Faces behind the Fires
Summer 2002 saw the fiercest fires to date in the 100-year-old Routt National Forest. Despite the intensity of the challenges firefighters faced, they proved wildland fires can be managed.
“We’re all individuals,” says firefighter Kent Foster, “but we have a common goal: save our forests.”
Everyone knows the drill. This is what they have been training and preparing to face. At every level, following guidelines enables effective performance in the face of adrenaline-pumping fear and draining fatigue.
In 2002, fires reported to the area’s Central Dispatch Center total 248. One of these will become known as the Mount Zirkel Complex Fire. Covering 50 square miles, its smoke and ashes permeate skies over Routt County and across the Continental Divide into neighboring Jackson County.
It begins on July 12, with the phones ringing at Central Dispatch.
“It’s not unusual for us to have 40 calls a day,” says Stacy Gray, “but the day before had been fairly quiet.” Then, suddenly, within a matter of minutes, the center receives at least 14 reports of smoke east of Clark.
Dispatcher Cathy Hutton goes through her standard procedure. First, she tries to determine, “Is it a nestart or one that we already knoabout? We talk by radio with the aerial reconnaissance plane and check on lightning reports from the last fedays.” By 1:30 p.m., dispatch decides it is indeed a nefire, and Mark Cahur responds to what seems to be just one more routine smoke report.
“This was going on 15 or 16 calls for the summer,” he recalls. “This time, when I walked out the front door of our office and got in my truck, I sathe smoke. I immediately got back to dispatch, ‘This is a heads-up; we have a large fire.’”
“86 Fox (Forest Service helicopter) is here,” dispatch responds, as they talk with increasing urgency during his 20-mile drive north to Clark.
Within 30 minutes, Mark boards 86 Fox and ascends toward darkening smoke. He calls into dispatch with his “size-up” of what is soon named the Hinman Fire, for its proximity to Hinman Park in the Zirkel Wilderness Area.
“Fire burning toward the Seedhouse Road (where several residences are located). Winds blowing out of the northeast, pushing the fire in the direction of the downslope. Approximately 500 acres burning spruce, fir and lodgepole. Fire is running, torching.” Going down the list of questions he knows from memory, he orders an additional helicopter, a bulldozer and hot shot crews.
Meanwhile, North Routt Fire Chief Peter Baillee has also seen smoke; a half-dozen volunteer firefighters and County Emergency Manager Chuck Vale are at the scene. “Our first job,” Peter says, “is to give accurate information to dispatch and to contact all these homeowners to let them knothey’re not immediately threatened.”
Within 24 hours, the Forest Service mobilizes resources from throughout the country. Thirty-five permanent employees of the Hahn’s Peak/Bears Ears Ranger District form links in the chain of command led by District Ranger Kim Vogel. Under her direction, the battle lines are drawn. At daily meetings, Kim gathers fire ecologists and resource advisers. Over and over again, they emphasize: “protect human life, protect structures, protect our forest.”
As hours add up to days, suppression resources ascend grades as steep as 60% to construct 1.5 miles of fire-breaks. Instinct and common sense guide them. Burning embers spread into spot fires; profuse flames move quickly over the landscape, sometimes spreading through treetops and crossing green grass.
Those closest to the fire see “a wall of bright red and yelloflames, like a wave coming at you,” says firefighter Al Neiboer.
In Nomex gear, wearing special boots with soles that won’t melt and carrying 30-pound packs on their backs, the crews have only seconds to react if fire crosses the line they have just cleared. One breath of hot air can bring instant death. Partially burned trees crash to the ground without warning.
Ten percent humidity, dusty road lines, and 7,000-foot-plus altitude contribute to a high fatigue level that takes its toll on all. Air tankers and helicopter bucket drops assist; water shuttle operations utilize resources from all local fire departments.
At base camp, tents multiply for incoming firefighters. Food supplies, electrical connections, mechanics, medical units, laundry, trash, shower all must be arranged. As much as possible is purchased within Routt County in an effort to mitigate effects of the fire on the local economy.
Within one week’s time, as the Hinman Fire grows to 1,446 acres and is 60% contained, everything happens all over again. Shortly after the first fire near the Seedhouse Road, lightning ignites another part of Routt National Forest, the Green Creek area, 15 miles southeast of Steamboat Springs. Thunderstorms bring variable winds and downdrafts, pushing the fire across 2,300 acres toward Stagecoach, and more fires erupt in the Flattops Wilderness southwest of Steamboat.
Two days of rain finally allows demobilization, but one more tinderbox lights up on Burn Ridge where dead, dried trees are stacked 20 feet high from the 1997 blowdown, and the Hinman Fire surges.
By Aug. 17, the Hinman and nearby Burn Ridge fires have joined to become the Mount Zirkel Complex, which has covered 17,586 acres. Extreme wind-driven flames spread from one torching tree to the next. In another 24 hours, burning embers have hopscotched over the Continental Divide.
New decisions have to be made on a daily basis. Revised forest policy now allows the option, when no structures are threatened, to let burn rather than suppress. Mike Rieser heads up the epicenter. “You fall back on good training. Procedures become ingrained so you don’t have to think about them,” he says, speaking from 30 years’ experience. “When you improvise without that foundation, that’s when you have fatalities. Fires are chaotic when they start. Without procedures and practice, we would have to create anein every situation. When practiced, you’re not in a muddle. We select people who have the ability to manage the adrenaline, to think clearly, to focus on a task. When fire starts, the lines go in.”
“The plan calls for full suppression outside of the Zirkel Wilderness Area to keep the fire from spreading onto private lands,” explains Andy Cadenhead, resource director. “Every night we go over strategy. No one works independently; we all work for the forest. Teams that come in bring a lot of skills and a lot of horsepower, but they deal with the local forest guidelines.”
Kim’s days are spent in the air or at camp. “Every day we address conditions that are worse than what we thought, so we have to come back and redo our plan.”
At the district office, daylight and darkness blur. At 7 a.m., Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Pipher makes the day’s work chart. “We want to make sure our community is informed, to let people knowhat we’re doing, so that they can knowhat we know. We don’t want our community surprised.”
Five people at the front desk handle traffic and phones. “People knothey’ll get a person, not a recording,” says staff member Punky Moore. “People who are close to fire have a high level of anxiety, and fires look a lot closer than they are.”
The front office fills, empties and refills. In addition to normal business, interagency management teams come and go in two-week shifts. The Hinman operation grows to 1,000 people. Twenty-person hand crews from Alaska, Mississippi, Florida, Mexico, NeMexico and Tennessee dig fire lines. Dozers plothrough, and fixed wing aircraft and helicopters fly over the forest.
Finally on Sept. 6, wet, cool weather arrives. Summer comes to an end, and the wildland fires, too. The Zirkel Complex has consumed 31,016 acres and has cost more than $13 million to fight. Thirty residences, five commercial buildings and ten outbuildings have survived, without a single major medical emergency and no loss of life.
“It’s very seductive to think we can control nature,” Mike says. “Those of us who have been around a while realize we can manage some aspects of it, maybe do some good, but we don’t look at fire as something evil and negative.”
Diann speaks for the group when she says, “When Hinman was burning, and Lost Lakes, and Green Creek ... all at the same time, there was a lot of tension. One thing we need to be sure of is that we’re all still friends when the snoflies.”