Butcher: Volunteer firefighters are the guardians of the rural West (column)
If the universe wanted to challenge volunteer firefighters, it would arrange for a fire emergency right smack in the middle of a small town’s annual festival, when fire crews are busy helping run the parade and other events.
In this case, lightning started a fire sometime between Saturday night and Sunday morning during Mancos Days, a July celebration in this town of 1,400 in southwestern Colorado. Five members of the 15-member Mancos Fire and Rescue crawled out of their beds and responded when the wildfire was reported at about 5:30 a.m. on Sunday, July 30.
As if to test their mettle, smoke was coming from a hard-to-reach cranny of a canyon, with steep terrain full of scrub oak, cedars and pine at an elevation of 7,800 feet. The blaze was also close to homes and less than a mile from the harsh remnants of the devastating Weber Fire, which burned 10,000 acres and caused dozens of evacuations five years ago.
Massive fires tend to dominate the headlines. But people often forget that even the biggest conflagration starts out as a flicker, and that the first sighting is often responded to, not by helicopters and Hotshots, but by local volunteers with day jobs. Before sunup in Mancos that Sunday, the crew headed east up Highway 160 in three Type 6 brush trucks, specially outfitted pickup trucks loaded with 200 gallons of water and many yards of hose. They continued as far as they could on private gravel roads, and got closer in an all-terrain vehicle driven by a local resident. Then they bushwhacked for 30 minutes to get to the fire, according to Mancos Assistant Fire Chief Ray Aspromonte, who was on the crew. Aspromonte, who works in town as a diesel mechanic, was joined by Gene Smith, a machinist in a local lumber mill; Tavis Anderson, a welder for a local construction company; David Franks, a park ranger at Mesa Verde National Park; and Drew Simmons, a planner for neighboring LaPlata County.
Of the approximately 30,000 fire departments nationwide, nearly two-thirds are run solely by volunteers, according to a 2017 study by the National Fire Protection Association, a Massachusetts nonprofit established in 1896. In communities with populations under 2,500, more than 90 percent of the fire departments are all-volunteer.
By about 8 a.m., at the site of the fire, the crew had felled a burning tree and dug a perimeter around it. The plan was to monitor the blaze. Lacking much water, they hoped that the tiny but volatile fire would sputter out from lack of fuel and lack of wind.
They’d carried in 15 gallons of water weighing 125 pounds, along with fire shelters, tools, first aid kits and the chainsaw. They rested briefly before picking up hoes and Pulaskis to resume their work.
Most members of this crew are married, with children, and have been responding to calls for years. They are a busy bunch, attending training sessions every Monday and handling calls almost every day. Last year, they handled 340 calls within a district that spans about 200 square miles.
They were the first responders to the Weber Fire five years ago, and they stayed on it for 10 days. They responded to a nine-alarm fire at the Western Excelsior mill this spring and to a recent double-fatality caused by a motor vehicle accident. After a man and his son died on Highway 160, firefighter David Franks realized that the pair, along with the rest of their family, had been part of a tour he’d led earlier of the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde.
As the sun climbed, the crew began dissecting the dead tree to locate its hottest segments. They split the wood and doused the embers with water. They extinguished any persistent flames and relayed information on their radios. Sometime after noon, they gathered their equipment and headed back to the trucks.
Meanwhile, at the Mancos Days festival, the Water Fights, an annual contest between local fire departments, were underway. Firefighting teams from the towns of Mancos, Dolores, Lewis-Arriola and Rico competed, and the Mancos women’s team triumphed. Though there’s only one woman in the fire department, other firefighters’ wives joined her to complete the team. The men’s team fell to Lewis-Arriola in the finals.
It’s unlikely that many spectators knew about the volunteers who’d been up before dawn to fight a nearby fire. “I’m sure there are some who don’t care,” said Aspromonte, but “most people seem to think we do good.”
Maddy Butcher is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (HCN.org). She writes in Mancos, Colorado.
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