Get your departments trained to always have in their minds that wildland fires can happen any time of the year. (Photo by Tod Sudmeier.)
Ready to Help?
On October 3, 2016, a red flag warning had been issued for Pueblo County, which is made up of flat rural area as well as wildland-urban interface area to the west and southwest of our area.
Humidity was very low, there had not been moisture for a few weeks, and the wind was blowing steady all day. This area is made up of all different types of fire departments including full time, combination, and volunteer. Also, there was a presidential candidate rally being held in the county, drawing many resources to help maintain that event.
With the different types of departments, everyone must be willing to step up and help each other when the big call comes in, especially on this day when a brush fire was reported in the Beulah area, located approximately 23 miles west of Pueblo in a wildland-urban interface setting. The fire was reported to be small at first, but the weather changed very fast, and the first responding department quickly called for mutual aid from surrounding departments as the fire began to move quickly because of the dry conditions and threatened homes. You need to realize the travel distance and time it takes for the incoming resources to get there to help. The big question then pops up: “Is your department ready for that type of request?”
All departments must have some type of working plan to be ready to help your neighboring departments. Fires are becoming more and more devastating, and there is no one department out there in the world that can handle a fast-moving wildland fire and still cover the day-to-day calls. We are all aware of the responsibility of our own department and that the citizens we serve come first. But some department, like the smaller volunteer departments, may only have 12 to 20 volunteers who are doing this for the love of the job and helping their own community. We must be ready to help assist these departments in their times of need.
Practice to Reality
In September 2015, the fire department in Beulah held a townwide drill to help prepare residents for evacuation in case of a large fire. Different obstacles were set up with lots of resources on hand to play different roles while residents practiced evacuating. Who would have thought a year later that call would be real? The call was to evacuate a town that only has three roads leading in and out of the area, and the fire was on both sides of the main highway so alternate routes had to be used. This took many resources to make this happen, but without that training things could have been much worse. The main body of fire did steer away from the heart of the town, but you always want to be ready to try to stay ahead of the fire.
Many resources came to the aid of the departments fighting the fire, but the dry conditions were making it tough. The fire was moving in three different directions, and there were homes and other property burning.
Two main challenges in these types of situations are communication and accountability. The strength of those two issues in this situation came from the local volunteers from the Beulah Fire Department. They knew their residents and how to contact them to make sure nobody was home as the fire crept toward them.
With an active emergency operations center for Pueblo County, many phone calls were made to outlying departments for mutual aid and the answer was quick: “What do you need and how soon do you need it?” We had many department from more than 90 miles away give aid because nobody in the fire service wants to see things burn, and the request was made quickly to have departments give aid.
In today’s fire service, we have to knock down the fences between working in our own backyards and helping our neighbors. Each department has something to offer that neighboring departments might not have. We train and train over tabletop scenarios on what we will do when we get that mutual-aid call, but when it happens, are our crews mentally prepared?
The fire in Beulah was in October, which is not usually part of the dry months or active fire season, but Mother Nature had something else in mind. After the first day of the fire, the state came in and offered to take over the fire, which meant the resource list became even bigger and broader. More than 5,800 acres burned and property was lost, but no lives were lost; this is a big factor of being prepared, conducting training, and speaking with the townspeople to help educate them.
On October 17, 2016, another wildfire, which started in Custer County in the early morning hours, raced to the east into Pueblo County, again threatening the town of Beulah. The preevacuation order was given, and the townspeople had to be prepared to go through what they had just gone through two weeks prior. The Junkins Fire, which burned approximately17,700 acres, caused havoc in three counties. There were many properties evacuated, with not only local resources but state and federal resources working together as one team to coordinate the goal of stopping the fire and having no loss of life; this was accomplished in about a two-week time frame.
The overall lesson that can be taken from these two horrible events: Get your departments trained to always have in their minds that wildland fires can happen any time of the year. Have your staff trained and understand it’s OK to call for mutual aid to get the resources coming and try to stay ahead of the game plan. And finally, if you are in a wildland-urban interface area, get out and conduct training and education for the residents you serve. They rely on us in the fire service to plan and prepare for the worst things that can happen. Be proactive for your community.
Brad Davidson is a 23-year veteran of the fire service and a division chief of the Pueblo West (CO) Fire Department. He was a volunteer firefighter for five years prior to moving to full time. Davidson has been a firefighter and engineer and worked his way through the ranks as an officer; he has been with the Pueblo West Fire Department for the past five years as a division chief. Davidson has worked in operations and the fire prevention side and has taught in many areas in the fire service.