Fighting fire with firefighters: an inside look at a team facing two Utah wildfires

September 20, 2018
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Wildland firefighter Jerry Lopez, from Great Basin Fire, jumps out of his truck in Payson Canyon on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018.

Deep in Payson Canyon — past the evacuated houses marked with orange ribbons, past the emergency vehicles parked near campgrounds, past the safety checkpoints for the public and past countless blackened trees painted white with ash — dozens of firefighting teams are scouring the mountainside looking for fire.

By foot and by truck, they’re patrolling the border of the Bald Mountain Fire, checking for hot spots and making sure the embers don’t create more fires.

As of Wednesday, the wildfire has torched 16,554 acres and was 12 percent contained. Combined with the Pole Creek Fire, there are more than 100,000 acres burned.

Jerry Lopez, engine boss of the Salt Lake City Great Basin Engine No. 34, has faced bigger fires.

In 2007, he fought a fire that burned more than half a million acres in high tinder. Another time in Arizona, a fire had grown to the size of Rhode Island.

Helping fight the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires is like fighting campfires to him.

“But every fire is a fire. It’s all the same risks, all the same goals,” he added, adjusting his helmet and paisley bandana. “Any fire, whether it’s 10 acres or 100,000 acres or 500,000, you treat it the same.”

Lopez has been fighting fires for more than 15 seasons. On Wednesday, he was working with Dakota Edwards, who is finishing his second season, and Dane Hawkins, a rookie on his first season.

“It’s fun to me. I enjoy it,” Lopez said, flashing a grin. “I’ve been doing it so long, it comes natural to me.”

They talked briefly with reporters who had traveled to Payson Canyon on Wednesday to see the damage of the Bald Mountain Fire. The reporters’ bus and the fire engine pulled into the same gravel pullout below the Grotto Trailhead on the Nebo Loop Road.

Engine No. 34 was initially tasked to help with the Pole Creek Fire, but the team was reassigned to patrol and respond to any new hot spots in Payson Canyon.

“I just got tired of the office job,” Edwards said with a shrug. “I started looking what I could do for service and this popped up. I love to camp, I love to be outside. I love the mountains, so why not protect them?”

They have been working 14 hours a day, instead of the usual 16 hours. Local restaurants have offered to cater for the firefighters, so they’ve eaten Jimmy John’s, Olive Garden and whatever else is available when they finish their shifts.

“I haven’t been hungry on this fire at all,” Edwards said. “The outpouring from the community has been insane.”

They arrived on the fire last Thursday when the Pole Creek Fire sprang to life in northern Juab County. Within 24 hours, Woodland Hills and Elk Ridge residents were under mandatory evacuation as the Bald Mountain Fire burned within a mile of their homes.

By Sunday, two Type 1 Incident Management Teams were in Utah: the Rocky Mountain Type 1 team took command of the Bald Mountain Fire while the Great Basin Type 1 team worked on the Pole Creek Fire.

“They’re the ones that do all our planning and strategizing for us,” Lopez said. “We’re the feet on the ground that let them know what’s going on, what’s actually happening so they can make those plans properly.”

A decade ago, it was unheard of for two Type 1 teams to respond to the same fire, said Marty Adell, incident commander for the Great Basin Type 1 team.

But in the last few years, fires started becoming more enormous and complex.

“That’s the nice thing about these teams. Not only are they quick to respond but they’re very nimble,” Adell said.

As the highest level of organization in the U.S. Forest Service, Type 1 teams are assigned to fires based on an incident complexity analysis.

The analysis decides how complicated fighting the fire will be based on rapid fire growth, the number of resources available, weather conditions and the proximity of valuable structures to the fire.

There are only 16 Type 1 Incident Management Teams in the nation, said Dan Dallas, operations section chief with Rocky Mountain Type 1 Incident Management Team.

“We’re a national resource,” he said. “We’re designed to really manage large, large, large-scale complex incidents.”

The Type 1 teams usually handle wildfires, but they also respond to other natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes and floods. The Rocky Mountain Type 1 team traveled to Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria last year.

“We’re basically designed to go and do more or less whatever it takes to help the local folks whose capacity has been exceeded. To get things back to a place where they can manage it again. That’s basically the design of an incident management team,” Dallas explained.

A red flag fire weather warning was issued Wednesday, according to a press release from the Great Basin Type 1 Incident Management Team. This is the ninth red flag warning day out of the last 10 days.

A warning means the day was hot, dry and windy, with temperatures in the upper 80s and single-digit humidity.

For the past week, winds have blown from the southwest, but on Wednesday evening, the winds were expected to change to the northwest, Dallas said.

The change means more favorable winds for the north side of the fire near Woodland Hills, Elk Ridge and U.S. Highway 6.

“See the edge of the smoke?” Dallas said, pointing out the brown haze over the mountains. “The sky is getting bluer and bluer. It’s venting out the smoke.”

Firefighters have set up fire retardant lines and sprinklers around the towns, as well as used bulldozers to plow and establish a burn line. From there, teams plan to burn out existing fuel and stall the advancing flame front.

But being a firefighter is comes with certain risks, said Keith Long, the safety officer for the Rocky Mountain Type 1 team. He assesses and analyzes the dangers firefighters face on the mountain.

“There’s nothing out here worth killing anybody about,” Long said. “People want it done today. It’s not going to be done today. You’re going to have smoke until the snow flies.”

Fatigue is a huge risk. Many of the teams are reaching more than 1,200 hours of overtime. In a normal year, they usually amass 600 hours of overtime.

Another risk is keeping helicopters grounded in winds more than 28 mph. Long explained that one big tanker was brought in to help with the two wildfires, but it couldn’t fly low enough to drop retardant.

“People don’t understand that. They want the big air show,” he said.

There is also the risk of flooding and mudslides in the area after the fire, but Long said his teams don’t worry about that until the fire is completely suppressed.

But he expects the mountain will be beautiful again as everything regrows in a few years.

“It’s good for the forest for it to burn,” Lopez agreed. “In about three to four years, this will all be back. You’ll see seedlings start to grow.”

Much of the public doesn’t understand why the forest needs to burn, he continued, or why firefighters can’t suppress fires right when they begin.

“It takes a lot of strategy and a lot of planning to be able to put people in there safely and not put our own lives at risk just to save property,” he said. “It’s just bricks and stick. You can always rebuild.”

He’s not sure how many more seasons he plans continue fighting fires. The adrenaline doesn’t come as easily anymore, and he misses his kids.

“A lot of people can’t stand being out here and getting dirty. The smoke, the heat and all that stuff,” Lopez said. “It’s only for a certain few.”

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