Summit County fire districts battle fictitious blaze for wildland training
The analog clock hanging in the firehouse ticked to a couple minutes after nine last Thursday morning and a call went out to Summit County 911 Dispatch with news of smoke and flames sighted at Bill’s Ranch near Frisco.
Placing the call, Jeff Berino, chief of Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue. Now, the Type IV blaze (on a five-tier fire scale — Type III being a one-to-three day event and Types II and I requiring large-scale, national response) was only a drill. But the annual dress rehearsal is what the three local fire districts rely upon as their shared on-the-ground training should a wildfire engulf an area subdivision.
“It’s huge having some face time together,” said Berino. “If we get this for real, what would we do?”
The military has its war games, and firefighters have their own version of the same — only everyone is wearing yellow and on the same team. So crews from the Red, White & Blue and Copper Mountain Fire departments arrived to Lake Dillon’s Station 2 in Frisco for a quick briefing a few minutes before the outgoing call.
“We’re going to have some fun today,” Berino told the group of about two dozen. “We can’t put real smoke and fire back there, unfortunately. Let’s pretend it’s September. I know the artificiality is tough … but picture going back there with visibility of about 25-to-50 feet. Everything that’s green, picture brown, cured-out grass.
“I’m going to go call 911,” he added, “I’ve always wanted to do that.”
And off the wildland trucks and fire engines from the three districts went in a staggered departure.
The Beaver Creek Fire, not far from the town of Walden in Jackson County, continues to chew up acreage in northern Colorado. As of Sunday evening, the wildfire on Routt National Forest — where both Lake Dillon and Copper Mountain have three-man units dispatched to assist — has burned more than 13,000 acres and made Summit residents curious if a similar disaster could happen here.
“The odds of it happening are not very high,” acknowledged Lake Dillon public information officer Steve Lipsher. “That said, this is our realistic, natural hazard. It’s no different than if you lived in Miami, and you had the threat of hurricanes or if you lived in Kansas and you had the treat of tornadoes.
“All it takes is a lightning strike or an unattended campfire or someone goofing up or whatever,” he continued, “and you get yourself a wildfire under the wrong circumstances, of a cold front coming through with high winds, and — boom — it’s off to the races.”
Statistics show that such an event occurs in a region — yes, even at heightened elevations with less oxygenated air — about every 100 years or so, and one can never know when exactly it might happen. And its not like Summit, with its similar vegetation and beetle-kill trees to other notable fires, hasn’t had its own set of prospective wide-ranging conflagrations.
In October last year, the Brush Creek Fire burned approaching 250 acres north of Silverthorne and took about three days to fully contain before it could reach a nearby ranch. In June of 2011, there was also a 17-acre blaze in Keystone that caused removal of 20 people as the fire bore down on a number of condos and required air support to bring it under control. There was also the wildfire behind Summit High School in 2005 that charred 15 acres and threatened 50 homes, forcing the evacuation of the high school and hundreds of neighboring residents.
“So we’ve had these,” said Berino. “We’ve had some scares, but knock on wood, we’ve never lost a house. Sometimes the public will say, ‘Well, why five fire engines for a fire this small?’ We’ve got to smush it, quick. We don’t want to mess around.”
For Thursday’s exercise at the home of a cooperating Bill’s Ranch resident, four trucks were on scene, so about 20 acting crew. Then, as the imaginary northwest winds picked up and the fire — in the form of red landscaping flags — grew, a hypothetical second alarm was sounded to bring additional engines in from the surrounding towns of Leadville, Fairplay, Kremmling, Avon and Vail.
Were it an actual fire, by that point, plumes of smoke would be all over Frisco and visible as far as a half-mile out, and the county’s emergency center would be flooded with calls. Local law enforcement and animal control would immediately be involved and helping to vacate homes and assisting with the collection of pets.
Meanwhile, the area firefighters would be battling the blaze and refilling their specialized wildland engines’ 250-to-300-gallon water capacity at the nearest hydrants as needed. The recpath through Bill’s Ranch would be closed, as would the nearby Peaks Trail, and a shelter would be established for those who had to be evacuated from their homes.
“Sometimes fighting the fire is the easy part,” said Berino, as primed hoses continued to put out red flags in the distance. “The fire trucks and the water, that’s cool, but the behind-the-scenes stuff is huge. It’s more than meets the eye.”
Aside from ensuring a single coordinated effort between all county agencies, the setting up of a joint information center and providing updates to news agencies, fire officials have to begin thinking about the long game as necessary. That means addressing any number of hidden logistics, such federally-mandated eight-hour shifts of rest hours for crews, assembling porta-potties and food and water for tired teams as well as locating overnight and next-day reinforcements if needed.
Luckily, Thursday morning in the maze that is Bill’s Ranch only entailed practice for members of Summit’s bravest. They rehearsed blasting water on replica flames — “Put the wet stuff on the red stuff,” playfully noted one fireman — while others talked through lighting backfires and motioning as if digging fire lines to create safety boundaries while wrestling the fictitious wildfire.
At 10:22 a.m., administrators declared the brush fire 100-percent contained, and the invented adrenaline rush was terminated to matching effect. Soon it was back to laughs and smiles and even a little talk of baseball among these comrades-in-arms as each returned to base for a rundown of the morning’s operations.
The chief explained he was pleased with the both energy and thought that went into following the wildland-urban interface training they all went through during an April classroom refresher. And in actually hitting the ground with trucks and water — good news — no red flags.
“I’m impressed,” he said. “It’s not something we get every day, so we’ve got to practice as much as we can. Every year they get better. It’s why we do this.”
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