Education, Preparedness, and Flexibility
Critical Components in Fighting Wildfires
In the summer of 2012, the unthinkable happened in Colorado Springs. People watched in horror as the threatening Waldo Canyon Fire came roaring down the mountainside destroying nearly 350 homes. At the time, it was the most destructive fire in Colorado history.
In the summer 2013, the unimaginable happened. Another wildfire, started in Black Forest, destroying 511 homes. Unimaginable and unthinkable are not descriptors the Colorado Springs Fire Department uses. To them, it was simply a matter of when, not if, with local firefighters preparing for such events for years now.
The Wildfire Suppression Program and the Wildfire Mitigation Program provide protection and education to the residents of Colorado Springs. They have been in existence since the late 1990s, according to Fire Deputy Chief Steven Dubay, a 30-year veteran of the department. The commitment made to both programs involves thousands of training hours annually and is taken very seriously.
Every firefighter undergoes wildfire suppression training as part of their routine education but Dubay says 25 percent of the force gets additional instruction in fighting wildfires inclusive of physical fitness testing and classes related to science, fire behavior, weather, structural protection and air operations. Each year, team members must complete a three-mile walk in 45 minutes or less wearing a 50-pound vest.
In addition, some on the team make themselves available for deployment to other fires on a moment’s notice. “Thirty to fifty firefighters are on that list to deploy and while we focus on Colorado, our firefighters could be deployed anywhere from Florida to Alaska depending on the request,” Dubay says. In 2013, the department deployed 46 firefighters to 21 incidents amounting to 166 days of deployment.
Still, with that kind of expertise, Chief Christopher P. Riley, says both recent wildfires provided valuable information to the department. “We were prepared for both Waldo and the Black Forest fires because the department has been training for years. We used all of our skills and every tool the firefighters had and it was evident that those years of preparation really helped. Thank goodness we were as prepared as we were,” Riley says. “But the first 60-90 minutes of a wildfire is critical. After that it becomes difficult to manage.”
Riley, working with other fire chiefs across the state, formed a task force immediately following the Black Forest fire to address how to get massive amounts of resources to a wildfire during that critical stage. Dubbed “Broken Arrow,” the program aims to get 30 pieces of equipment to a fire within the first 90 minutes. In its infancy, the program is mainly focused on the Front Range. There are two simulated incidents planned in Douglas and Larimer counties before summer to prove the concept and make any adjustments.
Dubay says other lessons were learned after the Waldo Canyon Fire, utilizing the experiences of the firefighters that were then applied to the Black Forest fire. “We changed some equipment including radios and tools,” he says. “We also learned that the personal protection equipment was just too hot during Waldo so we switched to much lighter weight protection.” These changes proved to be positive in fighting the Black Forest fire, Dubay says. In addition, the department has become adept at shifting operations due to red flag warnings or high fire danger days. Warnings are monitored daily throughout the year.
Riley is also proud of the department’s education and mitigation efforts. Colorado Springs is recognized as a “Firewise” community, a program of the National Fire Protection Association. Firewise communities empower neighbors and professional resources to work together to reduce the risk of wildfire. Certain activities, including developing a community-wide action plan, must be completed prior to receiving accreditation.
The department has an annual acreage goal as part of their mitigation plan but they also run an active education program that is managed by Fire Marshall Brett Lacey and Christina Randall, wildfire mitigation administrator. Homeowners can contact the department for a personal on-site assessment of wildfire risk or arrange instructional presentations for homeowners associations or neighborhood watch groups. Lacey and the department also conduct open forum seminars on wildfire mitigation. “Education on wildfire mitigation is so important,” Dubay says. “People think mitigation means cutting trees down but it’s really about thinning trees and brush.”
Wildfire mitigation education requests can be made by calling Lacey at 719-385-7266 or Randall at 719-385-7368. For more information about the Colorado Springs Fire Department and its wild land firefighting efforts, visit springsgov.com.
“We are a world class agency of highly trained and highly skilled men and women serving this community every day,” Riley says. “When wild land meets suburbia, this is a challenging area of the country we are protecting. The lives and structures have basically been built into the side of a mountain.”