Colorado Wildland Fire Conference: Planning, Mitigation & Operations

Colorado is a state graced with an abundance of open space, magnificent mountains and vast pristine forests of pine, oak and aspen trees. It is Colorado's awesome natural beauty that has caused a population explosion and the resulting building boom into the state's beautiful but combustible wildlands. This has created many structural wildland interzone (SWI) areas where people and properties are vulnerable to fires.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
In this sequence of photos, the use of a drip torch is demonstrated by Paul Gleeson.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Paul Gleeson is a fire-landscape ecologist and 30-year veteran firefighter with the U.S.D.A. Forest Service.

A few of the more serious SWI fires that have occurred in Colorado recently are as follows:

  • Lefthand and Beaver fires (Boulder, September 1988) 2,300 acres, structures threatened, $745,000 in suppression costs.
  • Black Tiger Fire (Boulder, July 1989) 2,100 acres, 44 homes burned, $10 million property loss and $1.3 million suppression costs.
  • Olde Stage Fire (Boulder, November 1990) 2,200 acres, 10 homes and five outbuildings burned, $1 million property loss.
  • Storm King Mountain/South Canyon Fire (Glenwood Springs, July 1994) 2,000 acres, 14 federal wildland firefighters died in the line of duty when they were overrun by a wildland fire.
  • Buffalo Creek Fire (Jefferson County, May 1996) 11,875 acres, 20 structures burned, $1.1 million property loss, $2.8 million suppression costs.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
One of the hazards of wildland firefighting in the West are venomous snakes. Here's the author with a rattlesnake attached to his pant leg. ("Fortunately," he said, "the snake was deceased and being used as an education tool.")

The severity of the SWI situation grew as the population expanded farther and farther into the wildlands. The problem was especially significant along what is called Colorado's "Front Range." This area runs alongside and into the Colorado Rocky Mountains. The terrain begins as rolling hills but quickly changes into rugged, steep mountains. The vegetation begins as grasses and brush, changing into forests. Dangerous fire-weather conditions are common to the area. Lightning storms, a common cause of fires, occur with great frequency in this region.

The structural and wildland fire protection agencies in Colorado and especially along the Front Range became greatly concerned about the severity of the growing SWI fire problem. The U.S.D.A. Forest Service's local office developed a study and report titled, Front Range Forest Health Assessment. The area studied was named, appropriately enough, "The Red Zone." The severity and complexity of the SWI fire problem in this region continues to escalate as more structures are built along and into the Red Zone.

A small group of local, county and state fire service personnel saw the need to develop a first of its kind Colorado Wildland Fire Conference (CWFC). The purpose of the conference was to educate, train and better prepare those involved with the planning, mitigation and operations of wildland and SWI fire scenarios. The organizing committees represented West/Metro Fire and Rescue, Evergreen Volunteer Fire Department, Indian Hills Fire Protection District, Boulder City Fire Department, Jefferson County, Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, Colorado State Forest Service and Colorado Department of Local Affairs. After a tremendous cooperative effort, the first CWFC was coordinated and held for three days in September 1997. This included a day-long live-fire field exercise where training and equipment were put to the test.

Michael Berg, assistant chief of West/Metro Fire and Rescue, and CWFC chairman, stated, "It is our sincere hope that this conference presents an open forum for the people involved in today's fight with fire in the wildland interface. You and your efforts are the focus of this conference.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Use of the Terra-Torch during a field exercise is demonstrated by Firefighter Mark Grundy. The Terra-Torch is used for igniting backfires, burning out islands of vegetation and prescribed fire programs. The fuel is a mixture of gasoline, diesel and Alumagel, which forms a Napalm-like substance and is expelled by a motor-driven pump.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
The effective distance of reach is about 130 feet and the temperature at the nozzle is 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Boulder has the only Terra-Torch in Colorado.

"It is rare that people from all areas: planning, zoning, suppression, prevention...and jurisdictions, local, state, county and federal, volunteer and career get a chance to share information. It is increasingly clear that we face common problems and hazards. No single entity can cope with all of the challenges existing in today's interface. By sharing ideas, solutions and resources we become stronger...The speakers assembled for this year's conference are acknowledged leaders in their field, providing us with the opportunity to learn from their experience."

Photo by Robert M. Winston
An Evergreen Fire Department 1,500-gallon Mack tanker/tender at a fill site.

The three-day conference schedule was filled with nearly 50 informative and interesting presentations by some of the best-known names in wildland and SWI fire protection from across the country. Among the topics: Engine Company Burnovers-Case Studies; Tactical Safety for Interface/Intermix Fires; Wildland Urban Interface Task Force/Mutual Aid; Prescribed Fire as a Mitigation and Training Tool; Structural Wildland Interzone Firefighting An Eastern Perspective; Air Operations in the Interzone; Wildland & Urban Interface Fire Behavior in the Front Range; Engine Company Operations in the Interface; Escaped Fire Situation Analysis; Surviving the Wildland Urban Interface Fire; and Burning Out, Backfiring and Prescribed Fire for Suburban Firefighters. Several roundtable discussions also took place.

On day three, an all-day live-fire exercise was held at South Table Mountain. The training exercise was a series of simulated (with live fire) wildland and SWI fire scenarios. Dozens of structural and wildland firefighters were formed into preassigned task forces and divisions which included various types of engines, brush units, water tenders (tankers), and logistic and support units. Scenarios/training exercises included:

  • Defensive deployment of engine crews.
  • Structure protection.
  • Fire line construction.
  • Progressive hoselays.
  • Pump-and-roll operations.
  • Use of fire to protect structures.
  • Air operations.
  • Safety and protective clothing.
  • Incident command system.
  • Critiques and demobilization.

Also included in the CWFC were luncheons and banquets with keynote speakers, fire apparatus displays, and fire equipment and educational display booths. This was an exceptionally well-organized and effective and educational conference.

Whether you are a structural or a wildland firefighter, career or volunteer, city, suburban or rural, I highly recommend attending this year's Colorado Wildland Fire Conference, to be held at the Sheraton Hotel in Lakewood Sept. 26-28. Here are some of this year's CWFC highlights: Wildfire Origin and Cause Determination (Wildfire Arson); Structural Triage Planning; Tactical Safety in the Urban Interface; Wildland Fire Behavior; Water Resources Planning and Operations; Back Firing/Burning Out Techniques; Engine Company Operations; and Prescribed Fire in the Southeastern United States. Also planned are many other presentations related to the wildland and SWI fire challenge that will be of interest to structural and wildland firefighters of all ranks. Once again, the popular fire mitigation and live-fire field exercises will be held on the last day of the conference. For additional information about the conference call 303-674-3145 or fax 303-674-8701.

Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a district chief in the Boston Fire Department.