Watching Over the Wildlands
Most firefighters say they’re motivated to do their treacherous work by the people they protect and rescue. But for Rocky Mountain wildland firefighters, who are often battling blazes burning in remote and rugged wilderness, the things they’re trying to save aren’t always homes and families –it’s Mother Nature.
“It’s the longevity of life itself,” says Randy West, an Eagle-based wildland crew foreman who works for Upper Colorado Interagency Fire Management, a federal agency. “The ecosystem is a big key for all of us who do this.”
But as people build homes deeper and deeper in remote and rural areas, and on the fringes of Colorado’s national forests, naturally-ignited wildfires are becoming more complex and threatening to lives and property.
It’s a problem wildland firefighters call the “wildland-urban” interface. It’s where homes encroach on the wilderness.
“You get tossed between a rock and a hard place, between suppressing fires and letting them do their thing,” West says. “Every time you suppress a fire, you’re leaving that much more fuel to burn at another time. But how can you not suppress a fire when you see these roofs sticking up in the hills?”
A fiery season
A year after Sept. 11, Colorado’s wildland firefighters are battling the worst fire season in history. One of the worst droughts on record has left much of Colorado so dry that the slightest sparks have ignited massive wildfires.
Each day, fire officials use humidity, temperature, wind speed and other factors to determine the risk of a wildfire breaking out.
“All season long, we’ve been setting all-time highs,” says Eric Rebitzke, an assistant fire manager based at the U.S. Forest Service’s ranger station in Minturn. “Dowd Junction has been in uncharted waters all season. It’s amazing.”
No major wildfires have burned in Eagle County, though firefighters like West and his crew have extinguished dozens of small fires from Vail Pass to Avon to the mountain ranges south of Eagle.
“The live trees are so dry they feel like two-by-fours you buy at a lumber yard. There’s no moisture,” West says. “But we’ve had a little luck and good responses. There were a few fires I didn’t think we were going to get out.”
A “red-flag” warning – the highest fire danger – was issued on a recent Thursday as West and his crew, Sylvia Ringer and Brad Kohrmann, watched the wind whip up outside their station in Eagle. Rain was already falling west in Grand Junction and the crew was hoping the rain would spread to the valley to douse the chance of a fire breaking out.
Kohrmann, who grew up around Eagle and Gypsum, says he’s never seen the valley so dry. Even aspen groves, which wildland firefighters have usually used as safe spots while battling fires, are burning, Kohrmann says.
“The way the aspen’s burning, I’ve only seen aspen burn that way in fireplaces,” he says. “It’s amazing how much these fires have taken off, though we really haven’t had too many bad ones in Eagle County.”
Kohrmann was drawn to firefighting by his father, who was a firefighter for 17 years. And then he then got hooked on the adventure, he says.
“It’s the adrenaline and living on the edge. You’re pretty much out there,” he says. “It’s hard to describe, when you see smoke and smell it.”
Kohrmann says there’s a risk to fighting wildland fires, but crews are trained and experienced to gauge the danger, which includes knowing how to judge weather that can change in an instant.
The crew experienced such a rapid change while fighting the Crazy Horse Fire near State Bridge this summer.
“The fire was just smoldering and barely doing anything and all of a sudden, there was active hot flames,” Kohrmann says. “We backed off and thought it was just going to take off. It was amazing how quickly that happened.
Wildland firefighters learn to judge the weather as part of their training, he says.
“When we’re on a fire, we’re constantly checking weather up there,” he says. “If you’re not checking the weather, you don’t know what’s happening and that’s when a fire can get you.”
But Ringer, who’s from Chicago and now lives in Glenwood Springs, doesn’t think her job is so perilous.
“Commuting to work every day in Chicago seems pretty dangerous. Living in Chicago seems pretty dangerous,” Ringer says. “And people who work in an office aren’t always very healthy because they’re sedentary.”
Ringer says her job fighting fires keeps her in great shape.
“A lot of people go hiking after work, I get to go hiking when I get to work,” she says.
Ringer’s been to almost 25 fires so far this summer, seen a lot of Colorado and even conquered one of her fears.
“I went with a crew to Durango and got to ride the Durango-Silverton train to the fire. The train is what started the fire,” she says. “And I used to be scared of helicopters, until this year.”
Safety, ultimately, depends on experience, West says.
“There’s definitely a risk associated with this type of work,” West says. “But taking all the training and my years of experience in fire behavior, I’m not going to stick myself or my crew in a situation that’s going to put their lives at risk.”
Fighting fire is arduous, he says.
“There have been times when we’ve all been at our wits end working 24 hours on a fire, sleeping alongside it and working 16 hours the next day,” he says. “But it’s our job and we love it.”
The most important thing is staying sharp, he says.
“We learn something from every fire,” West says. “When I don’t learn something from a fire, it’s time to get out of fire, because that’s when I’ll be in danger.”
Taming the flames
Kohrmann says more serious fires have been prevented in Eagle County by the coordination between federal agencies like his and the local departments throughout the valley. Firefighters in town departments have been more extensively trained in wildland fire fighting and this summer, they have been sent all over the state to battle blazes.
Vail firefighter Chad Archibald was sent to the Big Fish Fire in the Flat Tops, the night after the Trapper’s Lake Lodge was destroyed. Archibald was with a team trying to protect remaining cabins from burning. He later saw the full brunt of the fire from a safe distance.
“The winds were out of the west and the fire was not burning quickly,” he says. “The winds changed and the whole mountain side blew up with 300- to 500-foot flames. It was pretty spectacular how fast that could happen.”
The risk of wildfire will ebb as the weather gets colder, but wildland firefighters may remain busy, Kohrmann says. After the dry winter in 1999, firefighters were still putting out wildfires until the end of November, he says.
Depending on the severity of droughts, wildfires may only get worse in the coming years as more homes are built in wilderness areas. But West says firefighters, if allowed, can prevent the damage done by massive blazes like the Coal Seam and Hayman fires.
Some in the Forest Service have long advocated prescribed fires to burn buffers around residential areas. But those potentially crucial burns have been stalled by debates and political disagreements, West says.
“You’re talking years and years to get rid of these fuels,” West says. “But we firefighters can prevent these horrific fires by doing more controlled burns. The fires are going to get progressively worse because of the values that are being thrown into them.”
To set controlled burns, however, the climate has to be just right – both meteorologically and politically. Some prescribed burns have also burned spectacularly out of control with destructive results.
“You have get just about everybody and God to sign off on them before you can put one in place,” he says.
Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.