The Saratoga Sun -

Campfirefighters

 

Max Miller

The glow of "Main Street's" nerve center lasts well into the night as top-level personnel pore over the day's data and plan for tomorrow

After Walden, the 200-250 person Beaver Creek Fire Incident Command Post (ICP) is currently the second biggest population center in Jackson County Colorado. Barring unforeseen developments, within two months, the tents and the trailers, the helibase and handwashing stations will all be gone. Everyone who calls this ad-hoc city home today will have moved on to other fires, or returned to the day jobs they left on hold to fight the flames here.

An Aug. 17 tour of the ICP on day 59 of the fire fight revealed some of the contours of daily life in an environment defined by continuous turnover, long hours and strict regulations. Checklists and standardized procedures, it would seem, are all the more critical when operating in a dangerous theatre where many variables can't be controlled.

Sticklers for Speed and Safety

At ICP, as on the firelines, there is no task too small or mundane to regulate. In the dining areas, signs remind firefighters they must wash their hands before eating and that hot meals may only be consumed in the camp's two dining tents. Notifications in the two trailers where firefighters shower and bathe inform them that boots must be removed prior to entrance, and in the communications tent, a meticulous log is kept of every call made and received. The last thing a field crew sees when they leave ICP for the field in the morning are prompts to clean their windshields and wear their seatbelts. Alcohol use, on premise or off, is, as a matter of course, strictly prohibited.

If the number of personnel injuries are any indication, the camp's many safety precautions are paying off. According to Medical Unit Leader Trainee Bonnie Gibbons, of Boulder, Colo., "We're really lucky on this fire given that we're going on 60 days." Although a firefighter had recently wounded his hand with an axe-like entrenchment tool called a pulaski, Gibbons said she had treated few serious injuries during her 18 straight days on duty.

Perhaps another purpose of the regulations is to preemptively defuse conflicts and make sure the camp runs as smoothly and efficiently as possible. With personnel constantly arriving and departing, the rules give a sense of continuity to the shuffle and make sure everyone knows their roles in a complicated workplace. Camp protocol is the lingua franca that lets fire crews from Nevada, California and Virginia work together as a cohesive, fast-moving machine, and it ensures that everyone adheres to the highest standards of safety.

Interagency Coordination

Creating a team out of responders from many different regions and agencies is a constant organizational challenge, according to Incident Commander Trainee Colt Mortenson. In preparation for his own career leading fire teams, Mortenson was shadowing Beaver Creek's first-in-command Incident Commander Mike Quesinberry.

There were six different agencies working the fire, Mortenson said; the U.S. Forest Service, Wyoming and Colorado Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Offices, Colorado' State Department of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC), the Wyoming State Forestry and Carbon County officials.

Every morning at 10 a.m., representatives from each of these six agencies gather for a briefing on the state of the fire, Mortenson said. The briefings start with a report from the Incident Meteorologist (IMet in camp-speak), then a report from the Fire Behavior Analyst (FBan). The Incident Commander then presents his "operational briefing," followed by a finance presentation, a report from the media relations team and then a Q and A session where the six agencies can ask questions.

Public information officer (PIO)Rich Reuse said that the finance portion of the meeting often left attendees with their heads in their hands due to the complexity of the funding formulas that determine which agencies pay for what. Despite the large amount of ground covered, Mortenson said the briefings typically last less than thirty minutes.

The View From Main Street

This is the view from "Main Street," which is camp talk for the line of about a dozen command tents where specialists and camp leaders work. These include tents for the Incident Commander, the FBan, the IMet, the communications center, the mapping team, the public relations officers, the finance team and the medical team.

The mapping team generates fine-bore topographical maps charting the fire's progress every day. The maps are updated through field reports and almost nightly infrared flyovers of the fire area. According to Reuse, these flights take off from as far away as Boise, Idaho and Missoula, Mont. and the planes typically fly over several different fires in an evening. The data from the flights are then uploaded for remote analysis by off-site experts, and those experts then send their results to the mapping team around 4 a.m. In those early morning hours, the mapping team quickly generates the day's maps for distribution before the workday begins, providing a critical tactical resource for field teams.

Equally critical are forecasts provided by the IMet, Scott Carpenter of the National Weather Service's (NWS) Salt Lake City Office. Carpenter said the NWS has helped combat wildfires for a century, and that "It's nice to work with people who are actually using your forecasts." Occasionally, Carpenter said the mountainous terrain in the Beaver Creek Fire area makes radar unreliable, so he has to make inferences based on his experience with around a dozen other wildfires. "Nail(ing) down when the driest and windiest conditions will occur," is one of the most critical parts of the job, Carpenter said, because that's when firefighters face the most danger in the field.

