News: Fort Carson engineers, fire fighters support Waldo Canyon Fire containment
Story by Pfc. Andrew Ingram
FORT CARSON, Colo. – With the sun dipping behind the mountains, the engineers worked to set up a base of operations and begin clearing firebreaks before dark.
The soldiers were up by 4:30 the next morning, readying dozers and graders to begin the firebreak mission at first light.
More than 100 Fort Carson engineers, assigned to 4th and 52nd Engineer Battalions, with support from 43rd Sustainment Brigade, and Fort Carson fire fighters supported efforts to prevent the Waldo Canyon Fire from spreading throughout the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Working under the direction of the USAFA Fire Department, Fort Carson engineers used tracked bulldozers to build firebreaks, stripping vegetation from the land in an effort to eliminate the fire’s fuel, thereby halting its progress.
The USAFA fire fighters received the Fort Carson team, June 27, and immediately put them to work building defenses against the fire.
“We work well together. We support them, and they support us,” said Lt. Col. Danielle Ngo, commander, 52nd Eng. Bn. “The soldiers are so enthusiastic to help a real world mission, and be part of a team that hopefully will (save) lives and people’s homes.”
Integrated with the USAFA Fire Department and working in conjunction with the Army engineers, Fort Carson fire fighters extinguished spot fires caused by embers drifting from the main body of the wild fire onto the academy grounds, and patrolled areas susceptible to fire outbreaks.
“The Air Force Academy (Fire Department) has been on Fort Carson many times helping us, so has the Colorado Springs Fire Department (and) El Paso County,” said T.J. McCloud, leader of the Fort Carson fire fighter task force. “We have an excellent rapport with the departments around us for that reason. All of us need help at certain times. Those people have come and helped us, so this is how we return the favor.
“We all work together, train together; then, when the big fires happen, we know each other. We know our limitations and our capabilities,” he said.
Ken Helgerson, deputy fire chief, USAFA Fire Department, said both Fort Carson military and civilian personnel proved to be important assets in the fire containment effort.
“They have been of huge value to us,” Helgerson said. “Fort Carson has been priceless in defending the Air Force Academy from this wildfire.”
The engineers arrived with their equipment within hours after receiving the order to mobilize and report to the academy.
During the first 72 hours of the mission, the engineers cleared more than 12 miles of vegetation to prevent the wildfire from spreading throughout the USAFA.
“With one dozer we can churn up roughly a couple hundred meters an hour,” said Staff Sgt. Erick Lappi, horizontal construction engineer, 576th Engineer Company, 4th Eng. Bn. “These firebreaks are definitely going to make a difference if the fire keeps coming this way.”
Lappi said after multiple deployments overseas, he found satisfaction in serving his nation by protecting its citizens on the home front.
“Doing a mission like this on American soil, for one of our fellow services, has a lot of meaning to us,” Lappi said. “We want to do this right and protect all of our brothers out here.”
The fire fighter’s continued success stems from solid leadership and cohesion between all of the units and agencies working together to counter the threat, said Capt. Donald Schmidt, operations officer, 4th Eng. Bn.
“Everybody is working together, taking guidance from the Air Force Academy fire fighters and response officials,” said Schmidt. “We are pulling support from our own resources, self-sustaining our operations and life support requirements.”
As the end of each day, the engineers returned to their base of operations and conducted preventive maintenance, checks and services on the heavy equipment in preparation for the next day’s work.
Soot and dust clogging the vehicles’ air filters was the most common problem with the dozers, said Spc. Melody Kirsch, wheeled vehicle mechanic, Forward Support Company, 4th Eng. Bn. A clogged air filter may cause an engine to overheat, so before turning in for the night, the engineers and their maintenance team cleaned or replaced the filters, and inspected the vehicles thoroughly for damage.
Working toward a goal with visible results and clear margin of success boosted the engineers’ morale and confidence in their technical proficiencies, said Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald Patterson, senior enlisted leader, 52nd Eng. Bn.
“This has all been positive. The soldiers really like getting out here on their equipment, doing something for the community,” said Patterson. “In a situation like this, at the end of the day, these soldiers get to see a finished product and that finished product helps their neighbors.”
Mission accomplished at the academy, engineer units and fire fighters returned to Fort Carson to refit equipment and prepare for any future contingencies. Fort Carson soldiers and emergency responders stand ready to assist the Front Range community, as a whole.
Fort Carson fire fighters continue to support efforts to prevent the Waldo Canyon Fire from spreading to the city of Colorado Springs.