Snowmass-Basalt area firefighters describe experience with Pine Gulch Fire
Just over a month ago about 18 miles north of Grand Junction, a lightning strike ignited the Pine Gulch Fire.
Burning on drought-stressed vegetation and in steep terrain during the ongoing regional trend of hot, dry weather, the fire exhibited extreme behavior and actively burned for weeks, soon becoming the largest wildfire in Colorado state history.
And for two weeks early on in the fire response, three Snowmass-Basalt area Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority personnel witnessed the spread of this historic blaze firsthand, an experience they described as extremely educational and unlike other wildfires they had been assigned to.
“As far as assignments and what we do, it was pretty standard,” Duane Vasten, a firefighter and EMT at the Basalt station, said of fighting the Pine Gulch Fire, which was 139,007 acres in size and 81% contained as of Tuesday morning.
“But the thing that stands out with this fire that puts it away from most any other fire is actually the fire behavior. Even to call it extreme fire behavior almost doesn’t say enough about it.”
On a recent afternoon in front of the Basalt Roaring Fork Fire Rescue station, Vasten, Paul Blangsted, a lieutenant at the Basalt station, and Will Shoesmith of the Snowmass station talked about what they saw and experienced while helping fight the Pine Gulch Fire.
The men drove out to the Grand Junction area with one of the Roaring Fork Fire wildland engines Aug. 5, and were first assigned on swing shifts from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Blangsted said they worked with hotshot crews to help contain the fire through burn operations, eliminating any “fire fuel,” or dry brush, trees and other vegetation, between where the fire was burning and the established containment line, or boundary firefighters wanted to keep the fire within.
“The burning conditions were such that you would get embers that would carry up to three-tenths of a mile and then start a new fire, it’s called spotting,” Blangsted said.
“So when you have that type of fire behavior, you really need to get out in front of it and establish control lines. That’s what we were trying to do, but I would say the fire forced our hands a few times to where we had to make some hasty decisions and get plugged into action right away to try to hold a containment line.”
After working a few swing shifts, the Roaring Fork Fire Rescue men transitioned to night shift from 6 p.m. to 9 a.m., where their duties were primarily the same but just at a little cooler temperatures.
Vasten and Blangsted said night operations on a wildfire aim to help crews get ahead, as fires typically die down or are less active at night.
But that wasn’t the case with the Pine Gulch Fire, which the men said never stopped burning.
“Typically there’s what we call a burn window to do our burn operations and that usually starts right before dark and goes until around midnight and that’s when we take advantage of actually burning stuff. And with this fire the burn window never (opened), the fire just kept going all night,” Vasten said. “It was burning as hot and intense at 6 o’clock in the morning as it was at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.”
Blangsted and Vasten have extensive wildfire experience, as both started out as wildland firefighters, Blangsted in California and Vasten in Colorado.
They said the Pine Gulch Fire behavior was unlike many they’d faced in the past, presenting constant challenges as crews tried to box the fire in utilizing roadways and valley floors. One night, the fire grew more than 30,000 acres, and crews had to act in a “kind of desperation” to hold the established containment line, Vasten and Blangsted said.
For Shoesmith, Pine Gulch was the first wildfire he’d served on as an engine crew member. He’s worked in a medical role to support crews on larger wildland fires in the past, but said he learned a lot over the two weeks of “getting up close and personal” with the Pine Gulch Fire.
“We’re taught about fire behavior in our refresher (classes) and our initial certifications, but the fire behavior we saw is not something that they teach,” Shoesmith said. “So for us to get out and to see how these fires are evolving and changing, and to get those mental images so we know how to deal with that when it comes here, it’s invaluable.”
For Scott Thompson, Roaring Fork Fire Rescue chief, getting his first responders like Shoesmith experience fighting wildfire is extremely important.
He explained that wildfire experience is hard to come by and gives his staff a higher level of training and knowledge than anything they’d get in a classroom.
“Without being on a wildfire, it’s very difficult to train … until you experience it, it doesn’t do it justice,” Thompson said of wildland firefighting.
“This hands-on learning can’t be replaced and not only helps us if a big fire starts here but also helps (staff) know how to keep each other safer when we deal with local fires, which is important.”
Thompson also said he sees helping out with area wildfires as a reciprocal, neighborly act. Every call is different, but he said Roaring Fork Fire Rescue will typically send out staff members to support wildfires if they are available, if the local fire danger is low and if it won’t diminish local fire and rescue services.
However, because the Roaring Fork Valley is under Stage 2 fire restrictions, Thompson is not sending any of his personnel out right now.
He said he feels local compliance with the more stringent fire restrictions has been really good so far, but urged residents to be diligent.
“We got a reprieve over the weekend but it won’t last long,” Thompson said of the recent area rain showers. “We need to continue to be safe and to make smart decisions.”
Vasten, Blangsted and Shoesmith expressed similar thoughts, emphasizing that the Pine Gulch Fire — and the Grizzly Creek Fire burning in Glenwood Canyon — should be a reminder to Roaring Fork Valley residents that they have to be cautious, as conditions are dry and hot and fire danger will continue through the fall. The men encouraged locals to get their homes evaluated by Roaring Fork Fire Rescue to ensure they’re defensible against potential wildfire, and to have a plan in place in case they are ever forced to evacuate.
But if a wildfire was to ignite, the three first responders expressed confidence in the knowledge and experience of their Roaring Fork Fire Rescue team, as well as in the collaboration with other Western Slope fire organizations to help right away when they need them.
“Outside of us, we have agreements with all of our neighboring agencies that if any one of the agencies gets a wildfire we all kind of come running … that’s one of the big things that helped us on the day of the Lake Christine Fire,” Vasten said.
Blangsted agreed, and stressed the value of helping fight wildfires like the Pine Gulch for everyone.
“I just think it’s really important that we get out to see these types of fires and experience them because then we bring that skill set and the knowledge back to our fire department,” Blangsted said. “It’s something we can really take advantage of.”
Bystanders, Mountain Rescue Aspen volunteers, CareFlight of the Rockies and other public safety organizations helped respond to an injured hiker near Snowmass Lake on Tuesday, according to a news release.
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