FBan Galen Roesler's job is to work with the IMet to determine how the fire may behave in the day to come. Roesler said relative humidity, wind and temperature are the three biggest determinants of fire behavior, but that the beetle-killed trees feeding this fire mean "relative humidity isn't as big of a player." The larger fuel sources in the Beaver Creek Fire retain heat well and give them some resilience to temporary fluctuations in humidity that would dampen other blazes, he explained. When asked what would best help firefighters combat the blaze, Roesler said "The single biggest thing would be a good rainfall over a period of time, like a 24-hour rainfall."

At the medical tent, Gibbons said she treats about 20 firefighters a day over two rushes. One comes in the morning before deployment and the other is in the evening when personnel come back in from the field. The most popular items, she said are nasal saline for allergies, and chapstick, hand cream and sunscreen to combat dry air and high-altitude UV radiation. Gibbons said she works with division supervisors each morning to decide where the three ambulances the camp has on hand should be deployed. On August 17, Gibbons said there were 11 people working on the medical team, including herself.

The priority of those at the communications tent is to always be at the phone. If field crews need information but cannot get in touch with who they need to on Main Street, they can call the communications tent whom will go track down whomever the field crew is looking for. Communications officer Walter Warrick is also in charge of keeping track of 112 radios, whose signals are boosted by five mountaintop repeaters. "The impressive factor is how many AA batteries (teams) use," Warrick said.

Five to six information officers also have their own Main Street command post. These public information officers write daily press releases, field questions from the media and also answer questions from the public about campground and road closures. Additionally, PIOs are in charge of giving tours to curious officials like U.S. Senator Cory Gardner (R, Colo.) and other VIPs who come to the camp. "If you get a fire of any size that lasts a while, you'll have politicians–Governors and others who come to see what's going on," said Reuse.

Many of these professionals have never met before, and in early June their "office complex" was little more than a barren field. Today, a satellite dish delivers high speed internet to the area, klieg lights illuminate the grounds at night, and everyone, no matter their agency affiliation, works together to make sure the men and women on the ground are protected and informed.

Lives on the (Fire) Line

The entire high-tech operation at the ICP is designed to assist and protect those working on the blaze's frontline. August 17, those field crews consisted of eight divisions, each designated by a letter and assigned a Division Supervisor in charge of the team working that area.

A visit to Division G August 17 required passing through a manned checkpoint, one of six such checkpoints at the entrances to roads closed to the public that day because they ran perilously close to the fire perimeter. Any vehicles or personnel moving past such a checkpoint must wait for radio permission from the Division Supervisor before continuing. Fire resistant clothing and an emergency "burrito bag" personnel can use to shelter from the flames in an emergency are also required.

Near the fireline, Division G Supervisor Matt Nordon of Canon City, Colo., took a few minutes to explain the tactics his crew was using that day. Weather conditions were similar to the day before, which is called a "Groundhog Day" in camp-speak, Nordon said.

Nordon said earlier in the morning, his crew had done controlled burns of vegetation on the edge of a road using a drip-torch that releases a mixture of gasoline and diesel to ignite small brush. In this way, the footprint of the road is widened so when the wildfire eventually reaches it, there is less of a chance that embers will "jump" the road and start burning material on the other side. The width of the strip of vegetation a crew burns to create a fire line depends on the fuel type, Nordon said.

These controlled burns were halted when the wind shifted to an unfavorable direction though, Nordon said. The supervisor stressed that firefighters have to exercise patience and stay out of stands of beetle-killed trees, fighting the fire on safer terrain.

Division G had about 50 people working on it that day, by Nordon's count, and there were also two Chinook helicopters dropping water on hot spots in the area. "We've got a dozer sitting on top of the hill in case we have to punch a line somewhere," the supervisor said. For the time, though, the team waited for better conditions to proceed.

Biding Time with

Bambi Buckets

A couple miles down the road from the ICP there's a different sort of encampment for personnel working at the Beaver Creek Fire's helibase. Whereas ICP is a sprawling complex with shower facilities, about 50 vehicles, and over 150 tents scattered across the camp's fair-like grounds, the helibase is a more basic campsite.

About 15 tents were spread across a ridgeline of sage brush desert at the helibase, alongside a pair of pick up trucks and an AS-350B-3 Eurocopter helicopter. Though the roughly 20 firefighters assigned to the helibase eat and shower at ICP, they sleep here, and many said they preferred the relative peace and quiet of the helibase to the clamor of Main Street and the broader camp.

