Part 2 in a 5-part Series
Current as of 5 p.m. June 25, 2012
FORT COLLINS, Colo. - On June 14, a dozen soldiers from the Colorado Army National Guard's 1157th Engineer Firefighter Company engaged in the attack against the High Park Fire - and they brought the best armament in their inventory to battle the blaze.
This is the first time the unit has been called to support a domestic emergency.
Unlike more familiar fire engines, their tactical firefighting trucks - officially known as heavy expanded mobility tactical trucks, but affectionately called "beasts" by their crews - roll on eight heavy-duty tractor tires for off-road maneuvering, and perfectly suited to attack fires in remote areas.
These soldiers are considered the incident commander's secret weapon, said Lt. Col. Mitch Utterback, CONG liaison officer to the Type 1 incident management team.
From safety of the cabin, crews can conduct a mobile attack with remotely controlled bumper turrets (water cannons to the average observer) to effectively blast flames - and trees - into oblivion. No hose required. Followed by water tenders that carry 2,500 gallons each, one team from the 1157th has used more than 36,000 gallons of suppressants in efforts to prevent flames from crossing Poudre Canyon.
But these men aren't alone on this mission. They're fully integrated and under tactical control of civilian fire chiefs at two different locations.
"They understand us because of what we do in the military side, and we understand them because of what they do on the civilian side," said Sgt. 1st Class John Schreiber, 1157th fire chief and first sergeant as he described operations with civilian fire crews. "Their strategies and tactics are very similar to ours and we fit in very nicely. We all understand chain of command and span of control, so it s a natural partnership."
"The Forest Service firefighters and all the other firefighters involved are doing an amazing job [and] the Hot Shots are incredible," said Warrant Officer John Buchanan, 1157th commander. "They are diligently working around the clock to save as much forest and structures as possible, and we're very proud to be with them and providing support to them with our apparatus -- and helping accomplish the mission."
The second team from the 1157th is helping conduct missions in the Glacier View subdivision, where firefighters are working hard to prevent fire by containing spot fires and protecting structures.
"The first and foremost mission of any firefighter, civilian or military, is saving lives and protecting property, and that's what we're doing here," said Schreiber, who's currently working at the Glacier View site.
From 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. or later every day, he and his fellow soldiers and firefighters, representing the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado State Forest Service and several engines and crews from inside Colorado and surrounding states, are hard at work mitigating slopover - that is, keeping the embers from crossing over the containment lines they're building.
"The lives have been evacuated, and now we're saving property, because we can imagine how devastating it would be to come home and find that everything we care about is gone," said Schreiber. "It's not the structure - the two-by-fours and the shingles - that matter, but the pets and the photos and the mementos that comfort that can't be replaced. Those are hugely important to us."
And rest? Schreiber, who is also a lieutenant in the Colorado Springs Fire Department, is just one of many firefighters bedding down in spike camps scattered throughout the area of operations. For these professionals, rest comes in the form of sleeping bags and open air, and while they're self-sustaining in nearly every other way, bathing isn't an option. And these men, who haven't showered in at least a week, wouldn't have it any other way.
"I have a soldier who is missing a wedding , another soldier has a landscaping business that's on hold, and one is missing a job interview - and not one of them has complained," said Schreiber. "They're 100 percent volunteers. These are the kinds of personalities we draw. Every time you see them, they're just happy to do their job. It's a passion."
During wild fires like this, firefighters normally get two day of rest and relaxation for every 14 days on the line - until the fire is out or contained to the extent that an incident commander can start demobilizing assets.
And while the Colorado National Guardsmen will go back to their civilian jobs at the end of the firefight, many of their civilian counterparts may hop from one fire to the next and may not come home for months at a time.
"It's very much like the military," said Schreiber.
Unfortunately, on June 22, winds took a turn for the worse, and despite all these firefighters’ efforts to contain their most formidable foe, several homes in the Glacier View subdivision succumbed to the flames.
"Fire has its own personality," said Buchanan.
And while this was the first time these men have been involved in a wildland fire, they hope it won't be the last.
"Within four days into the fire, it was difficult to tell our firefighters apart from their civilian partners," said Maj. Quinton German, CONG liaison officer to the Type 1 Incident Management Team. "The only clean part of them was their smiles."
The 1157th firefighters are scheduled to assist their civilian counterparts through June 27.
All stories in this series:
Part 1: Orders received
Part 2: Outflanking the flames
Part 3: Conducting terrain flight operations
Part 4: Securing the perimeter
Part 5: Command and signal