Part 4 in a 4-part series
The Colorado National Guard’s Space Cowboys found themselves on a different type of deployment in June.
And this time, it was their first rodeo.
The assignment came in the form of the West Fork Complex fire, a set of three wildfires burning in four mountain counties in southwestern Colorado since June 5.
Army Space Support Team 27 of the 117th Space Battalion was called to Pagosa Springs, Colo., to provide geographic imaging and mapping support to the incident commander, which in turn, is providing firefighters additional situational awareness.
“This is the first time in the battalion’s history that we are able to recall an Army Space Support Team force package and to provide civil support for wildfire efforts,” said 117th Space Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Martin L. Bortolutti.
Capt. Tim Bouma, team leader for the Army Space Support Team 27, said the most rewarding part of the task is when the team creates a product and the firefighters give positive feedback about the quality of the image his team provides.
“If they say, ‘I can use this and it’s going to help me determine this or make an informed decision,’ that’s the best part,” he said. “Generating a really nice product they can use is a great feeling.”
And such products are hot items for people like Matt Gibson, of the U.S. Forestry Service’s, Lolo Interagency Hotshot crew from Missoula, Mont.
Gibson is a technical specialist working to enhance technology in the field.
“I’m working with strategic operations planners to help them with communication and map information for this fire,” he said. “I’m also working with the space command team and informally assigned as a liaison to explore their capabilities and trying to figure out ways to use their help in the future.”
“I love it – being able to help out fellow Coloradoans,” Bouma said. “Doing something for your community is really cool. I never expected to be doing this – our first mission supporting the fires – and we’re happy to do what we can.”
East over Wolf Creek Pass is a second incident command site in Del Norte, Colo.
There, Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Polliard of the 3rd Battalion, 157th Field Artillery, is tasked with overseeing approximately 80 Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen supporting the incident commander and local law enforcement agencies contributing to the West Fork Complex firefight.
Collectively known as Task Force-Security, the Guardsmen are posted at checkpoints in order to keep evacuated areas free from all but emergency vehicle traffic.
Polliard said despite challenges that can occur when so many moving pieces start working together, things have gone very well working with the different agencies.
“Everyone is very cooperative. We all share the same goal,” he said. “We take great pride in being able to help the communities of Colorado.”
Army 1st Sgt. Chris Perez, 3650th Maintenance Company, is in charge of Soldiers manning checkpoints, which is helping firefighters and other officials by guarding unsafe areas and ensuring only emergency personnel and equipment travel through evacuated areas.
Perez said the 3650th is performing 24-hour operations controlling traffic and keeping vehicles fueled and operational.
“With distances of more than 70 miles between some checkpoints, this support is critical,” Perez said. “Local police, sheriff and state patrols are assisting citizens and trying to help everyone who needs to access the area to the best of their ability.”
Army Sgt. Kevin Horne, Task Force-Security, took personal time to escort and answer the questions of a local high school student interested in learning more about the National Guard.
He said he’s also happy to contribute what he can to the community effort.
“It’s always good when you feel you’re being productive,” Horne said. “Driving around here, you see this beautiful landscape, these welcoming, hospitable people. To see the fire destroying so much of this state is sad, and it’s nice to do something to contribute.
“We are integrating into their solution for this fire,” he continued. “We’re all working really hard. This is a community effort and we are one piece of the puzzle. Everyone pitches in one hundred percent. Coloradoans, we’re like a close-knit family, that’s really an advantage for us.”
Polliard said the community has welcomed the Guard with open arms.
“When you see the reaction from the local citizens – people waving and all the thank you signs – everyone has been extremely grateful and it’s a privilege to help them,” he said.
Perez also commented on the warm reception he and other Guardsman have experienced on the mission.
“Soldiers and Airmen out here have been thriving on the hospitality of the community – it really keeps everyone’s spirits up and their motivation very high,” he said. “The locals have been very gracious. One lady has been making us cookies and they taste fantastic.”
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
A complex fire: Chaplain duties hit home for Colo. Guard clergyman
A complex fire: Colo. Guardsmen provide mapping, muscle, mentorship in Rocky Mountains