Battling a blaze similar to war

Firefighters try to funnel fire to places more easily doused

Jordan Barnett with Durango Fire & Rescue Authority takes a rest at the State Line Fire west of U.S. Highway 550 on Sunday north of the New Mexico-Colorado border. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Jordan Barnett with Durango Fire & Rescue Authority takes a rest at the State Line Fire west of U.S. Highway 550 on Sunday north of the New Mexico-Colorado border.

With resources stretched thin, firefighters trying to combat both the Weber Fire and the State Line Fire near U.S. Highway 550 between Bondad and the Colorado-New Mexico line employed Napoleonic strategies Sunday to contain it.

Tom Kaufman, recently released fire marshal, said fighting wildfires was akin to a military operation.

“We’re trying to attack the enemy, the enemy being the fire, and keep it confined to certain places,” he said. “So the strategy used in modern firefighting is to herd it to a place where it burns itself out.”

Pam Wilson, fire information officer with the Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch Center, said at the Weber Fire, “the goal was to protect homes in the East Canyon area.”

But Wilson said because the homes sit in “a fairly steep canyon, the fire was backing down the hill, and there were a lot of showering embers,” threatening to spread the fire.

Wilson said efforts to contain the fire were “further hampered because our heavy air tanker support had been directed to the fire in Colorado Springs. Some of our aircraft have also been diverted to Utah and New Mexico.”

So firefighters employed the “backburn” tactic – which is literally fighting fire with fire.

Wilson said the aim of a “backburn” – a counter-intuitive maneuver that was used in the State Line Fire – is for firefighters to place a new fire in the path of a bigger fire. When they intersect, the big fire has nothing to feed on, preventing it from advancing – the same “scorched earth” military strategem used by the Russian Army as it retreated from Nazi soldiers in 1941.

Wilson said backburns were also indispensable to straightening a fire’s borders because “you can’t construct a fire line when there’s a jagged edge. You need the fire to be shaped like a long stream. But it’s a tool we use with a lot of caution.”

Butch Knowlton, director of La Plata County emergency services and search and rescue, said backburns had been vital to containing the State Line Fire.

“Because the fire burned to the west of the subdivision road – today, with the winds blowing out of the east, firefighters performed backburns to reduce the amount of fuel, so that the winds blew the fire away from the subdivision road to the west and prevented the fire from spreading east into La Plata County,” he said.

Wilson said firefighters also employed a trench warfare-like tactic.

“You don’t dig a trench in the soil, but you ‘dig a line,’ meaning you scrape back all the flammable material from the fire. Depending on the fire, the line will be anywhere from 2 to 15 feet.”

Kaufman said that, “with bigger fires, firefighters use bulldozers to dig a fire line, in order to move all that dry vegetation away.”

Like the slope of a battlefield, Dave Imming, spokesman for Durango Fire & Rescue Authority, said topography had proved similarly critical to digging a fire line around the State Line Fire.

“When we were spreading the fire retardant, we were looking for natural breaks in the topography, using the valley, places that would naturally help us stop the fire so that it stops at the containment line,” he said.

Wilson said local knowledge was as crucial to modern firefighters.

“We’re lucky because we’ve had a lot of folks that have worked in the area and are familiar with the roads, the land, and the old fire scars,” she said. “That helps us decide on our fireline. Sometimes, there will be a country road and you can just widen, and break the fire that way.”

Imming said avoiding friendly fire was imperative.

“Coordination between the Forest Service, Durango Fire & Rescue, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs has improved,” he said “Years ago – when fire management started changing hands from the locals to the state people to the national level, there would be differences. But now, we really work together so well. We speak the same language, we’re unified, and we’ve really gotten beyond the turf war.”

But Imming said the best offense against fires was a good defense. “How do you determine whether a house is worth saving? What it’s made of? Has it been mitigated? How safe it is to go in and out?” he said.

Imming said the calculus was grim, and when houses are inadequately mitigated against fire, firefighters are forced to cut their losses.

“There’s only so much we can do if the owner has not tried to protect their home in the first place. If there’s a tree next to the house, overhanging the deck, and tons of dead wood lying around, there’s almost nothing we can do. It’s not a defensible place,” Imming said.

Farmington Fire Department firefighters Robert Sterrett, left, Duane Bair, center, and Tom Miller, put out hot spots at the State Line Fire west of U.S. Highway 550 on Sunday north of the New Mexico and Colorado border. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Farmington Fire Department firefighters Robert Sterrett, left, Duane Bair, center, and Tom Miller, put out hot spots at the State Line Fire west of U.S. Highway 550 on Sunday north of the New Mexico and Colorado border.