Summit County’s bravest took part in training sessions last week to prepare for what is expected to be a busy wildfire season.
There aren’t a lot of people willing to stand on the thin fire line between our homes and raging infernos, but Summit is fortunate to have a few dozen. Members of fire districts across the county attended three-hour joint wildfire training sessions at the High Country Fire Training Center in Frisco on Thursday and Friday, going over wildfire management tactics and taking part in outdoor drills to shake off the winter rust.
Captain Matt Benedict of the Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District based in Breckenridge instructed the session on Thursday, focusing on issues facing wildland firefighters in 2018 and specific challenges in Summit. Benedict talked about natural fuels, resource management, situational awareness and capped off the session by running a wildland refresher scenario outdoors.
“This year there’s already been a bunch of activity,” Benedict told the class at the top of the session, referring to the wildfire in El Paso County that spread across 43,000 acres, burning 36 structures and causing $1.3 million in damage, as well as continuing issues with wildfires in California. “Wildland world has changed a fair bit out of necessity. We’re doing a lot more fires in places with a lot more hazards,” Bendict commmented.
When it came to fuels, Benedict brought up the prediction provided by former local Forest Service fire management officer Ross Wilmore, who knew a lot about fuel education and fire behavior.
“He said 10 years ago, that in 10 years there would be enough surface fuels to support larger and more frequent wildfires.”
Benedict changed to a slide showing bar graphs of wildland fire actions reported by Red, White and Blue and the Summit Fire and EMS authority. In both cases, the bars were rising.
“Five years ago, Red, White and Blue had four wildland fires that we actually took action on because they escaped immediate containment,” Benedict said. “This last year, Red, White and Blue had 32. Lake Dillon Fire had 27 last year. Not even looking at this graph scientifically, that’s a very clear trend upward.”
One of the firefighters in attendance mentioned that he very recently heard of the first report of an unattended campfire by the Meadow Creek trailhead. Unattended campfires make up a large portion of wildfires every year, and seeing one this early in the season was cause for concern.
Benedict cold-called people in the room using his own version of the Socratic method to try to see why they thought the trend was going to continue to rise. The answers ranged from more people visiting Summit to the result of the devastation wreaked by the mountain pine beetle. Benedict zeroed in on that factor.
“The trees died, they’re down, and now they’re crumbling. There’s more kindling on the ground. That’s what Ross Wilmore was talking about 10 years ago. Surface fuels are a huge factor in this. Our fuels are a lot more receptive, whether it’s their organization or the rate at which they dry out, our fuels are a lot more receptive to fire.”
Benedict then reviewed tape with the class of last year’s Peak 2 wildfire in Breck that only burned 84 acres, thanks to the work of many crews including elite hotshot firefighters. But in a time-lapse video, Benedict showed how fast the fire grew from a relatively small burn into a towering pyrocumulus cloud. It’s that rapid spread that concerned firefighters then and is an even greater concern now.
Benedict mentioned how he heard a superintendent of a hotshot crew describe the state of the forest his crew was working in.
“These are professionals, they go all over the country fighting fires,” Benedict said. “They see forests all over the nation, and they think our forest is in the worst shape they’ve ever seen.”
Benedict said that the combination of surface fuel, dry conditions and steep terrain made Summit’s mountain forests a firefighter’s nightmare to work in. All that dire information combined sent home a clear message to Summit’s bravest in the room: be prepared.
While the full-time firefighters in the room were there to help keep their Type 1 certification, part-time wildland firefighters like County Commissioner Dan Gibbs are certified Type 2 wildland firefighters. Gibbs attended the morning session on Thursday to maintain his certification, saying that the increasing fire risk posed to Summit County was the primary reason he keeps up on his training.
“Wildfires are a real and dominant threat to our community,” Gibbs said. “So wildfire training that focuses on attention to details and with active initial attack will help save lives, protect homes and critical infrastructure. We know that we are experiencing trends that reflect larger and more frequent and sustained wildfire activity in Summit County so being prepared for potentially a bad fire year is vital to our community.”
Gibbs added that he would also be taking a pack test for physical fitness on Sunday, which would require speed walking with a 45-pound pack over 3 miles in under 45 minutes.
Lt. Colonel Mitch Utterback (retired), a former Army special forces officer who oversaw the Colorado National Guard’s response to the 2013 Front Range flood ended briefings with a line he used to see off soldiers he commanded in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Benedict passed it on to his own wildland brothers in arms:
“People say: ‘Be safe out there.’ I’m not going to say that. This is dangerous (stuff) we’re doing. So go do dangerous (stuff). But come back alive.”
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State department of transportation crews are well on their way to clearing Highway 82 to Independence Pass, which should open on schedule May 27 at noon.