Aspen fire crew heading west to help with California wildfires
Aspen’s fire department is one of 20 Colorado agencies sending crews to help with the historic wildfires in California.
Aspen Chief Rick Balentine, three volunteers in the department and a wildfire-specific fire engine are part of a 14-day deployment to help in southern California.
Balentine already was in California last week to help some good friends in the northern part of the state who lost their home in the wildfire near Santa Rosa. He was driving back to Colorado and was in Reno, Nevada, when he got the call Sunday that the Aspen crew was heading to California. He turned around and headed south.
“It’s quite a mess, as you can image,” Balentine said Monday of the fires in Santa Rosa. “The pictures on TV just don’t do it justice. It’s devastating. By far the worst I’ve ever seen in my career.”
Balentine said he will be in Chino, which is east of Los Angeles, before the rest of the Colorado crews arrive and will know then how they’ll be used.
He said the Colorado contingent is heading to southern California because many of those local crews were sent north to help there. Fire danger remains high in southern California; crews are mopping up the Canyon Fire, which started Sept. 25 and burned nearly 2,700 acres southeast of Los Angeles. Balentine said there is a chance the Colorado crews could be reassigned and moved north.
The rest of the Aspen crew — Capt. Craig Melville and firefighters Colin Marshall and Adrian Aguilar — left early Monday and met up with other Colorado departments in Grand Junction to start the two-day convoy.
The crews will be gone for 18 days (including travel days), and the deployment could be extended for another week if needed, Aspen Deputy Chief Parker Lathrop said.
“We do plan for this,” Lathrop said of staffing in Aspen. “It’s good for our folks who go out and get experience and bring it back here for the future. We rotate who goes, but they have to be wildland wildfire training certified.”
Aspen crews, he said, go to three or four wildfires in a year.
This season, Aspen crews spent two weeks at the Lolo Peak fire, which started July 15 and burned 53,900 acres in southwest Montana, and 10 days at the Lodgepole Complex fire, which started July 19 and burned 270,700 acres in east-central Montana.
The calls for help usually come through the U.S. Forest Service, Lathrop said, so this request was a bit different coming from California’s office of emergency management. Colorado and California work as part of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, which is a network of shared resources and reimburses the departments.
Lathrop said the Aspen firefighters heading to California are teamed with crews from Grand Fire (based out of Grandby), Lefthand Fire (based out of Boulder County), Aurora and Thornton.
“We’re just part of a bigger operation,” Balentine said. “They may send out another call this week for more help, but we won’t send out another engine. We don’t want to get stretched too thin at home.”
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Environmental leaders in Aspen are relieved and re-energized with Joe Biden’s election as president. The Trump administration had them on their heels for four years.