Summit County firefighters confront Arizona’s raging wildfires
To the two teams of Summit County firefighters, coming from the cool, refreshing mountain air, Arizona, a sun and fire-scorched flatland that could easily break 100 degrees mid-day, was stifling. But the real problem, during the roughly 14 days each of the crews spent there, wasn’t the heat in the air. It was the heat on the ground. Red, White and Blue Fire District and Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue each recently welcomed home three-man teams sent out in June to help with containment efforts on the “explosive” fires burning across Arizona’s drought-stressed southern region as part of a national response network. The Red, White and Blue team was assigned to help with the Monument fire in southern Arizona near Sierra Vista. The Lake Dillon crew was sent first to New Mexico, then to the Monument fire near Rio Rico, Ariz., and finally, after six days transferred to the Horseshoe 2 fire about 30 miles north. The Summit County firefighters spent approximately two weeks – the most federal regulations will allow – assisting with burn operations, protecting structures and removing vegetation.Chris Sutton, a captain on the Red, White and Blue team describes the job as general “boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror,” but in Arizona both teams saw more action than is common for a deployment. They reveled in the opportunity to do different kinds of work, see other parts of the country and to meet and get to know the people whose homes and communities they were protecting. Benjamin Perlmutter, a Lake Dillon engineer, remembered one family who had been on their property for five generations. The clan’s sick patriarch, who had been born in the house now threatened by wildfire, flatly refused to be evacuated and his family wouldn’t leave without him. Fortunately, firefighters were able to protect the home and most of the property. “It was humbling to talk to these people,” Perlmutter said. “If people don’t lose things, that always makes our job worth it.”
On a federal wildland fire assignment, the days are long – firefighters can legally work for up to 16 hours before they are allowed to rest – the work can be strenuous or boring and the accommodations are essentially non-existent. The Summit County teams spent much of their deployments camping, at elementary schools or other locations close to the fire. The landscape was challenging; in some places mountainous and almost always bone dry and thick with drought-stressed vegetation that made prime fuel for wildfires. “The fires were very hot and they would go very fast,” Perlmutter said. “It was incredibly impressive how fast it was.” Members of the Red, White and Blue team said they went 12 days without seeing a cloud as the wildfires escaped from the grasslands and actually destroyed homes and structures. Wildland fires, they explain, are fought with a different mindset than building fires. With a building fire you use water to take away the heat. With a wildland fire, you take away the fuel. Though the fire was the priority, firefighters were constantly reminded that the flames weren’t the only enemy out there. Close to the Mexican border, Summit County’s teams were warned about the possible presence of illegal immigrants and drug runners in the area. “Anytime we operated near the fence we had border patrol around us for our safety,” said Red, White & Blue cpt. Chris Sutton, who was assigned to the Monument fire. “We had no encounters, but we were certainly aware of the hazard all the time.”There were smaller foes as well. Wildlife, including deer, rattle snakes, scorpions and the extremely poisonous Gila monsters, a venomous lizard, flooded the area where the RWB team was working in a self-imposed evacuation from their now-burning homes.
Despite the challenges, the firefighters signed up for the deployments voluntarily, saying the work was exciting and even fun. The opportunity to fight fire was, after all, the reason most of them went into the field. “Fighting wildland fires is just so much fun,” Perlmutter said with feeling. “It was just like summer camp.” But the real benefit of a federal assignment is the training. Federal fire deployments provide local firefighters with invaluable first-hand experience. “We train a lot for (wildland fires) in Summit County,” Sutton said. “But there’s really no way to prepare yourself for the things we observed unless you actually do it. We’ll certainly have some experience to pull from to make good decisions here.” Which, for local fire departments, is the whole point behind sending teams to assist with out-of-state fires. Crews deployed to federal fires, in addition to supporting Colorado’s neighbors in an emergency, come back with the kind of wildfire fighting experience money can’t buy and books can’t teach. “My whole motivation for going out on deployment is to be as safe and effective as we can be back home,” Sutton said. “It’s all about Summit County. It’s bringing those lessons learned back here. It’s keeping our crews and our citizens safe. That’s why I do it.”
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