The Sopris Sun

Daily wildfire patrols prep before they roll

Driving the country seven days a week

By Lynn Burton

Sopris Sun Staff Writer

In lightning lexicon, the strikes are called “hold-overs.”

The inside of a tree can smolder for two or three days after being hit by lightning before burning all the way through to outside air. Once the fire burns through, with the right conditions, such as high wind, the fire can spread. After that, wildland firefighters can have a catastrophic blaze on their hands.

“Many fires start from hold overs,” Carbondale Deputy Fire Chief Rob Goodwin told The Sopris Sun on Tuesday.

Making sure those hold overs don’t flare and fuel what could become national news stories (a la the Coal Seam fire just outside Glenwood Springs a few years ago), the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District reinstated its wildfire patrols last week, thanks funds provided by private donors.

Goodwin said the daily patrols, with four firefighters in two brush trucks, are dispatched north and south, not only keeping an eye on hold-overs and possible new strikes, but monitoring fire conditions and interacting with the public.

But the crews don’t just show up at the Carbondale fire station every day at 10 a.m. and head out on their eight-hour shifts. Before climbing behind the wheel of their trucks, the crews meet in the fire station’s darkened meeting room, where a screen comes down and they hear a recorded report from the National Interagency Coordination Center.

The first weather map on the screen shows Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska and North Dakota. After that, a Colorado map comes up that shows recent lightning strikes followed by a weather report.

After that, the recorded portion of the briefing is over and Goodwin shows a local map from a BLM website that shows recent strikes that were recorded in the Cattle Creek, Carbondale and Redstone areas. On that note, the lights go on and Goodwin starts sliding printed reports and other information across the desks and into waiting hands.

The first is the “Daily Situational Report” with weather forecasts for Carbondale and Marble that includes different temperatures for 6,000 feet and 8,000 feet, minimum humidity for the same elevations; something called a “Haines Index” and more.

Next up is a western report that includes new fires (182 as of Tuesday), new large fires (four of those, ranging from 500 to 1,000 acres) and the resources committed to fight them. Most of the big fires were in Washington and Oregon, with one in Idaho and one in Utah.

One report briefed the crew on the types of fire fighting equipment, such as helicopters, that were available on Tuesday in Colorado.

The “6 Minutes For Safety: This Day in Wildland Fire History” handout recounted the events of July 22, 2003 and the Cramer Fire in Idaho. It was sobering.

Crew leader Jake Spaulding said “Pablo, (Herr) can you read this (for us?)” Herr took a breath and started “ … Central Idaho, including the Salmon-Challis National Forest, had been in a period of drought for the last four years … .”

The fire in the area of Cramer Creek was reported at 4:30 p.m. on July 20 and jumpers were dispatched. By the next morning, the fire covered 35 acres.

By 7:52 p.m. on July 21, the fire covered 200 acres and due to “a thermal belt,” the fire burned actively until 3 a.m. on July 22. Two spots (H1 and H2) are eventually cleared for helicopters to land and shuttle crews as the fire continued to grow. A few minutes after 11:27 a.m., fire fighters on H1 pull back and retreat down the trail toward the river; 20 minutes later H1 is burned over and fire activity is reported as “intense.”

“By 1430 (2:20 p.m.),” Herr read, “the fire in the Cache Bar drainage is an active fire front.” At 2:47 p.m., plans were made to remove the crew from H2. At 3 p.m. “the fire is on both sides of the ridge and continues to spread rapidly.”

At 3:05 p.m., the H2 crew calls for “immediate pickup.” At 3:09 then call again but report they are “fine, just taking a lot of smoke.” At 3:13 p.m. they report fire and smoke below them and request “immediate pick up.” Arriving at the fire, the helicopter is unable to land due to smoke. Both crew members leave H2 at 3:20 p.m. At 3:24 p.m. the Cache Bar drainage is fully involved in the fire and the crew makes a final call for immediate pick up. Both firefighters die soon after.”

“Whew,” Herr said after reading those final words.

After the reading, Goodwin and today’s crew members critiqued what went wrong at the Cramer Fire on July 22, 2003. Among the mistakes made, the crew did not have a good egress route and relied too much on helicopters for evacuation.

Goodwin pointed out that the Cramer Fire was similar to the Coal Seam Fire outside Glenwood Springs, in that neither “laid down” at night as might be expected but instead, continued to grow and build in intensity.

A few minutes after concluding the “6 Minutes For Safety” discussion, each of the two Carbondale crews received their assignments for the day. The north crew, comprised of Spaulding and Brandon Deter, was to patrol the north end of the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District (including Panorama Estates, Kings Row, Hawk Ridge and Colorado Mountain College areas), check with the Basalt Fire District, open up stations 84 and 85, and finish any station and equipment checks. The south crew was comprised of Herr and Ray Bourg. Their assignment included patrolling past Beaver Lake beyond Marble, and patrolling Swiss Village, Redstone Ranch Acres, Crystal River Park, Crystal River Country Estates and Seven Oaks.

Back inside the Carbondale fire station, Goodwin demonstrated how the district uses regular maps as well as Google Earth maps to track and record lighting strikes. Elsewhere around town, Mountain Fair organizers were gearing up to create “best scenario” situations for the weekend. Goodwin said the fire district works from an opposite approach.

“We plan for the worst and hope for the best.”