Summit Fire creates dedicated wildfire specialist team
Members will work to educate community along with detecting and responding to wildfires
Summit Fire & EMS is assigning firefighters to designated wildfire specialist positions for the first time this summer, a move the district hopes will help improve response to wildfires and better educate the community about the importance of mitigation measures.
Traditionally, most of the department’s wildfire-related responsibilities would be split between several firefighters. Now, those duties will be consolidated into a small team of specialists who will dedicate their time exclusively to efforts related to preventing, detecting and responding to wildfires. Summit Fire Chief Travis Davis said the decision to switch things up was largely driven by a desire to become more active in educating the community.
“There’s four phases in the emergency response cycle: response, recovery, mitigation and preparedness,” Davis said. “I think, as a fire department, our primary focus has always been response, and from that perspective, I think it’s a well-oiled machine given the relationships we have with our local counterparts. But there’s a need out there to have a consistent presence and voice at the table, if you will, on matters regarding preparedness and mitigation. That really is the driving factor behind this.”
Battalion Chief Ryan Cole will oversee the program. Engineer Kyle Iseminger and fire medic Tony Marzo will work on the team full time, and paramedic Jonathan Sinclair will serve part-time. All four are already working with the district, and they’ll return to their regular roles “once snow starts to fly again.”
Wildfire mitigation efforts have always been a priority for the county’s fire districts, and both Summit Fire and the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District in Breckenridge offer free defensible space consultations upon request to property owners. The wildfire specialist team is hoping to be more proactive, reaching out to homeowners associations, landscaping companies, elected officials, nonprofits and others to talk about mitigation projects.
Summit Fire officials agreed that another wildfire in Summit County is inevitable, saying the time is right to reallocate some of the district’s resources to focus on reducing the risks.
“It’s really our biggest hazard out there, the dead lodgepole (pine) on the ground right now,” Iseminger said. “As you’ve seen over the past three to five years, we’ve seen larger fires in Summit County, more frequent. … Right now, our focus is interfacing with the public and trying to get some of the word out. It’s going to be more educating the public of what the hazard is and what they should do to prepare.”
But the wildfire specialists will also serve important roles in helping to detect and respond to wildfires. By having individuals dedicated to wildfires, specialists will be able to check in on smoke sightings in the community themselves so that other firefighters aren’t unnecessarily pulled off their regular duties.
When a fire does break out, the specialists might also be tasked with taking on leadership roles to help strategize firefighting tactics in the initial response while battalion chiefs take on higher-level issues like resource requests, community notifications and evacuations.
“When we get a smoke report, we can use them to be that extra set of eyes,” Cole said. “If we do have an incident, it’s one more tool in our arsenal we have to deploy to that fire. We can plug Kyle or one of those guys into a position as a division supervisor if we need. We can put them right with us at command to assist us in management of the fire. … We’ve got them also being able to deploy not only locally but nationally on some of the out-of-district responses we participate in.”
While the team is composed of Summit Fire personnel, Davis said it’s a countywide resource that could be used wherever necessary.
The specialists will also spend their mornings monitoring weather forecasts and fuel moisture levels to assess fire conditions, and they’ll use their expertise to assist other firefighters in training and achieving their wildland fire certifications.
The team comes with plenty of experience to build around.
Cole started his career with the now consolidated Frisco Fire Protection District in 1993. He took on a role with the U.S. Forest Service in 1998 where he spent time on initial attack and Hotshot crews before returning to the county in 2006. Iseminger started with the Lake Dillon Fire Protection District in 1997 and went on the first of too-many-to-count deployments in New Mexico in 2000. Both have also served as division supervisors for the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit’s Type 3 incident management team.
Summit Fire spokesperson Steve Lipsher said the members of the team have kept their skills sharp with regular deployments and advanced certifications.
“I think with the expertise that these two in particular bring — having stared at wildfires encroaching on homes, having tried to protect property, fighting fire face on, seeing how homes catch fire, watching the ember storms and knowing what’s going on — this is the type of real-world, on-the-ground experience they’re bringing to the table,” Lipsher said. “So when they go out with me or on their own to talk with an HOA, and they say, ‘Here’s your vulnerability; I know how these structures are going to catch on fire,’ they’re speaking from firsthand experience.”
In addition to education, training and fighting fires, Iseminger will also be in charge of keeping track of local firefighting resources so that the district is able to quickly respond to aid requests for regional and national wildfires handled through the interagency dispatch center in Grand Junction.
Among those resources is a new Type 6 wildland fire engine purchased by the district this year to replace an 18-year-old engine that is being taken out of service. The new engine, built by BFX Fire Apparatus out of Texas, differs from the primary response engines — called pavement queens by officials — because it’s built on a pickup chassis and is able to maneuver through tighter and rougher terrain. Iseminger said the engine is also designed so that firefighters can live out of it for up to 18 days while on deployments.
Officials said the new engine represented a considerable upgrade from the previous engine, including 18 years of safety improvements.
“I remember on my first deployment, it was a single-cab pickup, and you had to sit three across with no AC,” Iseminger said. “It’s leaps and bounds better than what we had 20 years ago. … It’s just a little more compartment space, newer amenities, things we may not have had, like a cellphone boost to get us better signal out there. They may not be creature comforts, but it’s definitely a nice upgrade from where we were that will help us in the field.”
Summit Fire keeps a wildland engine in each of its four stations and is working to replace all of the older ones.
Cole said the creation of dedicated wildfire specialist positions is becoming more common throughout the country.
“There are more starting to pop up as the threat continues,” Cole said. “We’re definitely seeing less moisture every year. We saw it this year with our snowpack. We’re seeing bigger fires; we’re seeing longer fire seasons. So a lot of departments have started to take this approach of starting to put these teams together to start assisting the residents of their districts with preparation.”
While the wildfire specialists will only be in that role for part of the year for now, the district may expand the program in the future.
Cole said he’d eventually like to see a dedicated fire-suppression module of about 10 firefighters who come on during the wildfire season to be used throughout the county and as a national resource. Davis said there have been conversations within the district for years about creating a year-round wildfire coordinator position, which he said would help to further improve mitigation efforts in the community and perhaps someday facilitate a bigger wildfire team. But the move is likely a couple of years away.
“This is the pilot season,” Davis said. “… I think the sky is the limit from here. I think there are some very specific things we want to put in place. Ultimately, it starts with the wildfire coordinator, and we just continue to build on it from there.”
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