Editor's note: Coverage of fires in national parks can be tough from a distance. Press releases issued by the fire camps contain little more than the barest of details -- size of fire, weather conditions, firefighting crews at work. Leah Mitchell, an information officer assigned to the Cow Creek fire that's been burning in Rocky Mountain National Park, provides some insights to what it's like being on the fire lines in the following dispatch.
Ed Waldron holds the Kestrel, or weather meter, up to the wind. In the next five minutes, he will note wind speeds at least a dozen times to make sure he is sending accurate readings to the handful of firefighters widening the blackened line in the drainage below him.
“When you make smoke observations, use a lot of adjectives,” he instructs Jeff Harrison, who is apprenticing to learn Waldron’s fire-monitor job. “Words like: ‘dispersing,’ ‘rising,’ ‘white to light gray,’ ‘occasionally dark.’”
We watch the smoke produced by the firefighters push up the slope of Mt. Dickinson. Once the smoke hits the ridgeline, it rises straight up, creating a vertical column.
More than three months after lightning ignited the Cow Creek Fire in Rocky Mountain National Park, firefighters on the west side of the fire are attempting to create a buffer to keep the fire below them from spotting or running uphill to the north.
Waldron is particular about how he monitors weather, fire behavior and smoke. To avoid variability, the same person, he tells Harrison, should do the job all day. “Use distilled water, not tap water, in the Kestrel and change the wick often,” he says.
Create shade, if necessary, to keep the wick out of the sun.
“And start 15 minutes early, so the reading is taken precisely on the hour,” he adds.
This afternoon, just below Mt. Dickinson, the winds are out of the southeast at 7 miles per hour, gusting to 15 mph, not ideal for the burnout, but workable. Four times, a crew of four firefighters with drip torches scramble 500 feet down the steep slope and back up, dotting gas into patches of downed timber. A faint smell of juniper hangs in the air, as the ground cover burns in large patches below us.
I’ve joined the firefighters for a couple of days to observe how they are managing the fire in this remote, rugged area of the park. After a century of suppressing all wildland fires, this new generation of firefighters understand fire’s natural role in a resilient ecosystem, and are trained to safely manage fire. The Cow Creek Fire, burning in an area untouched by fire for nearly 400 years, has helped clear out overgrown fuels, enriching the soil and allowing for new growth.
As Waldron demonstrates with his careful Kestrel readings, modern firefighters are students of fire: educated, skilled and technically proficient. Most have science degrees in forestry, ecology, biology or environmental science. Many hold graduate degrees.
Their skills are diverse: They must be able to accurately measure a fire perimeter, lead ignitions on a burnout operation, dig hand line, serve as lookouts, and receive resupply loads from a helicopter. And they must be superbly fit to carry out these duties in unforgiving terrain -- often in high-risk situations.
Yesterday we’d been delivered by helicopter to the north side of the fire, and then had climbed nearly 2,000 vertical feet to rendezvous with other members of the Zion Wildland Fire Module at an exposed knob on the slopes of Mt. Dickinson.
In the thin air at 10,000 feet, our lungs hadn’t been able to keep up with our legs, and we had stopped to catch our breaths every tenth of a mile. Following a game trail through areas burned by the fire, we had sunk into pockets of burned duff, unnoticeable until we were knee-deep.
We ate lunch at the top. The firefighters tore open MREs or Meals Ready-to-Eat, while eying my snap peas, cheese stick, smoothie and foil-pouch salmon steak. After lunch, I followed a firefighter down the slope to a spot where two firefighters were about to start the burn operation.
The goal: Burn 600 feet down the slope to connect into the black on the west side and then to a meadow below, creating a large buffer and preventing fire from burning outside the perimeter to the north and east.
Beginning about 2 p.m., the two lighters had worked a strip about 100 feet wide down the hill. The juniper immediately caught fire, and flame spread to nearby lodgepole and subalpine fir. But at 4 p.m., with about a third of the slope black -- and the sky filled with smoke -- incident commander Alex Viktora, stationed seven miles away in Estes Park, shut down operations.
The burn had already exceeded everyone’s expectations. Two firefighters, two hours, a drip torch worth of fuel -- and more than eight acres were black. Over the next 20 minutes, the radio erupted with several reports of smoke from as far away as Denver. After watching the smoke disperse and the fire subside, we hiked down to camp for the night.
Stripping off packs and helmets, the firefighters switched to housekeeping duties. One rifled through padlocked bear-proof boxes, pulling out food for the evening meal, while another fired up enough Jetboil stoves to cook dinner for seven.
Dinner -- chili -- was buffet style, with the food boxes serving as countertops. More than food, I wanted sleep. I was still suffering from a stinging altitude headache. If I was going to hike the next day, I needed to drink at least three quarts of fluids tonight.
I set up my tent and listened to Viktora’s evening debriefing over the radio. I was already worried about the next morning’s uphill climb. After a week’s worth of acclimatization, the firefighters weren’t concerned.
The plan for the next day was the same: Continue lighting down the slope to widen the black. After a restless, windy night, we were up by 6:00 a.m. Four firefighters took off early to hike up to the burn and position themselves as lookouts. Luckily, the helicopter was available later that morning to ferry the rest of us halfway up the slope, cutting our hike in half.
After rendezvousing with the other firefighters, we split up, some of us heading upslope to the lookout and others down to the black. At the lookout, after taking his Kestrel readings, Waldron had radioed Viktora to review the day’s burnout plans, confirm objectives and report current weather and wind information.
Then it was Waldron and his trainee’s call. Viktora knew that his crew -- all students of fire -- were cautious, knowledgeable and would make the right call when it came to putting fire on the ground, enabling this powerful shaping force to best play its role on the wild landscape.