How firefighters attacked the Cow Creek, Onahu fires

How firefighters attacked the Cow Creek, Onahu fires

23 March 2011

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USA — The federal culture of firefighting that mandated wildland fires are to be put out as soon as they ignite has given way to a more natural system. The new regulations provide more flexibility and safety for firefighters, simultaneously honoring the natural elements of the ecosystem, of which fire is a necessary part, Matt Dutton told the audience at Rocky Mountain National Park`s Lyceum talk Saturday night. The topic was “Wildland Fire Response and Decision Framework.”

Dutton, fire operations specialist at Rocky, has held positions as Hot Shot, engine foreman, and fuels crew supervisor. Several years ago, federal policy changed from “Thou shalt put it out,” which backed many fire managers into a corner, he said, to one today of allowing managers to manage the fire where and how they need to. In some cases, he said, that results in allowing the fire to burn, observing its actions, making certain it stays where it needs to stay, unless it becomes a threat to homes and people.

For instance, he said, in the Cow Creek Fire in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), which ignited June 25, 2010, one end of the fire was in a remote area. Managers decided not to put people into that area, exposing them to hazard and danger.

“That`s the first question we ask,” he said, “whether to expose people to hazards (and whether to use helicopters).”

While both fire protection and suppression are necessary, Dutton said, managers often had to choose between the two in the past. Now, they can use a framework to assess among factors including safety, protection and restoration, in both planned and unplanned fire events.

“We don`t put people in, without a plan to get them out,” he said. “That also includes (a plan for) visitors and the public, residents and neighbors, who sometimes require different information.”

Protection includes assessing what the fire is doing, where it`s going and what boundaries, cabins, homes, archaeological sites and buildings may be in its path. Fire managers now may generate an individual response, according to the event.

The Cow Creek Fire presented a “powerful sight for residents” and a challenge for managers, who couldn`t see what the fire was doing or where it was going. It was hard for managers initially to get information and there was confusion, Dutton said. There were actually two different fires going. One traveled the path of an old fire scar, from 300 years ago. That gave the fuel enough time to develop, for the trees to age, die, fall over and become a fuel bed.

“It was ripe for fuel,” he said. “There was some torching (fire burning principally as a surface fire that intermittently ignites the crowns of trees or shrubs as it advances). That started another fire.”

Just a week before, there had been flooding. Then, a 12-acre fire erupted, from the natural fuel bed and type of weather patterns. It`s not customary to have fires in June and July, Dutton said, and it`s highly unusual to have them in RMNP. He had just come off managing another wildland fire, when Cow Creek erupted.

“That was an indicator for a lot of us (of a bad fire season),” he said. “We had a quick transition (from one fire to another).”

They sent a local group of firefighters in by foot. That took six hours. Eight smokejumpers joined them. The fire was active all night, and the next day the Roosevelt Hot Shots from Fort Collins appeared, along with incident commanders from higher up the federal chain. Crews began clearing areas, to make way for helispots for helicopter landings. While Dutton said he didn`t necessarily like the idea, it was one of those “balancing-act decisions, to take care of our people.” Six helicopters worked the fire, out of Beaver Meadows, in July, he said.

He called the elevation “nasty and brutal up there,” at 10,000 to 11,000 feet. Only 20 percent of the country`s 5,000 wildland firefighters can function in this environment, at this altitude, he said. Personnel are placed into the area for two weeks at a time. Picking the right team is important, he said. They do briefings and planning, using GoogleEarth. Fire-modeling computer programs are used. Winds and rain play their part. In the first phase of the Cow Creek fire, the largely diurnal winds forced the fire upvalley and within four to five days, the crews had established a perimeter. Crews use natural barriers, wherever possible. The local Alpine Hot Shots took over and put the eastern line of the fire to bed. By July 12, the rains came in pretty heavily, bringing three inches of precipitation. Then, the fire started up again, Dutton said.

“This fire was an educational experience,” Dutton said.

On Sept. 3, there was another report of fire, which made it through three inches of rain and two months of activity. The new activity was in the West Creek area of Cow Creek. Fire crews were flown into a meadow there, anticipating the fire`s movement. The severe, early fall was hot and dry. Crews monitored the fire, which made some runs until Sept. 20, but was mostly low-impact, he said. The first west wind event occurred on Labor Day, with smoke dispersal to the east and 30- to 45-mph winds. It progressed from half-an-acre to 25 acres. Nighttime infrared flights checked the perimeter`s growth. The fire backed itself up the valley and had burned all the fuel by the time the winds picked up, he said.

“We were setting ourselves up for success, with the winds coming,” he said.

Then, on Sept. 18, the Onahu fire broke out, on the west side. The fuel-model burning index indicated that flames could leap seven feet or higher. Helicopter and fire crews were on high alert from the Cow Creek fire. Smoke was coming over the Divide. Safety was an issue. The fire jumped the road. That set the stage for what to do, Dutton said, as far as public safety. Fire “becomes kind of secondary (then),” he said. “You`ve got to take care of the people. We`re not going to jeopardize people to save a bunch of dead trees.” People were moved to safety and the road was closed for 24 hours. Type I and II helicopters were available, eight pieces of water apparatus and fire crews from Grand Lake and Granby, among others, were automatically dispatched. Because of the Cow Creek fire, and subsequently the Onahu and Four-Mile fires, an army of fire personnel was ready and waiting in Fort Collins.

Cow Creek became the second-longest-burning fire in the region, but Dutton said “we got the right people here and it paid off…. We wanted to be on the right side of guessing last year. Nobody had seen a fire like this in the park for a number of years.”

The 1,200-acre Cow Creek fire cost $3.2 million to fight, and half that money was spent in the first two weeks, much of it for the aviation crews and equipment. The fire retardant costs $10,000 a drop, he said. Placing the fire crews in the area and setting up an “instant city” with logistics, food, equipment, toilets, supplies and infrared night flights for intelligence on the fire`s movement all adds up. By July, there were 150 people working the fire in the area.

“The park service in general has a good track record of being fiscally responsible and engaged with what`s going on with the fire. We like to work smart. Putting people at risk cost dollars and lives…. There is a group of people who manage fires better than others…. Cost containment is a huge objective…. Putting fires out quickly (is not always the economic way),” he said.

The crews who work the fires in the Rockies “take pride in being grossly in shape. We don`t want to have to turn down fires because of fitness. We don`t (want to have to depend on air support).”

Among the significant information from the fires of last year is that people were unaware that fires happened in Rocky Mountain National Park. That is mainly because the fires have been “put out small, so people don`t see them,” Dutton said. However, RMNP has a rich fire history and many old fire scars from the 1600s and 1700s. From the 1800s to the early 1900s, fire suppression became the policy.

The Cow Creek fire provided plenty of fuel on the ground, from trees that had been dead for 150 years, generating a slow, intense fire of extremely long duration.

Although the policy of managing fires so they burn naturally is somewhat controversial, Dutton praised the Estes Park community for supporting the park service`s efforts.

“You all are our community,” he said. “Our approach last summer was proactive (including public outreach). It seems like it paid off. Thanks for your support…. This is a big deal.”

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