The Montrose Daily Press
MONTROSE, Colo. (AP) - The 60-some tents hugging the fence line
at the Columbine Middle School athletic fields wouldn't be mistaken
for the overnight crowds at Lollapalooza or Woodstock '98. No wild
parties. No loud music. No mud fests.
That's because this tent city was full of firefighters who would
have to be in class by 8 a.m. the next morning at the Colorado
Wildfire Academy at Montrose High School and outdoor sites around
the area.
"It's really mellow," said Crystal Tischler, who came from
Salida to get certified for chain saw operation. "Everybody is
usually in bed by 10 because they have to get up and go to class."
That sentiment reflects the seriousness of the academy, where
firefighters gain the certification that allows them to battle
wildfires throughout the country. It also reflects the danger
inherent in taking a spot on the fire lines.
"You don't want to be next to somebody who doesn't know their
stuff, especially on a fire line," said Larry Helmerick, an
academy spokesman.
Many of the experienced firefighters consider this academy to be
one of the best training grounds around.
"It's probably the best value training you can get in the
country," said Grand Lake Fire Protection District Chief Mike Long
from a seat in front of his tent Wednesday night.
Long was back at the academy after a three-year absence to take
a fire cause investigation class. He and fellow GLFPD firefighter
Darren Zunno made the trip west to join the 880 men and women
signed up for the 41 classes offered by the academy.
Thursday morning, Intermediate Wildland Fire Behavior was in the
second day of a four-day session.
The firefighter students were meticulously paging their way
through a 360-page workbook that would help them understand how
environmental factors, like the weather, topography, and fuels
influence a fire's behavior.
Doug Crowley, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service
Office in Grand Junction, led the 25 students in the class through
a discussion of atmospheric conditions they can encounter when they
go to a fire.
He introduced the group to thermal belts, a phenomenon common to
deeper mountain valleys, in which cool air settles at the bottom of
the valley at night, while a pocket of warmer air settles part way
up the valley wall.
Crowley explained that the belts lead to a much more active fire
environment because the warmer temperatures lessen humidity and dry
out the vegetation. That can be a surprise to fire crews because
blazes usually aren't as active at night.
One of the students in the class, Janet Sieverson, who works as
a dispatcher for the Montrose Fire Protection District, said
thermal belts in the 2002 Burn Canyon Fire near Norwood almost
overran part of the crew on duty.
"That's why it's important to get local input when you set
up," Cowley said. "You don't have the luxury of learning about
the thermal belt when you're out there fighting the darn thing."
As the morning progressed, the classmates mowed through their
workbooks. Taking what they learned about how the sun affects
atmospheric conditions and, in turn, the wind, the students tackled
a topographic map where they were asked to identify what wind
conditions would be like at certain parts of the map given the
slope conditions and the time of day.
Gary Whitfield, director of the Telluride Fire Protection
District, paused while debating the effects of the bowls,
ridgelines, and river valleys represented on the map.
"They're trying to impart a lot of diverse information," he
said.
Bob Irvine, who co-teaches the class with Crowley and had a
34-year career with the U.S. Forest Service, said weather is one of
the hardest topics students have to master.
"Weather is going to be the trickiest because it is so
variable, it changes so often, and it's so quick, it's hard to
maintain or to learn enough about the weather," Irvine said.
Irvine went on to say that a good part of what the students
learn about the weather would come as they gain field experience.