When you fight a fire in California, you have to be mindful of the Santa Ana winds. If you fight a fire in Texas, it will probably be a grass blaze, which travels fast compared to a timber fire the likes of which we might see in Colorado. Of course, it takes years of experience on the ground fighting fires to fully grasp how to address each diverse environment.
“In every part of the country you have to approach fire suppression differently,” explains Rick Barton, who has been fighting fires for more than 45 years, traveling from his home in the Gunnison Valley.
Barton has fought fires across the United States ever since he was a student at then-Western State College, he says.
“If they had a fire you could get an excuse from your class to fight fires for a few days, and they paid for it,” Barton laughs.
Recent blazes from California to South Dakota highlight the sort of natural disasters that local crew members such as Barton are often called to battle.
Brian Ayers, another lifetime firefighter in Gunnison, has spent more than 40 years battling blazes across the United States. Ayers has been to New York, California, Alaska, and all the way to Florida.
It is, in the very least, a good way to see new places, explains Ayers.
Ayers works as part of the management team, which provides crucial organization to effectively suppress fires, he says. He makes up one of two management teams that cover South Dakota, Kansas, Wyoming and Colorado.
Responsibilities include making sure everything is organized, and providing everything from the work plan for the day to meals and paychecks. Over the years, there have been changes to how fires are suppressed, not the least of which are technological changes.
“We had to go more into forecasting fire behaviors, we had to use satellite imagery,” explains Barton.
Firefighters also employ the use of Colorado’s Multi-Mission Aircraft program, which includes two airplanes outfitted with state-of-the-art infrared and color sensors operated by the Division of Fire Prevention and Control Wildland Fire Management staff. It flies up to altitudes of 20,000 feet and can travel anywhere in Colorado in under an hour, according to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
“The technology gives a really good overall picture, helps to more accurately tell us what’s going on,” says Barton. “Regardless of the smoke, they can tell exactly where the fire is burning.”
There are also meteorologists on site to try to stay a step ahead of the fires, says Barton, who’s able to utilize meteorologic advice in instances where high winds would pick up and put people in danger.
“It gave me time to evacuate non-official personnel and to prepare,” explains Barton. “The meteorologist helped me by giving me an hour head start of getting people out of the way.”
Improvements in technology also have led to improvements in safety protocol for firefighters. Ayers recalls the 1994 South Canyon Fire that claimed the lives of 14 firefighters on Storm King Mountain outside of Glenwood Springs.
“Back then, we were still doing things the old-fashioned way, drawing a line in the sand, telling Mother Nature she wasn't going to cross it,” tells Ayers.
When the South Canyon Fire occurred, there were 64 other fires in Colorado alone, explains Ayers, and Storm King was a low-priority fire at the time.
Firefighters also face new challenges as more people move to the state.
“What makes things more dangerous today is we’ve built a lot of homes where fires used to be able to run and burn naturally,” Ayers explains. “Now with all the homes and developments scattered about, we’re always putting fires out.”
When fires aren't able to burn naturally, a “fuel ladder” is more likely — meaning any vegetation, living or dead, such as tall grasses, shrubs, young trees and branches can allow the fire to climb from the forest floor to the tallest trees, explains Barton.
“There’s more trees per acre than we’ve historically had in a lot of those areas because we keep putting fires out that would thin the forest,” says Ayers.
Luckily, there’s a great amount of resources available to homeowners, landowners and communities today that help combat threat of fires.
Barton points to Firewise, a group formed by the Colorado State Forest Service and the National Fire Protection Association, which provides resources and assistance on how to reduce wildfire risk.
However, technology or not, Barton and Ayers have enough experience on the ground between them to know that where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
(Kate Gienapp can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)