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Longer wildfire seasons lead to burnout among Southwest Colorado firefighters

Blazes start in April and extend through November: ‘We’re all missing our kids’ birthdays’
Wildland firefighters have an exhausting summer trying to keep up with longer, more aggressive fire seasons. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

As fire seasons become longer and more severe, many wildland firefighters and volunteers in Southwest Colorado are feeling the strain of being on constant alert for more than half the year.

“We have folks out pretty much constantly from April through probably the end of November,” said Richard Bustamante, fire staff officer with the San Juan National Forest.

Durango’s San Juan Interagency Hotshot Crew has been deployed to different fires all summer long. The 20-man crew made it home last week from two weeks on a fire in California, and after a three-day break, was headed out to fight a fire in Wyoming.

“The Hotshot Crew did 16 hours of night shift every day for two weeks. Working all night, and just burning out trying to catch fires,” Bustamante said.

While the Hotshot Crew moves around more than most crews Bustamante oversees, long hours for weeks on end is typical of all the resources used to fight wildfires.

“I’m very proud of my folks. They work hard, they train hard and they’re very physically fit,” Bustamante said. “We all work those long hours. We’re all breathing smoke. We’re all missing our kids’ birthdays, and different things like that. We don’t have summers.”

Because it’s so far south, the San Juan National Forest starts its fire season with states in Region 3, Arizona and New Mexico, even though its technically in Region 2.

“We kind of start first in the nation,” Bustamante said.

Wildland firefighters have an exhausting summer trying to keep up with longer, more aggressive fire seasons. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Because the Durango area traditionally starts its fire season earlier than the Northwestern states, crews from the north will sometimes be deployed during drought conditions to the San Juan National Forest as a precaution. Having an increased workforce helps the driest areas with a stronger initial attack, if a fire should start.

“We’re always looking at our resource needs, and trying to match them with the conditions on the ground,” Bustamante said.

Because fire seasons are so intense as of late, and crews are being sent wherever they’re needed, Bustamante said it’s fairly likely most local crews might not be here. A minimum number of staff members must be maintained, but during the busiest parts of fire season, the minimum number could be all there is.

“We know that with the large fires going on elsewhere, that we’re not going to get any help. We’re kind of low on the priority list,” Bustamante said. “So, when all fire resources are committed to higher priority fires and we have a 15-acre fire here, that turns into a week of work for the eight or 10 people we have on it.”

People with resourceful skills and training who volunteer to be placed on fire crews are referred to as the militia.

“We really rely on our militia, especially locally. ... The things they help out with are maybe not even directly fighting fire, because they have different skill sets,” Bustamante said. “They go out and do mapping, or logistics. There are so many things other than just being on the fire line that goes into it.”

Bustamante said the biggest concern with any fire is protecting infrastructure.

“We want to save homes from burning. On a bigger picture though, we are a land management agency and another one of our high priorities is forest health,” he said. “We have to understand that fire plays a huge role in getting our forest health back in line.”

Longer, more demanding fire seasons have created fatigue among wildland firefighters.

“We’re stretching our folks thin,” Bustamante said. “A big part of it is just trying to keep our folks healthy and from burning out. We’re struggling as an agency adapting to these longer fire seasons.”

njohnson@durangoherald.com

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