Local firefighters pitch in across the state, a look at Eagle County fire conditions, and how to be prepared.
By Melanie Wong
Help relief and recovery in Colorado
The following organizations are assisting in the areas affected by wildfires.
American Red Cross Colorado
Red Cross workers are staffing shelters in several locations and helping connect evacuated residents with a range of basic needs, including shelter, food, hygiene supplies, recovery information, health and emotional support. Designate your gift to “disaster relief” at www.denver-redcross.org.
The Salvation Army
The Salvation Army’s Emergency Disaster Services (EDS) teams are already providing relief to evacuees from both the Waldo Canyon fire and the High Park fire with additional volunteers and resources on standby should they be needed. Designate your gift to “disaster relief “ at http://tsacs.org.
Larimer Humane Society
Larimer Humane Society is coordinating the rescue of all animals in the High Park fire zone, providing owner-requested food and water to animals not evacuated (as permitted by fire and sheriff authorities), reuniting owners with lost animals and providing temporary shelter for evacuated animals.See www.larimerhumane.org.
When local firefighters Jason Brown, Andy Pohlman and Josh Hebrew arrived at the High Park fire that had been raging near Fort Collins, there wasn’t much in the way of formalities.
“We arrived at 1:30 p.m. and reported directly to fire line,” says Brown, a firefighter with the Eagle River Fire Protection District. “We were sent to a residential area in Rist Canyon that was threatened and told to try and save as many houses as we could.”
The three men were among a number of Eagle County firefighters who have been dispatched to wildfires around the state to combat blazes the likes of which Colorado hasn’t seen in decades. It’s not uncommon for local firefighters to be deployed elsewhere – Vail Fire Chief Mark Miller says his department usually sends out reinforcements five or six times a year to fires all over the country – and once the call goes out, the response is immediate.
Brown says the call came in for three firefighters and an engine at 8:30 a.m. on June 10, the day after the fire began, and the three were on their way by 9:30 a.m. to join firefighters from around Colorado and the country, as well as helicopter crews and U.S. Forest Service personnel in Fort Collins. Once called, firefighters stay at the fires for two-week periods, then either return home, do another two weeks or swap out with another crew from home.
“Once we arrived, our initial reaction was, ‘OK, this is the real deal,’” Brown says. “When they send you directly to the fire line, you know it’s serious. We’ve all seen fire at some level, and obviously the adrenaline is going. The fire was extremely fast moving and the winds were gusting 30 mph. We had fire on all sides of us. I personally had never been in (a fire) that big myself.”
The ERFPD crew spent the first day trying to clear underbrush and direct the fire away from homes. Two days before Brown, Pohlman and Hebrew returned to the valley, the fire surged again, jumping over a river, and the three were right in the thick of it.
“We were right in the section where it happened,” Brown says. “We were pretty amazed that after that long fighting the fire we were still losing structures. We were fighting the dryness and weather as much as the fire.”
Firefighters at wildland fires typically work 15 to 16 hours per day, sleeping and eating at large base camps. It’s difficult and dangerous work, but Brown says crews worked together seamlessly.
“You have the same training and the same zeal for wildland firefighting – it’s long days and hard work, but it is all stuff we enjoy doing,” he says. “I’d be happy to go back down there.”
All Eagle County firefighters have at least the basic qualifications to fight wildfires, but Vail’s Miller says that sending his crews to other locations can be a tough call.
“This year we’ve been a little more vigilant about keeping crews here for obvious reasons,” says Miller, adding that several Vail firefighters have gone to help with the High Park fire. “Of course we want to help our neighbors, but not at the expense of our own area if there are fires here.”
Protecting Eagle County
Eyeing fires on the Front Range and Grand Junction, and containing a few smaller fires caused by lightning strikes outside of Minturn and Eagle last week, local fire officials have Eagle County on Stage II restrictions.
Stage II restrictions ban all fires except for propane camp stoves and propane grills, as well as restrict smoking to enclosed space. Fireworks, flares and the like are prohibited. The highest restrictions, called Stage III, would also ban propane stoves and grills and close public lands. The stage decisions are made by Eagle County fire chiefs and officials from the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service (USFS). Officials look at the level of fire danger based on indicators such as the humidity, temperature and dryness.
According to USFS information officer Pat Thrasher, as of June 30, officials had decided not to bring Eagle County to a Stage III, thanks to slightly improved conditions.
“We feel indices are not at that point, not that we won’t revisit the possibility of a Stage III later on in the season,” Thrasher says.
Colorado hasn’t gone to Stage III restrictions since 1992.
“None of these stages are taken lightly, and we don’t do them at the drop of a hat,” Thrasher says. “We understand the impact a Stage III would have on the local communities and economies.”
What you can do
Wondering how you can protect your home and family against fire? Fire officials are teaming up to host a series of wildfire preparedness meetings across the valley to educate residents on the current situation and discuss how to best protect homes.
“We are really encouraging people to attend a wildfire preparedness meeting – they’re called ‘Ready, Set, Go!’” Miller says. “It’s for the typical homeowner, and we’ll cover defensible space, what to put in an evacuation kit, and we’ll be giving out door prizes. It’s one of the best ways people can be educated about preparedness.”
The first meeting was held in Vail on Monday, July 2, and the next will be Monday, July 9 in Gypsum. For more info on the meetings, see http://readysetgoec.org. Info is also available at your local fire station.
Miller says valley residents can do their part to protect the area by being aware of the current restrictions – something as seemingly insignificant as flicking a cigarette out the car window can have catastrophic consequences. Also, simple things like keeping grass and weeds trimmed down, clearing the pine needles and leaves from the gutters and eaves of your home, or removing the lower branches of trees can all help protect a home, he says.
Gail McFarland, fire inspector and public information officer at the Eagle River Fire Protection District, stressed the importance of being prepared for the worst.
“Be prepared and have that action plan – know what you’re going to take with you,” she says. “Think about things beforehand or have a bag already packed.”
Both renters and homeowners should also be educated about insurance. McFarland suggests taking photos of everything in your home for insurance purposes in the event you do lose your home to fire.