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Firefighting Personnel Readying For Colorado Fire Season

Despite Colorado’s higher than average snowpack, there’s no guarantee it will reduce the risk of wildfires in 2014. That’s why state, federal and military personal are taking the lessons learned during the severe 2012 and 2013 fire seasons to be better prepared.

“Previously there has been not a lot of interoperability between the military and those federal agencies,” said Lt. Colonel Mitch Utterback of the Colorado National Guard.

The U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Army and the Colorado National Guard train every year for fire season. Now though, thanks to the Black Forest Fire and destructive events like the September Flood, they’re doing it together.

“We’re going to iron everything out so we’re perfect when the time comes, when that call comes from whatever community is going to burn, we will be there fast and as long as we’re needed,” Utterback said.

Credit Nathan Heffel / KUNC
Chinook helicopters equipped with Bambi Buckets prep for a aerial drop training near Chatfield Reservoir, March 25, 2014.

All the agencies, each with their different command structures and radio frequencies, work every year battling to contain wildfires. Aaron Dolye of the city of Boulder’s wildland fire division says the unprecedented training happening is vital.

“Everybody’s working together, figuring out frequencies and getting a baseline of communications so in the event of – whether it’s a flood a fire, any natural disaster, we’re able to work together because we’ve practice it like we are today….” said Doyle.


In addition to the training, there's more help in the sky for the upcoming fire season. The U.S. Forest Service is adding to its air tanker fleet. Jennifer Jones with the National Interagency Fire Center says that it’s a "significant improvement" over previous years in which the fleet had dwindled to just 9 planes.

“Modernizing the large air tanker fleet is one of our top priorities in fire and aviation management,” Jones said “If everything goes the way that we would like it to go, we will have 17 air tankers available for wildfire suppression nationwide this year."

During the Black Forest Fire, the agency’s fleet was stretched to capacity; prompting a special request from congressman Doug Lamborn to activate the U.S. Air Force MAFFS equipped C-130’s. The same unit was also activated during the High Park and Waldo Canyon Fires. Jones says with an increased firefighting budget approved by Congress, the number of planes in the fleet should increase in the next few years to up to 28 newer faster next generation planes.

If needed in Colorado, many of the planes and helicopters used to fight fires will be based, at least temporarily, at the Fort Collins/Loveland airport while repairs are made at the typical base at Rocky Mountain Airport in Broomfield.

While the additional air power and favorable moisture levels could ameliorate the impacts of the wildfire season, that’s no comfort to Lt. Colonel Mitch Utterback. He has to constantly be ready for the next massive wildfire to hit the state.

“Unfortunately we do have to maintain that mindset so we can maintain that high level of preparedness,” he said. “Some parts of the state have had good snow; some parts of the state are still under percentages in their snowpack.

"We’re gonna be there if needed.”

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