Locals answering call to fight fires all over the West | AspenTimes.com

Locals answering call to fight fires all over the West

Firefighters from throughout the Roaring Fork Valley are answering desperate calls for help in tackling blazes that have lit up the West this summer.

For the second time in about three weeks, a crew from Basalt is helping protect the archeological treasures at Mesa Verde. One fire engine and three firefighters were called out Friday night when another fire started around the national park near Cortez.

The Basalt, Carbondale and Aspen fire departments also sent volunteers to Mesa Verde last month to help fight the first massive wildland fire that burned for more than two weeks.

The federal government called on departments from throughout the state who volunteered to be part of a pool of resources. For the July fire, three firefighters and an engine from Basalt answered the call along with five men and two engines from Carbondale and one man from Aspen, according to Ron Biggers, who is coordinating the availability of those three departments.

The fire districts are paid for the use of their engines, so local taxpayers aren’t footing the bill. The volunteers are also paid, but not a great amount.

“You either do it because you love it, because of the experience or because it’s good for your department,” said Bob Guion, a Basalt firefighter who volunteered to help at Mesa Verde. “You don’t do it for the pay.” Helped protect ruins Biggers said only volunteers who have passed certain training and conditioning criteria are eligible to participate in the federal pool.

It also requires jobs with a degree of flexibility because they may be called out for up to two weeks at a time.

The firefighters assisted at Mesa Verde for six days, Guion said. They helped protect park service buildings as well as some of the Anasazi ruins that made the park famous.

By calling on fire department volunteers to protect the structures and historic sites, federal crews were freed up to get the fire under control in the backcountry, explained Biggers.

The local crews helped by clearing trees and brush, and scraping down to the ground to create fire lines for containment. The main fire came to within about 1 mile of where Biggers’ crew was stationed, but Park Service officials were mainly concerned about embers starting spot fires where the local departments’ were stationed.

Helping fight the fires from Basalt were Biggers, Guion and Fire Chief Steve Howard. Attending from Carbondale were Terry McShane, Will Hanville, Roger Ball, Matt Olive and Bill Gavette. Aspen firefighter Kevin Smiddy joined the Carbondale contingent so they could staff two engines.

Biggers said members of the Snowmass Village Fire Department, who are paid, were also in the federal pool and likely seeing action. Juggling resources An extraordinary number of wildfires have flared up in the West during this long, hot summer. The Associated Press tallied 50 fires in 10 Western states in a story that ran Aug. 3. More than 700,000 acres had been burned by that time.

The federal government is spending $15 million per day to support 20,000 civilian and military firefighters. Extra help may be sought from Mexico and Australia, the AP reported.

Federal dispatchers cannot simply tap into whatever domestic resources they have, Biggers explained. Before calling out volunteers from Basalt, Carbondale and Aspen for a fire like Mesa Verde, federal organizers must assess the fire danger in the Roaring Fork Valley or whether they may be needed closer to home.

The local departments also have the right to turn down assignments.

When the Mesa Verde fire was under control, a crew from Carbondale remained on duty and traveled with an engine up to Cody, Wyo., where a fire was raging, according to Biggers. He believed their tour ended Thursday night.

The value of joining such pooled efforts, said Guion and Biggers, is valuable experience for local firefighters. It also demonstrates the departments’ willingness to chip in during tough times, they said.

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