THE HEAT IS ON: Fire on the mountain
With warmer temperatures and thoughts turning toward the splendor of a high country summer, danger lurks right around the corner — danger that could potentially affect everyone.
Fire season is nearing and the firefighters of Grand County are preparing for another busy summer spent working forest and wildland fires across the western United States. To prepare themselves for the rigors of their duty, firefighters throughout Middle Park are currently wrapping up their red-card certifications and training requirements to be eligible to take calls over the coming months.
Grand Fire Resident Firefighter Dan Geer was among the cadre of firefighters who recertified this year. For Geer the focus of the training is largely about how to respond to the extremely dynamic environment of a wildland fire and how to control something which is mostly uncontrollable.
“When a fire gets big enough it creates it own weather,” Geer said. “It goes where it wants. It can run wherever the wind and terrain let it.”
Training is key: Life or death
Over the last few weeks firefighters from the Grand Fire Protection District and Grand Lake Fire have been busy with their certification and recertification classes. Grand Fire got their summer certification training underway in early April while Grand Lake conducted classes last weekend.
The training is divided between those gaining first-time certifications and those recertifying. After completing academic course work related to wildland fire training, the firefighters participate in a field day training scenario and a pack test, wherein the firefighters are required to walk three miles with a 45-pound pack on their back in under 45 minutes.
For Grand Lake Engine Boss Joe Starika, who has spent many years working wildfires in Grand County and has traveled to some far flung regions of the Rockies to assist on other large fire responses, wildland fire training boils down to one word: safety.
“We are trying to bring everyone together on the same page,” he said. “When we fight a structure fire most of the time it is in a box. It is enclosed. A wildland fire is not. It is dynamic. It can spread and go anywhere.”
Starika and the other firefighters from Grand Lake spent last weekend completing their field day and pack tests. Among the firefighters taking the course for the first time was Grand Lake Resident Firefighter Danya Tumia. Tumia just joined Grand Lake Fire in early April and has never handled a wildland fire call before.
Tumia was quick to note the unique challenges posed by wildland fires. “The fire behavior changes quickly,” Tumia noted. “That is a huge difference.”
Devil is in the details
During their wildland fire certification training firefighters like Geer, Starika and Tumia cover a dizzying array of details.
“We cover weather, terrain, fuels, basic techniques, digging lines, that type of thing,” said Geer. “We do some radio work, cover different scenarios and practice deploying the fire shelters.”
The visceral danger of wildland firefighting really hits home during discussions about fire shelter deployment. The fire shelters used by the firefighters are somewhat akin to quilts, but with aluminum instead of fabric. The shelters have two thick layers of aluminum stitched together with Kevlar lining. They are rated to withstand radiant heat up to 3,000 degrees for a couple minutes and are rated to handle direct flame heat of about 500 degrees for about one minute. As Grand Fire’s Assistant Chief Brad White pointed out, though, a 500-degree fire is a relatively cool blaze.
The training with the shelters drives home the dangers of wildland firefighting to the trainees.
Tumia noted she accidentally left a small portion of her leg outside of her shelter on her first attempt and “if there had been a real fire, my leg would have been burned,” she said.
Wildland firefighters employ a unique set of tools, specifically for fighting fires in the dynamic environments such fires create. Instead of the large, bulky fire suits most citizens associate with firefighters, wildland operations are conducted in lighter Nomex fabric pants and shirts. The firefighters wear hard-hats instead of the gasmasks and air tanks utilized for structure fires and rely almost entirely on hand tools like axes, hoes and shovels, instead of pressurized water. Wildland fires are typically fought indirectly, meaning firefighters attempt to establish firebreak lines outside the perimeter of the fire to slow or stall the fire’s advance.
All of the firefighters stressed the extreme importance of fire mitigation efforts for homes and structures in Grand County. If a wildland fire does occur this summer in Grand County and if it threatens any local housing subdivisions, firefighters may be forced to triage the homes and determine which can be saved and which cannot.
“Mitigation is not a fix-all,” noted Geer. “But it makes the chances of your house surviving so much better. It also makes our job safer and easier. If we only have 10 minutes to work and we have two houses, one that will take two-hours and one that will take 10 minutes, the house we can save in 10 minutes is the house we will be working on.”
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Visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park will likely not have to navigate a timed entry permit system this summer.