Firefighter agency expects average year

Alex Zorn

In the summer of 1994, a wildfire on Storm King Mountain, outside Glenwood Springs, took the lives of 14 firefighters and changed the way firefighters and local agencies communicate forever. Now, nearly 23 years later, local agencies are still taking those lessons to heart, ensuring that communication never suffers when dealing with wildfires.

On Tuesday morning, the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire and Aviation Management Unit invited members of the media to Rifle Garfield County Airport to show how collaboration and communication between each of the agencies has turned it into a top firefighting facility for the state.

Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire and Aviation Management Unity Fire Management Officer Josh Tibbetts began by giving a brief look at the 2016 fire season, noting that it came out to be more in line with the average after several consecutive down seasons. The Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire and Aviation Management Unit responded to around 200 wildfires in 2016, 75 to 80 of which were started by people, according to Tibbetts.

So far in 2017, 28 fires have been recorded in the area, 25 of which were caused by humans, compared with nine fires by this point last year, seven of which were caused by humans. Despite the increase, Tibbetts expects the total number of fires to still be around 200.

“As we move into fire season we want everyone to be safe and mindful when it comes to wildfires,” he added.

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The Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire and Aviation Management Unit provides a full range of fire management services to participating federal, state and local jurisdictions across 5.8 million acres along the Interstate 70 and Colorado River corridors from the Continental Divide to the Utah state line.

‘Good Service to All’

It comprises the Bureau of Land Management’s Colorado River Valley and Grand Junction field offices and the White River National Forest, and cooperates with other federal and state agencies, local communities and fire departments to ensure that no region is left unprotected.

“We couldn’t do anything without the collaboration between the BLM, Forest Service, state and county,” said Rob Berger, fire management officer for the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire and Aviation Management Unit. “The program helps to provide good service to all taxpayers.”

With a dispatch center in Grand Junction and engines stretched all of the way to Silverthorne, Berger it’s not likely for the interagency group to be stretched too thin, because partners as well as nearby agencies can always be called on to assist.

“These kinds of events help build those work relationships,” Berger added. “The dispatch center will coordinate with counties, BLM and other departments and pull resources in. If we exceed capabilities locally, then we put an order in and get help from partnering agencies.”

For example, the media day was supposed to include a presentation of the Type 3 Helicopter with Helitack as one of the many tools the firefighters use, however it was called on to assist with a developing situation.

“The reverse could happen where we need something,” said David Boyd, public information officer with the BLM. “We’re not the only group that does this, but it’s very effective.”

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