Fighting fires – and frostbite in Summit County |

Fighting fires – and frostbite in Summit County

Special to the Daily/RWB fireFirefighters Wednesday night battled a chimney fire and -26 degree temperatures in Breckenridge.

With feet of snow on the ground and the mercury plunging to some of the coldest temperatures in 26 years, a fire might not have seemed like the most likely disaster to occur in Summit County Wednesday night.

But at 11:30 p.m. as temperatures in Summit County fell to -30 degrees, Red, White and Blue firefighters were on their way to the Cedars condominium complex in Breckenridge where flames had broken out, despite the freezing weather.

As they worked to control the flames, the firefighters, equipped and trained to handle extreme heat, also had to do battle with the bitter cold. As they tried to douse the fire from inside the building, battalion chief Russ Austin kept his men on a constant warming rotation, insisting they take breaks in the back of a heated ambulance from time to time.

The firefighters were at an increased risk of hypothermia as their clothes became wet with sweat from working in close proximity to the fire. Standing still while manning the command center, Austin was also in danger, with frostbite beginning to affect his gloved fingers by the end of the night.

“(It was) really the extreme,” Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District spokeswoman Kim Scott said. “We’re just lucky the fire was put out and nobody was hurt or injured. None of our guys suffered any injuries because of the cold or any other reason.”

The blaze at the Cedars was one of five fires that broke out in Summit County this week and was among dozens of incidents that required local firefighters to find ways to deal with complications from the extreme weather.

For emergency responders, time is critical, whether they are trying to reach a victim in a car accident or put out a building fire. In both cases, freezing weather and winter conditions can quickly absorb the few minutes firefighters have to get to the scene and bring the situation under control.

Fires at high elevations are particularly time sensitive.

“In higher altitude … it takes a longer time because you have to apply more water to the heat to put (the fire) out,” said Steve Boyle, assistant chief of the Copper Mountain Fire Department.

But frozen or snow-buried hydrants can slow responders down, wasting time they can’t afford to lose when fighting a fire that could ignite a room in just a few minutes.

Temperatures colder than the negative teens can also impair firefighters’ safety equipment, including the breathing apparatuses used to protect their airways from smoke or hazardous gas.

Time becomes a critical issue in cold weather when it comes to car accidents as well.

“Even what might be considered a minor accident with minor injuries can become problematic if someone is out there for a while,” Lake Dillon Fire Rescue spokesman Steve Lipsher said. “If you’re talking 10 or 15 minutes without proper clothing in -20 degree weather, you’re risking hypothermia, and a minor injury can be come a major concern.”

Fire rescue teams in Summit County are generally well trained to handle harsh conditions and to work with speed in efficiency in winter weather. Teams regularly check their equipment to ensure it’s working. Some firefighters are also wear ice cleats to prevent slipping, and all crews use safety practices like the rotations put in place at the Cedar fire Wednesday night.

There are also things the public can do to help firefighters handle emergencies quickly and efficiently in extremely cold weather.

The fire protection agencies in Summit County ask individuals and businesses to help keep their local fire hydrants accessible by digging them out when the snow starts to pile up.

“Often times there’s nobody who’s really responsible for doing that,” Lipsher said.

Fire officials also recommend keeping warm clothes in the car in case of emergencies and emphasized always giving emergency vehicles on the side of the road enough space. On slick roads, passing too near the vehicles can put emergency personnel at risk and cause additional accidents.

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