With Breckenridge wildfire settled, the ‘Navy SEALs’ of wildfires head home
Todd Pechota doesn’t take summer vacations. As incident commander for the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team, he spends the season crisscrossing the West along with his 56-person team and taking command of only the highest-priority wildfires. Last week, that included the Peak 2 fire.
Comprised of elite firefighters from federal, state and local agencies, the group is one of 16 Type 1 incident management teams nationwide. Dispensing with the bureaucratic jargon, Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs called them “the Navy SEALs” of wildland firefighters.
When a fire gets serious enough, like the Peak 2 fire did after flaring to 84 acres less than 2 miles from Breckenridge last Wednesday, July 5, teams like Pechota’s get called in to take over.
They manage virtually every aspect of the response, from personnel and firefighting strategy down to community outreach and even finance.
“Everybody on my team brings years of experience,” Pechota said. “So when we can harness all that experience it results in a better end-product and helps us develop good strategies, good tactics and minimize risks.”
The team only stays in command of fires while they’re at their most dangerous, rarely any longer than two weeks. That means the operation has to be lean and self-contained, carrying with it everything from food to Band-Aids to cooking, laundry and cleaning supplies.
“They’re like an Army unit when they come in,” Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District chief Jim Keating said. “They’re the best, highest-ranked resource you could ever bring to an incident.”
When the team arrives on a scene, its out-of-the-box command structure quickly plugs into whatever resources are already responding. It’s those local components that are key.
“We bring that expertise in being able to quickly build an organization,” RMIMT public information officer Brenda Bowen said. “But it’s really about finding out who those local contacts are and working with them.”
Type 1 teams don’t bring along their own firefighting crews, but their personnel requests get pushed to the top of national lists.
During the Peak 2 Fire response, the number of active firefighters quickly jumped from a half-dozen smokejumpers and a couple of local crews to more than 400 in a matter of days.
Along with the help of two air tankers and three helicopters, they brought the fire down to 85 percent containment by Sunday, July 9, preventing the fire from moving an inch since a favorable wind shift sat it down late in the afternoon of July 5.
Crews won’t be cutting any more containment lines directly on the fire’s perimeter, however, for the simple reason that it isn’t worth getting a firefighter killed over.
That remaining 15 percent backs up to steep terrain thick with beetle-killed trees that can fall silently and without warning. The technical term for those is snags, but many firefighters simply call them “death from above.”
Pechota asked the line crews how they felt about venturing into that final stretch, and their answer was an unequivocal no.
“The people we were going to ask to go in there didn’t like it one bit,” Pechota said.
That was on July 6, which happened to be the 23rd anniversary of the death of 14 firefighters in the South Canyon or “Storm King” fire near Glenwood Springs.
The firefighting community is a tight-knit one, if dispersed, and many of those responding to the Peak 2 fire knew people who had tragically lost their lives so many years ago to the day.
“It was a very, very, very eerie feeling for us,” Pechota said.
Officials say that even with that final section unlined, the fire is extremely unlikely to spread, especially after recent rains. There have been no injuries or accidents during the response.
“As a local fire department, we’re very comfortable with what they’ve left us and the work they’ve done,” Keating said. “It shouldn’t feel like a threat to the public anymore.”
In addition to the lines directly on the fire perimeter, crews have also cut contingency lines further away that will act as a redoubt against an unlikely resurgence — and future fires that might follow a similar path.
On Tuesday night, the RMIMT handed command of the incident back to the U.S. Forest Service, which says it will continue to closely watch the fire zone until it’s completely out.
With its work done, the RMIMT packed up nearly as quickly as it came, members heading home for some well-earned time off until they’re back on call July 26.
Pechota will return to Custer, South Dakota, where he plans on spending some quality time with his grandkids.
But wildfires don’t honor time off. If the other teams ahead of Pechota’s in the Type 1 rotation are all called out, his will be put back into service early, ready to do it all over again.
After 31 years in the fire service, though, Pechota is used to the unpredictability.
“It’s a lifestyle,” he said.