Ready for the worst

Firefighters battle fictitious flames in preparation

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Firefighters from multiple jurisdictions stood around a sandbox Friday, directing mock resources to fight a fictitious wildfire in a subdivision north of Craig.

Eleven cabins were destroyed, and Moffat County Sheriff's deputies spent hours evacuating people from Wilderness Ranch during the exercise.

Moffat County sheriff's Deputy Sgt. Tim Jantz was the incident commander, who consulted with officials from the Bureau of Land Management, Craig Fire/Rescue and the Colorado Forest Service.

The exercise began with a report of a forest fire west of Willow Creek Valley and Ovo Reservoir.

The date of the scenario was Memorial Day weekend. Most of the cabins in Wilderness Ranch were occupied by people celebrating the holiday.

The fire grew quickly, fed by drought conditions, low humidity, high temperatures and wind.

In a sandbox in the garage at Craig Fire/Rescue, the participants watched the fire gulp more acreage as Moffat County's emergency manager, Clyde Anderson, spread cotton balls across the trees and cabins that were re-created in miniature. Around the cotton balls, which symbolized smoke from the fire, a red string represented the fire's perimeter.

Jantz delegated tasks to Craig Fire/Rescue Chief Roy Mason, Undersheriff Jerry Hoberg, sheriff's Deputy Sgt. Rick Holford, BLM Engine Foreman Ron Simpson and District Forester Terry Wattles.

Before the exercise was over, Jantz consulted with Simpson and called in a federal firefighting crew, called a Type 2 Incident Management Team.

All three members of the Moffat County Board of County Commissioners attended the exercise. When the fire began to burn cabins, Jantz ordered an air tanker to drop fire retardant on the periphery of the blaze.

Later, Jantz consulted the commissioners about more air drops, which were costing the county $7,000 each.

In case of a real fire, officials would be confronted with a number of logistical issues such as where to house firefighters, what to do about livestock that would be threatened and how to deal with media representatives who might arrive from across the country, according to Lynn Barclay, an information officer for the BLM.

"It's like setting up a city in 24 hours," Barclay said.

Dale Skidmore, the fire management officer for the BLM's Little Snake Field Office, helped stage the exercise.

Skidmore said the Wilderness Ranch area was an ideal place to stage the scenario because it is the county's most populated "wildland-urban interface" -- an area in which human dwellings and forest are in close proximity.

There are 47 cabins in a 3-mile radius near where the mock fire took place, Skidmore said. The fire fuels range from sage grass to oak brush to heavy conifer timbers.

Another important fuel is the kiln-dried lumber from which the cabins are built. Around the cabins, construction materials, propane tanks and firewood pose extreme fire risks, Skidmore said.

"A lot of people are lulled into thinking this place is never going to burn," Skidmore said.

The goal of the exercise was to test a multi-agency response to a wildfire in a populated area. Because the fire began on private property in the county, it began as the responsibility of the Moffat County Sheriff's Office. Other agencies were summoned to help soon after Jantz surveyed the situation.

After the exercise, the players gathered to discuss what they had learned.

"Evacuating Wilderness Ranch would be a logistical nightmare," said Holford, who had been in charge of removing people from the area.

Holford said it would be hard to determine how many people were in jeopardy and find all the evacuees.

Not enough radio frequencies were available to coordinate all of the different teams that were involved, the participants found.

Skidmore stressed that an important purpose of the exercise was to get people thinking, asking questions and encountering the obstacles they might meet in the real event.

"There's no wrong answer," Skidmore said.

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com

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