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CSU High Park Fire Symposium: Q&A With Incident Commander Bill Hahnenberg

Grace Hood

On Monday, a group of scientists and fire managers were at Colorado State University discussing the lessons learned from this summer’s 87,284 acre High Park Fire.

Federal Incident Commander Bill Hahnenberg managed operations during the first 14 days of the blaze. KUNC’s Grace Hood spoke to him about the experience…

Grace Hood: A lot of people were saying that this fire had a mind of its own. Was there a particular turning point that you noticed when you really came to the realization that this was something different?

Credit Kirk Siegler / KUNC
Bill Hahnenberg

Bill Hahnenberg: Well it was probably the day we came in and initially stated to manage the fire, which was June 10th. When you have a large wild land fire under these conditions of drought and very low fuel moisture, coupled with dead trees scattered across the landscape, it’s only a dramatic situation when it happens to be in a place where people live. You get fire moving amongst people’s residences and day after day, in many cases, when we have these drought situations the entire event is dramatic because of where it is.

Hood: When you’re dealing with these more complex fires, like the High Park Fire, how do you measure success?

Hahnenberg: I like to look at victories that we have daily, and that’s with those firefighters who can describe that they were successful in their assignment for the day – and saved a residence. Those small victories, and they’re certainly not small given that residence, are where I like to focus and realize then that we got really good people who are committed, know what they’re doing, know how to do it safely, know how to do it well, and can have that level of success. That’s what they train to do.

Credit Great Basin National Incident Management Team
Final perimeter map from the High Park Fire

Hood: I’m hoping you can give us one or two concrete lessons that we learn from the High Park Fire that can be applied to future fires.

Hahnenberg:  People should know that when they put their home in a wild land setting in the west, that most of the time that vegetation that’s there has been disturbed over centuries time and time again. And will be disturbed again. It could be by an insect. It could be by a fire. And when that happens it’s gonna effect their community and their property. They can be wise in how they position their home and how they take care of fuels around their home. They can get advice from the state forest service; they can get advice from their local fire departments when they elect to build a home in that fire environment. And that will alleviate the threat to their property in many cases, and in other cases, it will give firefighters at least a chance or an opportunity to defend that structure safely.

More information can be found on the High Park Symposium at the Warner College at Colorado State University. The KUNC/NPR Fire Forecast map is here, as well as a full archive of coverage from the High Park Fire.

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