Fires spread fighter, resourceses thin

If a fire starts tomorrow, it may continue to burn.

Fires burning in the Rocky Mountain Area, like other areas in the West, have outpaced the supply of trained personnel, equipment and other resources, according to Dan O'Brien, coordinator of the Multiple Agency Coordinating (MAC) Group in Lakewood.

"We are being faced with some tough decisions day by day, and hour by hour, on where to send the limited resources," O'Brien said. "While we are considering all the needs, we unfortunately will not be able to meet them all."

In Moffat County, firefighting officials see the same problems.

"Everybody with a role in fire is committed in some way," Stacy Gray, lead dispatcher with the Craig Interagency Dispatch Center, said. "We are pretty short on resources."

The Craig Interagency Dispatch Center (CIDC) covers Jackson, Grand, Routt, Rio Blanco and Moffat counties. Right now, fires are burning south of Rangely and southwest of Meeker. If more blazes begin, "we'd be short people," Kent Foster, operations manager with the CIDC said.

Foster said sending firefighting personnel to fires is dependent on the fire itself. Terrain, access to the flames, danger to structures, along with other factors determine how many firefighters will be called into the fire.

"We maintain a certain level of preparedness. We staff up as best we can," Foster said. "If a fire were to get big, we would put in for more resources.

"Right now, we are having a record fire year nationwide."

There have been 329 fires in the CIDC area so far in 2000. These fires have scorched 20,811 acres. Statewide, 82,351 acres have burned in 1,428 fires.

Foster credits the work of personnel in the CIDC area with keeping the fires from getting even bigger.

"BLM (Bureau of Land Management) firefighters here are top notch. We rely on them a lot and their expertise is great," Foster said. "Everybody's helping out however they can."

Those participating are helping tremendously, but what about the lack of firefighters nationwide?

Gray and Foster attribute today's economy to the lack of firefighters. People see money in other fields and are drawn to it.

"Seems like there are fewer and fewer people wanting to get into a natural resource field," Foster said.

In Colorado, South Dakota and Wyoming, 2,400 fires have burned 170,000 acres since the fire season began in 2000. Nationally, in the last 10 years, an average of 2.2 million acres was burned yearly. So far in 2000, 4.1 million acres have burned.

Firefighting resources were used heavily to combat these blazes. Gray said many of the firefighting personnel were shared between fires. Firefighter and public safety remain the top priorities. O'Brien said safety becomes increasingly important to avoid fatigue and injuries training and qualification, along with work and rest requirements, will not be compromised even as demand for resources increases.

What is needed now to send the area out of extreme fire danger is rain. And not just a little.

"We need moisture not just one rain storm. We are going to need a week of rain to change things a little bit," Foster said.

A fire ban continues in the area.

And fire season will continue for a couple months. On Nov. 22, 1999 Foster said crews where battling a blaze in the White River National Forest. While it is not uncommon for fires to start late in the fall, every season is different, just like every fire.

So when will fire season be over this year?

"When it snows," Foster said.

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