An eye-opener for Basalt firefighters | AspenTimes.com

An eye-opener for Basalt firefighters

BASALT ” The Basalt fire department netted $160,000 by helping battle forest fires in other parts of the country last year, but the lessons local firefighters learned were invaluable.

The Basalt fire department sent a fire truck and various sized crews to six fires outside the state and three within Colorado in 2007. Basalt fire chief Scott Thompson said the special deployments gave him and other firefighters a chance to observe the latest techniques and equipment used against wildland fires.

One of the most important lessons that Thompson said he learned is that he wouldn’t ask his largely volunteer force to take the risks that fire departments in many other parts of the country are taking.

It’s not a question of skill. It’s about safety.

Thompson said he has observed firefighters in California and along the Georgia/Florida border head into precarious situations to save houses. There were times, he said, when firefighters drove up narrow roads or driveways to protect houses that were surrounded by thick vegetation. In his opinion, those firefighters were at risk of getting cut off by the flames. For him, that’s too great of a risk for the sake of saving property.

The lessons came at a time when the Roaring Fork Valley’s growth is pushing development farther into the backcountry. An increased amount of development is occurring in what firefighters call the urban-wildland interface. In practical terms, it’s the places where the mansions are getting built next to national forest.

“The public expects us to drive a fire truck between a fire and their house to put a fire out. I’m not willing to do that,” Thompson said.

Property owners have to take some of the responsibility for keeping their homes safe from forest fires, he said. That means using construction techniques appropriate for those areas, and creating defensible space by clearing trees and vegetation away from houses. While assessing a fire, Thompson said, he and other leaders of the department will look for houses that have defensible space and concentrate on saving them.

“I look at it as the safety of firefighters,” he said.

Basalt’s deployment on wildland fires around the country wasn’t unique. Aspen and Carbondale sent crews as well.

Federal firefighting agencies keep a list of resources that are available. A department, such as Basalt, can join that list with a pledge to send a truck and crew when summoned.

The raging forest fires in California last summer and fall stretched firefighting resources thin and organizers scrambled for help. In some cases when it got called out to California and elsewhere, Basalt’s department played a role in fighting the forest fires; in other cases, the crew staffed a fire station in a town so that the town’s fire department could throw all its resources at the wildland fire.

Basalt firefighters get paid by the states of the feds for the time they spend on the special deployments and the Basalt fire department is compensated for its equipment and assistance. The fire department purchased special equipment, such as a thermal energy indicator, with the $160,000 it netted last year. Over the years, combined revenues from the deployments have paid for the department’s acquisition of a four-wheel-drive fire truck specially equipped for wildland fires.

Thompson said he was surprised to find that so many of the places he has visited aren’t promoting defensible space. Their efforts are placed on battling fires rather than preventing them. He wants the Roaring Fork Valley to avoid that losing proposition.

Roaring Fork Valley residents who are concerned about creating defensible space around their homes can contact their local fire department for advice.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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