Help from above
Although the High Country’s firefighters are trained and prepared for a large-scale event – and fire experts have been working with residents and neighborhoods to reduce the risk of destruction – they know a fire can quickly surpass their capabilities.
If that happens, firefighters will pick up a phone and call the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Air Center.
The center, the center is one of six in Colorado and 11 in the Rocky Mountains, is comprised of:
– A network of remote weather stations.
– A dispatch center with a clearinghouse of fire department equipment and crews throughout the Western Slope.
– A base for parachuting firefighters, known as “smokejumpers.”
– A mixing station for fire-retardant chemicals.
– An airbase at the west end of the Grand Junction Airport.
“Last November, they sent us to Kentucky; this year, to Deckers and Bailey,” said Lt. Mike Roll, Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue’s public information officer. “We’d be absolutely dependent on them if we had a big fire. Once we recognize it’s going to get beyond our resources, we call them.”
Air center staff members are expecting plenty of calls this summer. Representatives from the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado Park Service, Mesa County Sheriff’s Office and the Great Basin Smokejumpers met recently at the air center to brief media and government personnel on the center’s operations.
They spoke of comparisons in hushed tones: Extreme, severe and moderate drought conditions across the state, scenarios that haven’t been seen since the 1930s; above-average dryness and fire danger; hypothetical fires with enough energy to decimate forests or communities.
“The message we’ve been trying to get out is that there’s a different set of rules this summer,” said Tim Foley, a former smokejumper-turned-fire analyst who tracks data from the hundreds of remote weather stations west of the Continental Divide and creates maps of the information. “This is not the same game, not even with a small fire. Things that normally won’t burn are going to burn this year.”
Crews at the air center know what a challenge a busy wildfire summer can be. In 2000, although there were no fires in the immediate area, the center was the filling station for 13 air tankers assisting firefighters with fire-retardant chemical drops around the state. The center set a record that year, filling planes with 150,000 gallons a day and 2 million gallons total for the summer.
“Yeah, we were filling ’em up like the Indy 500,” said James Long, a technician with Fire-Trol, who mixes and pumps the retardant.
The race goes on all summer for hotshots like Joel Kerley and Dustin Matsuoka. For 140 to 180 days a year, the Great Basin Smokejumpers fly between Boise, Idaho and southern Nevada, usually serving stints in Grand Junction or Canon City. The men said they consider themselves a part of an elite brotherhood.
The unit only hires trained firefighters – teaching skydiving is complex enough to take up all training time. Wearing 80 pounds of protective gear, carrying enough food and water to survive for two days in the wildest of wildlands, and with cargo boxes dropped behind them, the smokejumpers skydive into remote areas that fire engines can’t reach.
“This is an all-risk environment, and you have to count on the other people you work with,” said Kerley, who found his way into the career after working as a firefighter during college summers. “But it’s travel, it’s dynamic work and there’s a lot of camaraderie.”
It’s a tough job for family men, though. Kerley and Matsuoka are both married with children. Matsuoka said his children “dig” his job and he looks forward to winters when he gets to spend every day with them.
“You miss a lot of soccer games,” Matsuoka said. “It’s hard. But this is important work.”
Kara Stringer sees just how important the work is for High Country communities. A Blue River resident, Stringer spends her winters teaching skiing at Breckenridge Resort. During the summer, she’s a Forest Service firefighting engine foreman based at the Holy Cross Wilderness Ranger’s Office in Minturn. She leads an off-road wildland fire engine and crew of seven. The truck carries 850 gallons of water, thousands of feet of hose and, with a chase truck, can sustain the crew for a week in the woods.
Stringer said fighting wildfires is exciting because it’s different everyday, and “it gets under your skin.” But she hopes she doesn’t have to do it close to home.
“I have an 18-month-old and a dog, and we’re pretty secluded in Blue River, so I worry,” Stringer said. “But I’ve also done everything I could to prepare and create a defensible space around the house. … A lot of people have tapped into the resources available. There’s a lot of people in the woods, but I think people are smart and well-educated about the fire danger.”