Drought prompts Western Slope fire departments to boost equipment, training
Fire was clearly in the forecast months ago as a dry winter left thousands of acres of pinyon-juniper forest in western Colorado as susceptible to ignition as an open gasoline can.
“We’re dreading it, believe me,” said James Wood, deputy chief of Lands End Fire Protection District in Whitewater.
Lands End is one of several western Colorado fire departments that have the dual task of protecting the houses and businesses against the threat of fire common to human settlements and dealing with raging wildfires in the pinyon-juniper forest that surrounds them.
The threat became reality quickly this year, when the Sunrise Mine fire broke out May 25 in John Brown Canyon not far from Gateway. Last week, a fire broke out in Bull Basin on the north side of Grand Mesa. Firefighters with the Plateau Valley Fire Protection District attacked and put the blaze down, but even two days later were still mopping up.
Gateway-Unaweep Fire Chief David Anderson was the first of the rural-district chiefs to deal with the fire onslaught everyone knew was coming.
“We haven’t had a fire season for the last few years, so a lot of brush has grown up,” Anderson said.
Gateway-Unaweep purchased a brush truck from the Bureau of Land Management in anticipation of a busy fire season.
Much as was the case for the De Beque Volunteer Rescue Department a few weeks later, it fell to Gateway-Unaweep to protect the town against the blaze as the Sunrise Mine fire raged in John Brown Canyon.
“We’re not the front line,” Anderson said. “We’re there for structure protection.”
In some cases, though, protecting structures means battling fire in the brush before it can reach buildings.
In the event of a fast-moving brush fire, there’s a protocol for bringing in additional firefighting capacity that leads to the sheriff’s department, then to the state and eventually to the Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service as a fire blooms into a full conflagration.
That was exactly the scenario that was haunting Lands End Fire Chief George Kornfeld on June 29 as the Pine Ridge fire blazed toward the Colorado River several miles and full breadth of 10,000-foot Grand Mesa away.
Kornfeld and his new brush truck, acquired, as was the case with Gateway, when it became clear that western Colorado was in flames’ way come summer, was looking warily to the north on June 29.
Had the fire jumped the river, it didn’t take much imagination to see it running across the mesa and into his jurisdiction, Kornfeld said.
“I was sweating,” Kornfeld said.
Kornfeld and Wood did more than acquire the brush truck for fighting wildfire. They also worked on the department’s tender truck — the one that can carry 2,600 gallons to a fire scene — so it could supply the brush truck, which can deliver 100 gallons of water immediately to a blaze.
The brush truck also was fitted with equipment that delivers air-compressed foam with water, a mixture that gives the 100-gallon truck the firefighting capacity of 500 gallons because it makes water more effective than a plain water.
Five Lands End firefighters obtained wildland fire certification and the department also obtained brush pants, gloves, helmets and other wildland-fire fighting gear for its crews.
The department also worked with the BLM to make sure both agencies could communicate in the event they need to cooperate on a fast-growing blaze.
Mesa County’s geographic-information systems unit also was brought into the planning as fire officials set up as much information as possible.
“We’re hoping all the planning is for naught,” Wood said.
High atop the Uncompahgre Plateau, the specter of wildfire is nothing new to the Glade Park Fire Department, where firefighters have emphasized regular patrols in the area of Fruita reservoirs, Enoch Lake and the Potholes in hopes of discouraging man-made fires.
“At least every weekend there is one if not more illegal fires,” Glade Park Fire Chief Rich Trotter said. “We advise them of the fire ban and put out the fire. Most people play dumb and say they didn’t know there was a fire ban.”
Glade Park officials also are making it a point to discuss the fire threat with residents. It’s not as though they have to be prompted, Trotter said.
“It’s a pretty popular topic of conversation up here right now,” he said. “I’m talking to a lot of people who are getting ready to evacuate. There are a lot of people looking ahead.”
County and federal officials appear ready to jump in should fire break out, Trotter said.
Officials in departments small and large also regularly check on maps of lightning strikes supplied by the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit at Grand Junction Regional Airport.
“We check lightning strikes all the time,” De Beque Fire Chief Nick Marx said.
Lightning strikes can be tricky business because fires that start as a result of bolts tend to be “sleepers,” or bits of wood that smolder after the strike only to leap into blaze with a whiff of a breeze.
His crews are trained and De Beque already had the equipment it needed, Marx said.
The department’s near trial by fire last month “went really well,” Marx said, “because it didn’t jump the river.
His department was staged to protect the town against the advance of the fire.
“We planned for that stuff long in advance” and the department has in place the agreements with nearby departments and other agencies should their help be needed, Marx said.
The specter of fire wasn’t lost on the Plateau Valley Fire Protection District, either, Chief Mike Lockwood said.
Firefighters refurbished three brush trucks, installing newer, better chassis and added hose that meets current standards, he said.
Firefighters also have been working to remove ladder fuels — the dry grasses, weeds and shrubs that lay close to the ground — giving fire the opportunity to climb the first rungs toward the treetops, where they can rage across miles of forest canopy.
Some residents have voiced fears of clear-cutting, but the idea is to reduce the low-lying fuels, not eliminate the forest, Lockwood said.
The Bull Basin Fire in Plateau Valley’s jurisdiction last week was an example of the speed at which the firefighting system can work.
“Within just a couple minutes, we had ourselves, the sheriff’s office, BLM, De Beque fire, three airplanes and a helicopter” moving in on the fire near Molina, threatening about 500 homes, Lockwood said.
Quick response limited the fire to 22 acres and various resources peeled off as the blaze came under control.
Out of the 126 firefighters who doused it, “only 40, 45 didn’t get immediately reassigned to another fire,” Lockwood said.
That left Plateau Valley to mop up, which involves lining firefighters up to work in a checkerboard pattern across the charred terrain, looking for hot spots.
“In mop-up, everybody takes their gloves off, leaving nothing behind that isn’t cold to the touch,” he said.
Despite their best efforts, though, sparks sometimes escape to smolder anew in green areas, he said.
The Bull Basin fire was lightning-sparked, but people need to be double careful in the high country this year, Lockwood said, noting that people who start fires could be held responsible. In the case of Bull Basin, the cost will run between $125,00 and $150,000 “and that’s only a 22-acre fire,” Lockwood said.
The Pine Ridge fire “heightened everybody’s awareness,” Marx said, adding that even with some recent rain “the threat is not even close to being over.”