With new equipment, agencies prepare for another fire season | AspenTimes.com

With new equipment, agencies prepare for another fire season

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

As communities across the state recover from last summer’s fires, state and local agencies charged with defending lives and homes are preparing for the coming fire season with more resources at hand than ever before.

After last summer, Gov. Bill Owens freed up $1 million to spend on new fire engines specially equipped to fight wildfires. Aspen received one of the 10 new trucks that were obtained with the money and sent its older model to Carbondale. There are now more than 150 of the Type 6 fire engines at fire departments across the state.

Aspen Fire Chief Darryl Grob said the new truck offers an excellent training opportunity for his volunteers. “These vehicles are state of the art in many respects,” he said.

Grob said his department makes the truck and a crew of volunteers available for two-week segments throughout the fire season, traveling when and wherever they are needed.

“The reason Aspen got a new one is because its fire department has for years sent their people out on one of the state engines to work,” said John Denison, the forester in charge of this area for the Colorado State Forest Service.

The state has also expanded its role from the air by setting up the Wildfire Emergency Response Fund. The fund covers the cost of the first drop of fire-retardant chemicals on a wildfire from a tanker plane out of Grand Junction or one of several other regional airports around the state.

The Coal Seam fire has also served to strengthen the bonds between the various agencies that fight fires. That fire, for instance, required the coordination of local, state and federal agencies.

It started on private property, destroyed homes at the edge of Glenwood Springs, forced the evacuation of the state fish hatchery along Mitchell Creek and burned through land administered by two federal agencies, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

“I don’t know that we’ve gone through an outright change because of Coal Seam, rather [we have solidified] the cooperative agreements and efforts we’ve been doing in the area for several years,” said Frankie Romero, the fire management officer for both the Forest Service and the BLM.

Romero said his office is currently analyzing possible thinning projects in the area known as the urban-wild land interface, where neighborhoods meet the forests and other heavily vegetated areas.

“One thing we don’t want to do is log for logging’s sake,” Romero said. “But there are definitely places where it makes sense to log, set prescribed fires or mulch the vegetation.”

Denison from the state forest service says one of his jobs is to educate and assist private property owners about what they can do to reduce the wildfire threat. He said landowners interested in thinning their fuels can get half of the cost covered by the state.

“The only thing we can do to modify the behavior of a fire is to thin the fuels,” Denison said. “When you’ve got continuous fuels, steep slopes, dry weather and high winds, there’s no way to stop them, you can use all the [air tanker] slurries you want.”

Denison said people should expect to see wildfires occurring later this summer, both in spite and because of all moisture this spring.

“It’s impossible to predict the fire season,” Denison said. “But it’s always bad – if we have a lot of rain, it brings up the fine fuels, and if we don’t have a lot a rain the moisture content is low and everything is going to burn.”

Last summer, with fires fed by a low moisture content, everything burned. This summer, the wet spring means grasses and shrubs are thriving, creating the fuel that will feed fires later this summer.

“The only thing that makes a difference is if we get rain in July and August,” Denison said. “If we get dry lightning it’s a problem.”

Aspen’s Grob said regardless of the location, fuels and intensity of a fire, his crews are prepared to do whatever is asked of them.

“Our job is to be ready, and we work at it,” he said.

[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is aharvey@aspentimes.com]

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