August 17, Bryan Santisteven, Of Broomfield, Colo. was in charge of the interagency Northern Colorado Helitack team supporting the aircraft working on the fire. Although the crew included personnel from the Forest Service, the Boulder City Fire Department, the Boulder County Fire Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Santistevan said that the group is dispatched to fires as a unit and they train and work together. This is a contrast to other types of units like those working the fire lines. Those units operate in teams as well, but since the teams often work side-by-side they see more different faces day-to-day.

Late afternoon August 17, the Northern Colorado Helitack's Eurocopter was standing by at the helibase, but there were two dual-rotor Chinook helicopters in the air, as well as a "O Hotel Bravo"–call letters for the twin-engine air tactical group supervisor (ATGS). Santistevan called the ATGS "a main player in the fire," and said the aircraft did aerial laps of the area at 10,500 feet up and above. From this height, Santistevan said the ATGS could act as an aerial control tower for the lower flying Chinooks and give real-time updates of the fire's progress to ground crews. If there was a specific area where firefighters wanted more information, they could ask that the ATGS check it out from the sky, Santistevan said.

The Chinooks, meanwhile were cooling the fire off with 1,000 gallon water drops. They fly at 9,500 feet and under, leaving a 1,000 foot vertical buffer zone between themselves and the ATGS as a safety precaution, Santistevan said. The Chinooks are so heavy they have to land on asphalt, so one is based in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and the other is based in Saratoga.

The Eurocopter serviced by Santistevan and his crew is a lighter, jack of all-trades aircraft for the firefighters. There is always at least one emergency medical technician (EMT) standing by at the helibase, and the Eurocopter can be called upon at moment's notice to provide a medevac from the field. The five-seater can also be used for crew transport, ferrying supplies, small water dumps or cargo delivery. "Anything we can get in our net we can get up," Santistevan said of his payloads. He explained that a minimum of 30 minutes of helicopter maintenance every morning is built into the team's contract–yet another consequential camp rule to follow.

While going over the layout of the aerial battleground, a call came in on Santistevan's radio. Another division was requesting a water drop over their area, and the Helitack crew sprang into action, attaching the 100 gallon "Bambi bucket" to the helicopter's tow line and removing the Eurcopter's door. Taking the door off helps the pilot see below him while he flies low to scoop water with the "bucket," which is designed to accordion out when it's filled with water.

The crew finished prepping the Eurocopter in about five minutes and the pilot was standing by to take off when another call came in. The wind had shifted, and the Helitack squad stood down, ready to go but waiting for better conditions or a new request from somewhere else.

Fire-Weary Feasting

This is what fighting fires is like; lots of boredom, five minutes of adrenalin, canceled orders, enforced patience. The excitement is undeniably a powerful rush, but it is bookended by two lesser "r's": routine and regulation.

Around 8 p.m., a parade of pick-ups started coming back to the ICP from the field. A line snaked around the food trailers, and food was served with well-honed efficiency by the 12-person crew run by Tammy Pitcher of Big Sky Catering. Big Sky is contracted to provide at least 6500 calories per day to each firefighter, and August 17 those calories came in the form of barbecue pork, baked potato and pasta salad, among other delights.

According to Pitcher, her employees routinely work 10 to 16 hour days, and would probably try for more hours if they were allowed. Big Sky has been working the Beaver Creek Fire for 36 straight days, and Pitcher said she loves feeding fire personnel. "I've never had a client more grateful for a meal," she remarked.

"Demobbing"

There are signs a corner has been turned on the Beaver Creek Blaze. Squads are revamping roads damaged during the fire, containment rose above 50 percent for the first time August 20, and last week evacuation orders were lifted by the Jackson County Sheriff's Department.

Max Miller

A buncher feller awaits the next day's action as the moon rises over ICP.

Fire resources, always in high demand this time of year, may be shifted out of the area, or "demobbed" as the blaze continues to abate. The tents will come down, and the people will head elsewhere.

If they stay in wild fire fighting, it's likely those people will meet again. The Beaver Creek Fire trained hundreds of personnel, giving them invaluable experience on the road to becoming, Medical Unit Leaders, Helitack Leaders, Division Supervisors and even Incident Commanders.

Looking wistful, PIO Rich Reuse described the pleasure he felt when meeting up with someone he had worked with on a California fire years before. "Out of everything I do on a fire, that's the thing I like the most. It's kind of like a big family," Reuse said. That family's house is on fire, but don't worry: They're professionals.

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