History of fires a teacher for Garfield County

A fire department can never truly have enough resources when a major wildfire strikes.

But thanks to Garfield County’s history of damaging and sometimes deadly wildfires, and other factors including a healthy tax base from oil and gas development and increased efforts to cooperate among departments, officials with local departments say their readiness has been much improved over the years.

“I would say our resource levels are better than they were 10 years ago, that’s I think for sure,” said Gary Tillotson, acting chief of the Glenwood Springs Fire Department.

It was 10 years ago that an underground coal seam fire surfaced west of Glenwood Springs, igniting vegetation and sparking the Coal Seam Fire. It roared across the Colorado River and Interstate 70, burning about 30 homes in the Glenwood area.

“Do you ever have enough (resources) in the event of a Coal Seam (Fire)? No. Would you like to have more? Sure, we’d all like to have more resources available, but particularly in these economic times and just as a general all-around fiscal responsibility we try to do more with less, but what we have done is we’ve definitely strengthened our partnerships and our ability to bring to bear more resources quicker on these (wildland) interface-type fires,” Tillotson said.

One of those partnerships has been with federal agencies. As a result of incidents including the Coal Seam Fire and the 1994 fire on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs that killed 14 firefighters, federal agencies have beefed up their response capability in the region. The Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit includes a response team based in Rifle.

“It’s really nice to know that there’s a helicopter available a high percentage of the time should something break out here,” Tillotson said. “… The (wildfire) potential here on the Western Slope is huge and they’re not letting that go unnoticed in terms of trying to keep resources available here.”

He said firefighters began wildfire refresher training earlier than normal this year because of the dry conditions. Firefighters from Glenwood, Rifle and the Burning Mountains Fire Department in the New Castle and Silt area trained with the Upper Colorado River crews on topics such as filling the tanks used by planes to make drops on fires.

Between local departments and the Upper Colorado entity, “We rely on each other to do good, quick initial attack and to hopefully keep small fires small,” Tillotson said.

This year’s big wildfire season also comes after the Glenwood, Rifle and Burning Mountains departments already had begun working to better coordinate services and share resources in order to improve their structural fire and wildfire response and make the most of the equipment and staffing available to them.

Fire districts and the city of Glenwood Springs have formed Colorado River Fire Rescue, and they are pursuing the possibility of forming a joint fire authority. But already they have agreed on things such as a “dropped-border” response in which the closest station or resources respond to a fire, regardless of the fire district in which it occurs, said Chad Harris, deputy fire chief in Rifle.

Rifle and Burning Mountains have signed an agreement allowing for operational and administrative consolidation, and in May jointly hired 22 part-time employees, Harris said. Also, six full-time firefighters are being hired and a volunteer recruitment process has begun, he said.

Still, both Harris and Tillotson said the departments also continue to rely on mutual aid from other departments for big fires. Harris said other agencies such as the Garfield County Sheriff’s Department also play an important assisting role.

“We’re all working mutually and collectively,” Harris said.

“We feel we have a good working relationship with the neighboring fire departments and with federal crews”, said David Blair, chief of the Grand Valley Fire Protection District, which serves the Parachute/Battlement Mesa area.

Fitness, classroom training

That area also has a significant history with wildfires, and the department long has been involved in wildfire training and other response readiness efforts, Blair said.

That history includes a 1976 fire in which three ground crew members and a tanker pilot died in separate incidents, fires that burned 4,000 acres in 1987 and 880 acres in 1994, and one that burned nine houses in 1999.

All full-time firefighters in the department not only have been trained for wildfires but have passed a wildfire firefighting fitness test, and most part-timers and volunteers have done wildfire classroom work, he said. For years, the department has had brush trucks, water tenders, all-terrain vehicles and other equipment designed for wildfire work.

The department has a $4.7 million budget derived from an assessed property valuation of $1.4 billion, $1.3 billion of which comes from the oil and gas industry.

“If it wasn’t for oil and gas we would not be where we are today,” Blair said.

Part-timers, volunteers

Burning Mountains and Rifle also gain substantially from the industry’s tax base, unlike Glenwood’s department, which has about a $3 million budget despite serving a much larger population than Grand Valley’s department.

Blair said that initially the industry also posed something of a wildfire risk, particularly when it used to do a lot of flaring of natural gas, which involves burning it off above the surface. But now it rarely flares, and does so up into the air rather than over pits, he said. Between that and the clear space around most well sites, wildfires related to the industry’s operations are exceedingly rare, he said.

The Grand Valley district hired six full-time seasonal firefighters to provide extra help due to this year’s extreme wildfire danger. It also is making more use of part-timers and volunteers so it can have up to 10 people available on any shift for the next three months, compared with four normally.

All the departments from Glenwood to Grand Valley rely on a mix of full-time, part-time and volunteer firefighters.

“We’re trying to up our number of volunteers,” Tillotson said.

Fire officials said volunteers are important to boosting overall firefighter numbers. The departments are taking steps to improve the ability to count on volunteers to be available when needed. Blair said Grand Valley volunteers sign up for shifts and also respond to big fires. In return for volunteering, they become eligible for a pension.

“It has been working. We have been doing this for I think the past three years,” he said.

Harris said volunteers in Rifle can decide when they’ll be available, “but obviously when they’re (scheduled to be) available, there will be an expectation that they’ll be utilized.”


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