The Sopris Sun

Carbondale steps up during Red Canyon fire

Carbondale steps up during Red Canyon fire

By Lynn Burton

Sopris Sun Staff Writer

Monday started out with business as usual at the Carbondale fire station, then escalated to a “here they come” mode on Tuesday before settling back to a semi-regular routine on Wednesday.

“We’re pretty much back to business as usual today,” Carbondale Fire Chief Ron Leach told The Sopris Sun on Wednesday afternoon. “We’ve had a rescue call on McClure Pass … a couple of 911 emergency calls.”

As Leach spoke, federal fire-fighting personnel continued settling into the Carbondale Middle School campus. The parking lot had been empty on Tuesday afternoon but filled with trailers, vehicles, fire-fighting equipment, and a mobile kitchen with mess tent as dawn broke on Wednesday.

All this action was brought on by the Red Canyon wildfire that broke out three miles southeast of Glenwood Springs on Monday afternoon and later spread northeast to more than 300 acres, forcing an evacuation of about 20 homes.

Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and Basalt volunteer fire departments were the first responders and quickly saw the rough terrain consisted of tinder-dry mixed pinion-juniper with islands of sage at lower elevations.

“It’s a very dangerous fire,” Leach said. “The Carbondale, Glenwood and Basalt fire fighters did an excellent job the first two days … That area is totally over grown.”

Leach said the incident command post (ICP) started in the Glenwood Springs fire chief’s truck on Monday, shifted to the Carbondale fire station on Tuesday afternoon, then to the middle school on Wednesday, making Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team “A” member Shane Del Grosso the incident commander.

Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario requested federal fire fighters on Monday night, Leach said.

By Tuesday afternoon, Incident Management Team “A” members, dressed in red shirts, were starting to walk through the Carbondale fire station’s front doors. At about 6 p.m., a total of about 85 team members and others sat down at rows of tables for the initial briefing. The team members included specialists in communications, planning, finances and public information.

After the hour-long briefing on Tuesday night came dinner for up to 150 management team members, plus local volunteers and others. That’s when Cathy Ortiz (Big Mama’s catering) stepped in. Although she had prepared lunch for about 20 locals earlier in the day, her focus had to shift for dinner. That’s because the fire was now under the auspices of the federal government, which has specific standards for a fire-fighting menu.

“It (dinner) has to contain a certain number of calories … It has to be ‘whole muscle’ meat, not hamburger … there’s (a minimum) four ounces of vegetables, four ounces of potato, four ounces of dessert. Jeff Wadley gave me the regulations years ago and I kept them.”

Before Ortiz grilled up a bunch of steaks for hungry fire fighters, she had to corral the meat. Ortiz said that “luckily” she knows Felix Tornare at Milgro Ranch on Missouri Heights, who specializes in grass-fed beef. “He had 210 New York strip steaks … They had to be at least 10 ounces … we weighed them all.”

Ortiz started her Tuesday at about 10 a.m. and wrapped it up at 11 p.m. “They (the incident command team) asked me to stay for Wednesday but I don’t have the equipment or staff.” 

Leach said that when the fire was first reported on Monday, Glenwood Springs Fire Chief Gary Pillotson became incident commander, with Carbondale assisting through a mutual aid agreement. One reason the Carbondale fire station was named incident command post on Tuesday rather than keeping it in Glenwood Springs was to take some responsibilities off the Glenwood Springs fire department’s plate. Then there’s the Carbondale fire station itself. Leach said Pillotson requested it.

The station was built at the south end of town on Highway 133 in 2006. The “big room,” where more than a dozen tables were set up and Tuesday’s initial briefing took place, not only comfortably holds more than 85 people, Leach said its technology is “outstanding,” with two wireless signals, computer stations, a projector system with screens, and a commercial-grade kitchen across the hall.

“We built it (the fire station), with an eye toward emergency management incidents,” Leach said. “We’ve used it (the big room) many times … for wildfires, mud slides, river rescues … that’s what it (the station) was built for.”