For the 26 members of the Grand Junction Fire Department Wildland Fire Team, it’s been a busy year.
“We’ve basically been out from the beginning of August to the end of October. It seemed as soon as we got an engine back, it would get picked up right away,” GJFD Wildland Team Member Josh Evans said.
Although the wildfire season was slow to begin the summer in Colorado, it started to pick up in August and by the end of October the state added three new 100,000+ acre wildfires to its history.
Colorado wasn’t alone in putting up big numbers this year.
In California, five of the state’s six largest wildfires started in 2020 burning more than 2 million acres between them, according to the Sacramento Bee. In Wyoming, just over the border with Colorado, the Mullen Fire, currently at 97% containment according to the Incident Command team, has become one of the largest in the state’s history at 176,878 acres. Prior to 2002, Colorado had never had a wildfire over 100,000 acres recorded, according to the Colorado Sun. The state now has six in its history.
As part of a national and statewide network, the GJFD Wildland Team resources, typically an engine or two, can be requested by federal agencies throughout the wildfire season.
“As long as staffing is not an issue, we will leave within the hour or next day and our commitment is a two-week deployment including travel,” Evans explained.
After three months of deployments, nobody is happier to see winter than wildland firefighters.
“Some of these guys have families and it’s hard to be gone for two weeks at a time. This season has been very taxing,” Evans said.
One firefighter was deployed for 57 days.
“A long season can definitely stretch the firefighters thin,” Evans added.
Once the Wildland Fire Team leaves and is assigned to an incident, they are under contract with the federal government. From August through November, the team was called to the Streeter Fire in Moffat County, the Apple Fire, which started on July 31 in California and the Mullen Fire, which started in Wyoming on Oct. 17. They have also been assigned to the Cameron Peak Fire, which has burned more than 200,000 acres in Larimer County and the East Troublesome Fire, which has burned nearly 200,000 acres in Grand County.
“They plug us in with whatever other resources are there. Assignments can vary from doing direct fire suppression, structure protection, burnout operations and more,” Evans said. “What we do is not glamorous. Sometimes it’s bad food, bad weather, sleeping on the ground. Some situations dictate that shifts can run for 24 hours.”
A normal shift lasts about 16 hours.
During one particularly active week, Evans said the station made one of its engines available to the Bureau of Land Management and it was picked up within 10 minutes. He admitted there was a stretch this year the wildfire season was as active as he’s ever seen it.
“It’s been a few years since we were at National Preparedness Level 5 and to have it sustained for that long … that means resources were stretched to the point where none were left. Anymore large incidents and we would have really been struggling,” he said.
GJFD Wildland Team members spent a total of 115 days deployed on wildfire and initial attack assignments in three states: California, Wyoming and Colorado.
“This season was different for us because of the severity of fires in our own state. Areas that haven’t burned or not susceptible to fires burned with very dry fuels,” Evans said.
Only 18 miles outside of Grand Junction, the Pine Gulch Fire briefly became the largest fire in Colorado’s history on Aug. 27 and, although the GJFD Wildland Fire Team helped out at the two Front Range fires that would eventually top the Pine Gulch’s 139,007 acres, they actually weren’t assigned to the wildfire closer to their backyard.
“There’s not much we can do. Once we become available, we can be picked up by another state,” Evans explained.
Team members still kept an eye on the Pine Gulch blaze, especially when it jumped 30,000 acres one night.
“We are Grand Junction firefighters and the city is our priority and anytime there’s something that close to the city, it’s definitely something we are thinking about,” he said.
Evans was part of crews that worked in temperatures reaching 109 degrees in California down to 11 degrees in Wyoming by the end of October.
“With frozen pumps and hose lines, it is very hard on the equipment when it gets that cold,” Evans said.
Fighting fires in Wyoming and California can also be different than fighting them in Colorado in several ways.
“Its an entirely different experience than fighting fires in cities. Different terrain, different fuel type,” Evans said.
Traveling to different fire commands also provides the crews the chance to see how other fire departments across the country do things.
“We’re with engines in North Carolina and Wisconsin and it’s great to see how other agencies fight fires. One of the big benefits of going to other incidents is that we learn a lot,” he said.
Although 2020 has certainly been busy, Evans expects to be coordinating until late December and said it’s typical for the Wildland Fire Team to go to other states.
“I haven’t been to Nevada, I’ve been to the rest of the western states these past 10 years,” he said.