A new documentary published online last week chronicles the terror and heartbreak ranchers faced in areas of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas when wind-swept fires tore through their communities in March.
Titled “Fire in the Heartland,” the 16-minute film includes interviews with fire personnel and ranchers about the firestorm that ripped through the prairie lands. The video is the latest enterprise work to come out of the disaster — this New York Times piece also detailed some of the tragedy.
The wildfires tore through cattle country, feasting on grasses made dry by long-term drought and exacerbated by recent warm weather. Once the fires were started, strong winds whipped the flames, helping them spread more rapidly. According to Reuters, a wildfire in Texas during the beginning of March moved at speeds up to 70mph as it raced across the Texas Panhandle. By the third week of March, the fires had killed at least seven people—not to mention thousands of livestock—and burned more than 2 million acres.
Above: The dispatch and logistics building at Grand Junction as seen from one of the retardant pits.
Last week while in Grand Junction, Colorado I visited the headquarters for the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire and Aviation Management Unit (UCR). The interagency organization handles wildland fire responsibilities for over 4.5 million acres of land in Colorado along the Interstate 70 corridor from the Continental Divide on the east to the Utah state line on the west. The UCR is comprised of the Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction Field Offices of the Bureau of Land Management; Grand Valley Ranger District of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests; and the White River National Forest.
Sarah Culhane, the Aviation Manager, and Christopher Joyner, a BLM Public Affairs Specialist, showed me around the facilities at the airport, including the Air Tanker Base and a building that houses the logistics and dispatching functions.
Typically Grand Junction is not used as an administrative base for any air tankers, but depending on the need they can be staged there in times of high wildfire potential or if it is needed as a retardant reload base during fire activity.
Reporting to Ms. Culhane this year at the tanker base will be a Base Manager, an Assistant Base Manager, a Ramp Manager, and an intern.
A similar situation exists for smokejumpers. Almost every year jumpers are positioned at Grand Junction along with an aircraft for extended periods of time.
Don Scronek, the Dispatch Center Manager, said in an average year they will have about 250 wildfires in the UCR, and a very busy year will see twice that many. While he was describing the dispatch organization I saw behind him on a white board in his office:
Hope is Not A Strategy
The UCR cooperates with state agencies, local communities and fire departments on a wide range of activities including fuels treatments, fire prevention and fire suppression.
In the UCR organization under Fire Management Officer Robert Berger and Deputy Unit FMO Josh Tibbetts, are three Zone FMOs for the West, Central, and East Zones.
After a million acres burned in Kansas and Oklahoma on March 6 and 7, the National Interagency Fire Center mobilized three large air tankers on March 10, a little earlier than usual, sending Tanker 12 to the Jeffco Air Tanker base at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport and two others to the OK/KS area.
It turned out that Jeffco was only 12 miles southwest of where the Sunshine Fire started on March 19 near Boulder, Colorado. Rob McClure of CBS4 in Denver timed the interval between drops made by the BAe-146, determining it to be about 35 minutes.
From the air tanker base the pilots could probably see the fire soon after it started. If they took off from runway 30R they would be heading straight at the fire.
In addition to Tanker 12, four helicopters and Colorado’s Multi-mission aircraft were working the incident.
Three National Guard helicopters were made available by a verbal executive order by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper hours after the fire started. The aircraft, from Buckley Air Force Base, included two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, one CH-47 Chinook helicopter, as well as a refueling truck.
Firefighters limited the wildland/urban interface fire to about 74 acres according to the Boulder Office of Emergency Management. We were not there but this appears to have been a pretty aggressive initial attack, an aspect of firefighting along the Front Range that has improved in the last couple of years.
The video below was shot March 19 from the Multi-mission aircraft, showing normal and infrared images.
(Originally published at 5:47 p.m. MDT March 19, 2017)
The Sunshine Fire on the west side of Boulder, Colorado has burned about 62 acres since it started early Sunday morning and has required the evacuation of 426 homes. The spread slowed late Sunday afternoon thanks to the work of firefighters on the ground, several helicopters, and at least one air tanker.
Above: An infrared image of a wildfire in Logan and Phillips counties in Colorado, from Colorado’s MultiMission Aircraft, Wednesday morning.
Below is an excerpt from a Tuesday morning news release by Logan County Emergency Management about a wildfire in the northeast corner of Colorado that has burned at least 30,000 acres.
“…Efforts by 13 departments on scene yesterday kept the fire contained to 50% last night, overnight and this morning. Seven fire engines were used overnight to knock down hot spots and flare ups. Firefighters will remain on scene today as windy weather conditions are expected to be similar to yesterday, causing fire flare ups and limited visibility due to blowing smoke and dust. There are an expected 80 firefighters to be on scene today.
“Structure damage confirmed includes three homes in Logan County and one home in Phillips County. Between the two counties, there are also multiple incidences of partial damage to homes and/or complete out-building damage.
“There are no reported injuries.
“Due to strong winds and low visibility, the Colorado Department of Transportation has closed Highway 59 between I-76 and Haxtun in Phillips County.”