Colorado fire crews expect average season, plan for worst |

Colorado fire crews expect average season, plan for worst

Associated Press Writer
In this Wednesday, May 20, 2009 photo, firefighters stage on Spider Lake road in the town of Pine Lake north of Rhinelander, Wis. for a wildfire that ignited after high winds toppled a tree that subsequently downed a power line High winds contributed to a spate of wildfires across the area Wednesday, several of which were still burning Thursday.(AP Photo/Rhinelander Daily News, Luke Laggis)
AP | Rhinelander Daily News

LAKEWOOD, Colo. ” Top firefighting managers from nearly 20 agencies across Colorado huddled this week, brainstorming ways to deploy people and resources if several wildfires were burning at the same time.

Fire officials say the exercise at a federal office building in suburban Lakewood was an important experience as they wrestle with development in forests and compete nationwide for supplies and crews during what have become increasingly intense fire seasons.

Perhaps the biggest benefit, mangers said, was just getting to know each other.

“A lot of planning, questioning, requesting, strategizing in a wildland fire emergency happens late at night and early in the morning,” said Bob Leaverton, supervisor of the Pike and San Isabel national forests.

Leaverton said it’s easier to call someone at 2 a.m. for help if there’s already a relationship.

Building relationships and figuring out how local, state and federal agencies can help each other are some of the reasons for the drills by the interagency National Incident Management Organization.

Spokesman Mike Ferris said the organization’s teams are assigned to different regions of the U.S. Forest Service to help train and prepare agencies.

Ferris said the management group has identified 30 forests nationwide that have large recurring fires and four are in Colorado: White River, Pike-San Isabel, Arapahoe-Roosevelt and Routt-Medicine Bow.

Colorado agencies often team up for training exercises, but Wednesday’s drill brought together people with a wide range of expertise, said Pueblo Fire Chief Christopher Riley.

“One of the senior fire executives here said that in his 28 years of being in the Colorado state fire system, this is the first time these many disciplines got together for an exercise like this,” said Riley, president of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association.

The group responded to a simulated series of wildfires across the state, coordinating across jurisdictions to protect homes and people and dispatching crews and equipment. The simulation included big fires in other states so the Colorado managers had to figure out how to make do with limited resources.

“I think it was a good process to identify gaps in understanding and gaps in having in place processes so that when you’re in the emergency situation, you don’t have to invent something,” said Linda Anania, deputy state director for resources and fire at the Colorado Bureau of Land Management.

Colorado’s late spring snows and rain likely have turned what could have been a rough wildfire season into an average one, said Steve Segin, spokesman for the interagency Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center.

“Even if it goes dry tomorrow, it would take two, three weeks of warm, dry temperatures to dry that stuff out,” Segin said. “And that really puts it into monsoon season.”

That doesn’t mean there won’t be fires or problems, Segin added.

Of particular concern are the areas along Interstates 25 and 70 where growth has exploded on the edges of and in forests. Another potential danger is the tens of thousands of acres of trees killed by bark beetles that fire managers fear could fuel massive blazes.

Most of the managers were in Colorado in 2000, when wildfires roared through heavily populated parts of the foothills west of Denver, and 2002, when the Hayman Fire tore through 138,000 acres of tinder-dry forests.

“The chance of repeating a Hayman was looking likely in March,” Leaverton said, “but right now, I’d say it’s looking not likely.”

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