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How To Get Hundreds Of Firefighters To Colorado At A Moment’s Notice

U.S. Forest Service
More than 800 people have joined the Grizzly Creek firefighting effort, drawing on resources from all over the country. In this photo, posted Aug. 13, crews clear brush near Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park.

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The Grizzly Creek Fire is more than 29,000 acres and still growing. A wildfire that size requires a lot of people power and equipment, but with dozens of fires burning across the west, how do national fire agencies divvy up resources to the people who need them?

More than 800 people and dozens of trucks and aircraft have joined the Grizzly Creek firefighting effort from all over the country. Many of those resources were directed here by the National Interagency Fire Center, or NIFC. And they can come from anywhere in the country. 

“Say you have an Idaho hotshot crew that ends up on a fire in Utah for two weeks,” said Jessica Gardetto, a spokeswoman for NIFC. “They have a day off there, then they’re called to a nearby fire in Colorado. Then before they know it, they can end up in Florida.”

NIFC is tasked with keeping track of all the significant wildfires burning in the U.S. and making sure crews on the ground have the people and equipment they need to fight them – everything from hand crews to planes. 

Credit U.S. Forest Service
Air tankers are some of the easiest firefighting resources to mobilize across the country because of how quickly they can travel long distances. In this photo, posted Aug. 13, an air tanker drops fire retardant near the Grizzly Creek Fire.

“In the case of air tankers,” Gardetto said, “which are often a very highly sought national resource, those air tankers can come from anywhere in the country because, air tankers, they don’t require a lot of time to travel.”

For an incident commander working to fight the Grizzly Creek Fire, there’s a set protocol to order boots on the ground or helicopters in the air. First, it’s a call to one of ten regional coordination centers. The closest one to Grizzly Creek is the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center in Lakewood, Co., just outside of Denver. 

“Those people will allocate resources depending on the need from each fire as best they can,” said Larry Helmerick, a spokesman for the coordination center in Lakewood. 

If Helmerick’s office can’t fulfill the request with resources from within the region, it gets sent to the NIFC office in Boise, Idaho. Then they are tasked with looking around the country to locate the help that’s needed. 

“When you have a lot of fires burning in the state of Colorado,” Gardetto said. “Then in that case, a lot of those resources are going to come from outside the state and in some cases, from outside the geographic area.”

Credit U.S. Forest Service
A helitanker gathers water for the fight against the Grizzly Creek Fire. Photo posted Aug. 17.

Right now, the Grizzly Creek fire is near the front of the line when it comes to getting help from NIFC. For days, it was ranked as the highest priority fire in the nation – a calculation based on a number of variables. While Grizzly Creek certainly isn’t the biggest fire in the country, it is close to a city, and the threat to people and property are the first two factors in figuring out priority. 

“This fire is number one based on proximity to Glenwood Springs and the immediate impact to Noname, the population there,” said Brian Scott, a public information officer for the Grizzly Creek Fire. 

Next on the priority list is threat to infrastructure. I-70 serves as a major lifeline for the western part of the state. So as long as it stays closed, that’s another boost to the importance of Grizzly Creek.

“It’s just amazing, the amount of commerce and recreation that goes on with folks from Denver to the West,” Scott said.

Scott said Grizzly Creek is also threatening the Shoshone Power Plant and closed down the railroad, both factors that make fighting it even more important. All of those variables combined mean that when incident commanders at Grizzly Creek ask for resources, they are likely to get them. On top of that, this year is relatively quiet for fires nationwide. 

“This year is technically below normal than years we’ve had in the past,” Gardetto said. “If you look at the national acres that have burned, we’re actually below the national average for this time of year.”



Credit U.S. Forest Service
The Grizzly Creek Fire spent days as the highest priority wildfire in the nation, partially because of its proximity to Glenwood Springs. In this photo, posted Aug. 13, crews clear brush near Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park.

Gardetto said the recent and rapid spread of large wildfires in California could put a strain on resources in the future. NIFC upgraded the national level of preparedness to five out of five on Tuesday – a metric that indicates the level of demand for firefighting resources across the country. 

NIFC said multiple large and complex fires "have the potential to exhaust national wildland firefighting resources." At least 80% of the country’s incident management teams and wildland firefighting personnel are currently involved in fights against wildfires.

Even with four major fires burning in Colorado, and dozens burning across the West, there are other regions of the country that can afford to send their crews and equipment to Glenwood Canyon. 

While that includes firefighters and aircraft, nationally distributed resources include nearly every aspect of a large-scale firefighting operation. 

“Even all the way down to things like showers and caterers to ensure that these large incidents have the support that they need,” Gardetto said.


Alex is KUNC's reporter covering the Colorado River Basin. He spent two years at Aspen Public Radio, mainly reporting on the resort economy, the environment and the COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, he covered the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery for KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska.
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