Eagle County wildland firefighters help battle millions of acres of fires across the country
November 8, 2017
EAGLE — This summer, Hugh Fairfield-Smith and his crew traveled to Montana, Washington, Oregon, Kansas grasslands and northern California.
They were not on vacation, not even working vacations.
Most people move away from fire as fast as they can. Fairfield-Smith and his crew drive into it, traveling thousands of miles to battle millions of acres of wildland fires.
The question Fairfield-Smith gets most often: "Why do you leave?"
"They're worried we're leaving our community unprotected," Fairfield-Smith said.
They needn't be.
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"If our fire danger is high at home, we won't go," Fairfield-Smith said.
The crew is based out of the Greater Eagle Fire Protection District, and they're part of Resource Ordering and Status System, a nationwide network of wildland firefighters who rally almost every time they're called.
"When an incident gets big and can no longer be controlled by local resources, they send word that they need help," Fairfield-Smith said.
It's reciprocal, he said.
"We love helping these other communities. If we need help at home, they're going to come help us," Fairfield-Smith said.
Training and experience
Training is great, but experience is better.
"The guys are getting incredible training. They'll be much more prepared, much more calm in the face of a big fire," Fairfield-Smith said.
All fires are big when you're in them.
Three crew members went to Kansas in April to fight a 1.2 million-acre grass fire. They were there for about a week.
The season got into fill swing with five days in Rangely for the Dead Dog fire. That one was 18,000 acres.
They got the call for eastern Montana's 250,000-acre Lodge Pole Complex fire. As long as they were in the neighborhood, they rolled to the 1,000-acre fire in Bruner, Montana. That was 14 days in Montana.
They were home for about a week when Oregon called for some help on the Umpqua Complex, several fires over 17 days. Another four days found them fighting other fires in Oregon.
Washington state's not far away, and the Eagle Creek fire in Columbia Gorge was blazing, so they headed north for a stint there.
They were home long enough to do laundry before another call came. They headed to northern California's Napa Valley area, although they did not actually go to Napa Valley, and even if they had, a wine country tour was not to be part of the deal.
"You get used to the idea that, come June, you're going on the road. It seems like many times when we have plans for a vacation, we're called to a fire instead," Fairfield-Smith said. "I think we're done for this year. But about the time I start to think that, we're back out on a fire."
'Good group of guys'
Fairfield-Smith is the engine boss, or the officer in charge of these crews. Eric Hill, Clayton Forsyth, Brandan Brauch, Ryan Gregor, Ryan Cullen and Capt. Darren Zunno are all from the Greater Eagle Fire Protection District. They took Gypsum firefighter Lt. Patrick McGann to Montana, and Damian Trow to Oregon.
"It's a good group of guys. You don't get more than 15 or 20 feet from each other for 14 to 21 days, so we get to know each other very, very well," Fairfield-Smith said.
Every fire is different. That eastern Montana fire devoured 200,000 acres of grassland in a couple of days. The northern California fires crept very slowly along steep terrain and deep canyons.
Before they think about anything else, they think about safety, Fairfield-Smith said.
"The first thing we look for is escape routes. If there aren't any, we don't do it," Fairfield-Smith said. "In a go or no-go situation, it's usually a long list. If there's a 'no' anywhere in there, we're not going."
In his four years, Fairfield-Smith said he has battled more than 50 wildland fires, and many more if you count the small ones along the side of the road.
They can build a box around a wildfire with hand tools or bulldozers and fight fire with fire by setting a fire inside their line, sending it toward the main fire.
"You cannot burn what's already been burned. That's a great tactic to use," Fairfield-Smith said.
Fire does not think or feel or show remorse. It consumes.
"Fire is a very powerful thing," Fairfield-Smith said.
They'll be reminded of that when the sky clears in the spring, when weather warms and dries, the calls come and they drive toward the plumes of smoke, as everyone else is driving away.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.