Incident management response ‘seamless’
summit daily news
BRECKENRIDGE ” Red, White and Blue Lt. Keith McMillan has fought wildfires all over the country, but he had never experienced the intensity of being one of the first firefighters on the frontlines before last Monday.
McMillan and his crew ” working out of the Wildland 4 brush truck ” were the first responders to the Ophir Mountain fire near Summit High School.
When they arrived, the four-person crew immediately hurried a hose up the north side of the hill behind the high school to try to douse the flames. At first, McMillan didn’t think the blaze was anything out of the ordinary ” just a small ground fire they’d be able to knock down ” then everything changed from normal to chaotic.
“It’s all such a blur,” McMillan said from RWB’s main station a week after the incident. “It was not long after we started working that (the fire) started torching and ran through the canopy ” what we call a crown fire.”
The radiant heat emitted by the 200-foot flames forced the firefighters to scramble to their pre-established safety routes, rush down the hill and wait.
“It was serious. It was one of the biggest fires we’ve seen up here in many, many years,” McMillan said. “You can’t even get close to a fire that big; all we could do was make sure we were safe and watch the show.”
Other crews began arriving immediately and Deputy Chief Jeff Berino with Lake Dillon Fire Authority took over command, directing all the firefighters, except for McMillan’s team, to work on saving the nearby homes.
Wildland 4 stayed behind to spray down the perimeter of the fire with water to prevent the flames from further spreading.
While McMillan and the rest of the 67 responding firefighters battled the flames from the field, the county’s incident management team (IMT) worked diligently behind the scenes, making sure firefighters had food and water, evacuees had a place to go and the financing for the incident was lined up.
The fire was the IMT’s first live emergency in the several years that have passed since its inception.
“It went pretty seamlessly,” said Sheriff John Minor, who was originally the incident commander, before handing the reins over to Lake Dillon Fire Authority Chief Dave Parmley. “I was very pleased with what I saw that day.”
Shortly after the fire broke out, a mass page went out to everyone on the IMT ” from local law enforcement chiefs to Marty Ferris from the county finance department and Keystone director of mountain operations Chuck Tolton.
About 20 team members in all responded, filling the command post inside RWB’s north station near Tiger Road.
The communications department set up laptops inside the firehouse, and people were instructed to buy food and water, study weather patterns and the burn index and begin planning ahead in the event the fire spread toward Frisco.
“It’s a real busy, tense atmosphere if you will,” Minor said. “It’s almost a fun tense because you know what’s at stake, you know you cannot afford to make mistakes.”
The IMT took charge of the fire for the first 24 hours before handing the command over to the U.S. Forest Service.
While there may be some necessary tweaking that surfaces during the team’s upcoming debriefing, Minor’s assessment of the IMT’s first activation was an “A-plus,” thanks mostly the team’s extensive training exercises.
Minor was not sure what the county’s total bill would be for the fire, although he said a single slurry drop can cost up to $10,000 and the airplane made two drops over the blaze.
The Forest Service has agreed to cover 75 percent of the costs for the first day and 90 percent for the second day, Minor said.
The fire burned on 75 percent Forest Service land and 25 percent private land. The cause of the fire is still being investigated, although preliminary findings indicate it was human caused.
Nicole Formosa can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext.229, or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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