Fourteen firefighters died on July 6, 1994 in a conflagration at South Canyon, a few miles outside of Glenwood Springs. Also known as the Storm King Mountain fire, it was one of the deadliest tragedies to befall wildland firefighters in the 20th century. One year later the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy and Program Review was adopted, in large part as a direct response to the events at South Canyon.
Wildfire knows no boundaries and can often cover a combination of private, U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Park Service (NPS) land. As such, a key component of the new fire policy is the integration of various federal agencies during a wildfire.
One of the best examples of this approach to fire fighting can be found in a nondescript building at the edge of the Garfield County Regional Airport, just outside of Rifle. This is the home to the central zone of the Upper Colorado River Interagency (UCR) Fire Management Unit, which was created in the aftermath of South Canyon.
Clay Fowler, who holds the title of fire management officer, heads up the unit. He believes the building is the only one of its kind in the country, housing both the UCR and local units from Garfield County and the Rifle Fire Protection District. In fact, the recently negotiated lease lists Rifle Fire as the responsible party for the building.
The UCR is unique in the world of fire fighting because the unit is completely blended with personnel from the USFS, BLM and NPS. The unit even has its own logo that is a combination of the three federal agencies which is worn on uniforms and displayed on fire trucks. A USFS employee may report to a supervisor who draws their paycheck from BLM. On the wall of the UCR is a large organizational chart showing the breakdown of various positions, color-coded by their corresponding agencies. Sitting at the top of the chart is Scott Fitzwilliams, who is also the forest supervisor for the White River National Forest.
While walking through the complex at the UCR it is impossible to know which agency an employee actually works for. Josh Graham is the assistant fire management officer for the UCR’s central zone. As he explains it, “the more complex units are true interagency — we don’t see color,” referring to the different colors the agencies use on their logos. Fire is just a part of forest management, and the UCR has made fire its own entity to manage, in the same way the BLM has a department that manages oil and gas, Graham said.
Although there are many interagency fire units throughout the country, Fowler believes there are only about a dozen fully blended units, with four or five of those residing in Colorado. He thinks the bulk of the others are located in Oregon, which was also a direct result of the Storm King fire — nine of the 14 firefighters belonged to a crew based in Prineville, Ore.
White River National Forest spokesman Bill Kight describes the UCR as an interagency organization that isn’t seen everywhere. He goes on to say that “it’s one of those boundary-less things that work really well.”
There is an array of resources available to wildland firefighters at the local, regional and national levels, with a matching set of protocols and acronyms that would make even the military blush. At the most basic level, whenever a call comes in regarding a fire, the closest resource responds, regardless of jurisdiction. This was seen most recently in Aspen with a fire near Independence Pass, to which the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department responded and put out, even though the burn took place on Forest Service land.
However, the ball is set in motion to trigger a larger response if needed. The UCR encompasses three regions located on the Western Slope: the east zone is based in Eagle, the central zone in Rifle, and the west zone in Grand Junction. The dispatch center is located at Grand Junction, and all wildland fire calls are first routed there. Dispatch will then contact the appropriate zone, which will in turn begin to deploy various assets as needed.
The Rifle facility has three engines that can each carry 300 gallons of water and a crew of five. There is also an initial attack squad of seven firefighters, plus a helitack crew that is delivered to a fire scene via a type three, or light duty, helicopter. In comparison, the east and west zones maintain three engine crews only. The additional resources for the central zone, especially the helicopter, are centrally located to provide support to the surrounding areas.
Other fire fighting assets stationed at the UCR facilities, such as air support, may be available. These are national resources which have a primary responsibility to priorities set by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho, but they can also be used at the regional level. The UCR in Rifle is home to a type-one heavy helicopter that can carry 2,000 gallons of water. In 2011 the helicopter spent a total of three days at the beginning of the fire season in Rifle before it was deployed to fires, without ever returning to its home base.
This year the machine arrived on June 1 and was again gone three days later to fight a fire in Wyoming. The pilots and support team live out of a hotel, packing their bags each morning with the assumption they will be sent off to another location somewhere in the country at a moment’s notice.
Similarly, Grand Junction also serves as a home base for several P-2V heavy air tankers, as well as single-engine air tankers, or SEATs, which are modified crop dusters. Additionally, a team of twelve smokejumpers from Boise uses the western zone of the UCR as their satellite jump base.
At the local level, the federal agencies have a reciprocity agreement with area fire districts that includes resources and cost sharing for fires located on private, i.e. not federal, land. For example, if a type-one helicopter was called in to Pitkin County for air support, the first hour would be free and then it would be charged to the county at the rate of approximately $7,000 per hour.
However, Deputy Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine emphasizes that “we call in the resources we need, and deal with cost sharing later — cost is secondary to what’s at risk.”
The United States is split into nine geographical area coordination systems, or GACS. Colorado falls under the Rocky Mountain Coordination System, which is the next level of fire incident command after the UCR. The Rocky Mountain GAC has the ability order up national resources using the federal government’s resource order and status system, or ROSS. Graham likens the just-in-time inventory system to ordering fire fighting resources off a menu.
If a fire continues to grow and exceeds the resource ability of the regional GAC, such as the High Park fire currently burning outside of Fort Collins, the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC) steps in. A division of NIFC, the federal center ensures that national, regional and even local assets are sent to the areas most in need. Large fires can result in a small city sprouting up where all of the resources are based, even including catering trucks to provide food for thousands of firefighters.
The beauty of the entire system relies on a standardized training, which is developed at NIFC. Randy Eardley is a spokesman for NIFC and also helped develop the 1995 Fire Management Policy. He said that “the one thing that makes this system work really well from one end of country to the other is the standardized training.” It allows a firefighter from Alaska to be called in to work a fire in Florida and seamlessly engage with units from around the country.
This standardized training has been taught the past several weeks at the UCR, which has been a hive of activity as the unit prepares for the fire season. On a recent Friday morning a group of rookie firefighters were wrapping up their week-long fire fighting class. Upon completion of the five-day, 40-hour course, the newly minted firefighters received their “red card” which qualified them to fight wildland fires. Following a final test, the instructor entertained the class with a bastardized version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” with the lyrics having been inappropriately modified by a group of smokejumpers.
Some of the newly recruited rookies will serve on one of the engine crews at the UCR, while the majority of them will return to the day jobs with the USFS, BLM and even Colorado Parks and Wildlife. If a fire breaks out and additional resources are needed, their respective agencies will lend them out as secondary firefighters.
Other trainings happening at the UCR included an engine operator class, chainsaw training and wilderness first aid. According to Fowler, every year the unit undergoes a local, regional or national certification, with 2012 seeing the local testing.
As Colorado faces a drought and the potential for one of the worst fire seasons in a decade, the UCR is prepared to utilize its unique interagency approach to combat whatever Mother Nature churns out. During a recent morning briefing to firefighters, Fowler tells them “we are sitting right at the ragged edge of where we’ve never been before.”