shelter for the promising young lives claimed in the tragic blaze.

It was too late to make the trade, nor would it have been so clear-cut.

But by calling on firefighting agencies to “Do something,” residents living in the murky shadow of wildfire are asking fire managers to risk exactly such a trade-off.

Losing a home to fire is a devastating experience, no doubt about it.

Sadly, more than a dozen families in our community are now dealing with this tragic loss.

We fully expect Glenwood Springs and its neighbors to rally in support of these folks, easing the many difficulties they will face in the weeks and months ahead.

We can donate money, open our homes, cook meals and be a listening ear for those who have lost their homes. We salute and thank those who have already done all this, and more.

Meanwhile, it’s fair to ask fire managers for a clear explanation of firefighting strategy as they lay plans to deal with an unpredictable beast that seems intent on devouring our town.

But it’s not fair to pressure them into decisions that will put firefighters’ lives at risk.

Neither, for that matter, is it fair to place emergency crews in increased danger by ignoring evacuation orders, and potentially ending up in a position where they are forced to risk their lives to conduct an unnecessary rescue.

We urge all residents to abide by those orders and trust authorities’ judgment regarding when it is safe to return to their homes.

No one enjoys being uprooted from their homes. But it’s far better than to lose a life unnecessarily at the hands of a wildfire.

Just ask the families of the 14 who died on Storm King.

– The pattern is familiar: a dry winter with too little snow, a spate of hot summer weather, a spark in the tinder-dry backcountry, and a stiff wind to feed a huge wildfire blow-up.

We have seen it in Battlement Mesa, on Divide Creek and on Storm King Mountain, and we saw it again this weekend in South Canyon. This time, the fire spread east across Red Mountain and north up Mitchell Creek and onto the Flat Tops.

After two days of smoke and fear, the fire is still out of control.

It could still be fed by winds down into central Glenwood Springs, or eastward across Iron Mountain to Glenwood Canyon.

Glenwood Springs is now under the protection of a federal Type I fire management team, led by the unflappable Steve Hart of the Colorado State Forest Service. Hart has called in more air tankers, helicopters and engineers and ordered ground crews, which are expected to arrive today and Tuesday.

So far, the fire has been fought from the air – the safest strike zone for a volatile, blow-up fire. But air attacks from slurry bombers and helicopters are only as effective as the ground crews that come in behind to cut fireproof lines and pummel cinders into cold oblivion.

Some residents have begun to question and criticize the strategy to hold off on placing ground crews on the fire.

Have they forgotten the lessons so painfully learned in 1994 with the Storm King Fire? In that blow-up, 14 firefighters died and 49 narrowly escaped from the path of a wind-driven blow-up.

Certainly, the nation’s fire establishment has improved its methods. Now, firefighter safety is the top priority as crews work to protect private property. Communication is emphasized, as illustrated by the widespread warning of pending fire hazard due to high winds, hot temperatures and low humidity.

But better methods don’t negate the basic truth that it’s very hard to outrun a wildfire.

After Storm King, many people whose homes were left intact said if they could, they would exchange their possessions and shelter for the promising young lives claimed in the tragic blaze.

It was too late to make the trade, nor would it have been so clear-cut.

But by calling on firefighting agencies to “Do something,” residents living in the murky shadow of wildfire are asking fire managers to risk exactly such a trade-off.

Losing a home to fire is a devastating experience, no doubt about it.

Sadly, more than a dozen families in our community are now dealing with this tragic loss.

We fully expect Glenwood Springs and its neighbors to rally in support of these folks, easing the many difficulties they will face in the weeks and months ahead.

We can donate money, open our homes, cook meals and be a listening ear for those who have lost their homes. We salute and thank those who have already done all this, and more.

Meanwhile, it’s fair to ask fire managers for a clear explanation of firefighting strategy as they lay plans to deal with an unpredictable beast that seems intent on devouring our town.

But it’s not fair to pressure them into decisions that will put firefighters’ lives at risk.

Neither, for that matter, is it fair to place emergency crews in increased danger by ignoring evacuation orders, and potentially ending up in a position where they are forced to risk their lives to conduct an unnecessary rescue.

We urge all residents to abide by those orders and trust authorities’ judgment regarding when it is safe to return to their homes.

No one enjoys being uprooted from their homes. But it’s far better than to lose a life unnecessarily at the hands of a wildfire.

Just ask the families of the 14 who died on Storm King.

– Heather McGregor, managing editor

Dennis Webb, news editor

Dennis Webb, news editor


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