Part 2 in a 4-part series
Members of 1157th Engineer Firefighter Company have quickly become wildland firefighting veterans.
As a unit, they were baptized by the High Park fire Larimer County, Colo., in June 2012. And for most, their civilian professions as firefighters or paramedics have taken a back seat to being National Guard firefighters in the summer of 2013.
This time, on June 22 – within a day of recovering from the Black Forest firefight in El Paso County, Colo. – the men arrived in southwestern Colorado to help the South Fork Volunteer Fire Department fight the West Fork Complex fire.
Because it includes the West Fork, Windy Pass and Papoose fires, which are burning in four neighboring counties, the set of fires is considered a complex. And although the work is challenging, for these men, their mission is simple: help protect homes and other structures in the small, mountain town of South Fork, Colo., located just off U.S. Highway 160 on the east side of Wolf Creek Pass.
“This is a true Guard mission,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 John Buchanan, 1157th commander. “A small, local, volunteer fire department had exhausted its resources for an emergency that was too big for them to support on their own.”
Colorado Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Shane Merlihan said working with local firefighting agencies has been a great experience.
“It’s a big incident and they’re a small group,” he said. “Most of them are volunteers, so it’s been really great for us to integrate so we can all share our experiences. We really work great together. These local fire departments, they open their arms to us. They tell us, ‘If you need anything, we’ll get it for you.’ It’s like the military. It’s a brotherhood.”
Similar to soft clay becoming stronger when hardened by fire, these teams have harnessed the adverse conditions, which have only served to make them more effective at fighting every new blaze.
“The Black Forest fire was an urban interface. We did a lot of direct attack on fire and it affected a lot of homes,” Merlihan said. “Here it’s mostly in the forest. We’re still doing structure protection, but it’s not direct attack.”
In South Fork, if the woods surrounding these homes become engulfed in flames, the structures have a much better chance of surviving unsinged because of the work being performed by the joint volunteer-Guard firefighter teams. Their goal is to keep flames at bay by moving materials such as propane tanks and firewood a safe distance away from the structures, in addition to cutting and digging line – moat-like trenches – around the buildings.
Among other duties, Colorado Army National Guard Sgt. Ryan Benson has been refilling portable water tanks to ensure the flame-quenching liquid is readily accessible.
This is his third wildfire fire since being in the National Guard, and he said there’s a very rewarding feeling to the work his team does.
“We’ve been able to save homes,” Benson said. “We know that we did something good.”
Other challenges the firefighters must face is situational awareness – like always having an exit strategy.
“The terrain is also a little tougher out here, so we have to be careful not to get into area that we can’t get out of quickly,” Merlihan said.
Such an exit from these rugged mountains may require an unexpected route.
In one area, the firefighters knew that a small, wooden bridge over a nearby waterway might not hold their vehicles – and could be susceptible to burning. After assessing the location, they forded the river in their Humvee.
For some of the firefighters, being this close to nature is further motivation for the mission.
“Look at it out here,” Benson gesturing to the Rio Grande spiraling its way through the mountains of the San Juan National Forest. “We’re out hiking through this beautiful area. This definitely beats sitting at a desk.”
Benson also noted that everywhere he’s been, the locals are very appreciative of his and his fellow firefighters’ work.
“When we were driving home every night there was a crowd of people cheering,” he said of shift changes during the Black Forest fire. “We wear ear protection and roll the windows up when the sirens are on – and the people cheering were louder than the sirens. They make it so much better. To know you helped someone makes you feel good.”
And despite these Soldiers getting little down time between missions, they aren’t concerned.
“We train hard and we work harder on the incident,” Merlihan said. “When you have to get in there and you have to save that house, you get an adrenaline rush. We love to be there for each other and for our neighbors.”
“We’ve integrated flawlessly with this agency,” Buchanan said “We’re very proud to be here and supporting them, and we’re truly honored to contribute.”
All stories in this series:
A complex fire: Colo. Guardsman makes good on oath to help hometown in midst of crisis
A complex fire: Colo. Guard firefighters hop from single to triple threat in a single bound
A complex fire: Chaplain duties hit home for Colo. Guard clergyman
A complex fire: Colo. Guardsmen provide mapping, muscle, mentorship in Rocky Mountains