Grand Junction is regional hot spot in firefighting efforts

GRAND JUNCTION – West of the Rockies, on the arid Colorado Plateau, Grand Junction already is wildfire-response central. Two heavy air tankers and another plane have been placed at the base of the Bookcliffs in anticipation of a long, hot summer.

Those forces could well be supplemented in short order.

Given the dry conditions across the West, with little or no moisture in the forecast, Bill Hahnenberg, fire-management officer for the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit, said he could well be ordering reinforcements.

That could come as early as the middle of June, Hahnenberg said.

The significance of asking that additional firefighting weapons be positioned at the Grand Junction Air Center is underscored by the recent experience of battling the Sunrise Mine Fire, which is burning in the narrow canyons of the west end of Montrose County.

More than 500 firefighters were mustered from across the western United States in a matter of hours last week to prevent the fire from exploding out of Sinbad Valley into a 40,000-acre conflagration threatening the resort town of Gateway.

Winds of more than 70 mph in late May stirred fears that could happen, Hahnenberg said.

In any case, the blaze was a threat to several ranches in the area, as well as valuable timber in the nearby Manti-La Sal National Forest, he said.

While the fire potential for most of the Rocky Mountain region is expected to be normal, the outlook anticipates an above-average potential for significant fires to break out.

The potential of the threat is borne out by the number of red-flag warnings – 18 so far this year – issued by the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service.

Short of placing firefighters, trucks and tankers in the way of where fire managers fear they are believed likely to spark up, the most potent weapon available is the federal government’s resource ordering status system.

ROSS, as it’s known, is a just-in-time inventory system for firefighters. If Hahnenberg needs boots and shovels on the ground, as he did with the Sunrise Mine Fire, he punches in an order to ROSS and he can have a hotshot crew in his building in 10 hours.

Air support can be called out as quickly as Lily Konantz, a dispatcher in the air center, can find it. Konantz can identify firefighting aircraft with a glance at a console to her right. She also can hear real-time radio conversations among firefighters on the ground and direct air support appropriately.

“I can look all over the U.S.” to see what kinds of aircraft, from helicopters to single-seat attack planes and other aircraft, are available, Konantz said.

The ROSS ordering system is “an amazingly seamless proposition,” Hahnenberg said.

That’s what happened with Mark Urban and the rest of his crew of smokejumpers out of Boise, Idaho, which was stationed at the fire center on Thursday, awaiting the call.

The 12-member crew doesn’t leave the center. Meals are cooked on site as protective gear hangs on racks or is stowed aboard a plane, ready to be put to use when calls come in.

The crew left Boise on May 19 and drove 10 hours to Grand Junction to deal with a different fire than the Sunrise Mine blaze, but it is now one of the prepositioned assets that Hahnenberg can assign as needed.

Grand Junction, he said, “is definitely one of the more rugged places we go.”

Should the call go out, Urban said, “We’re poised and ready.”