As Colorado continues to fight wildfires throughout the state, the Army is actively offering resources to state, local and federal officials, as well as displaced residents.
Army National Guard members from four states are assisting the fight against the High Park wildfire in northern Colorado. In central Colorado, Fort Carson opened its doors, June 26, to displaced service members and families forced to evacuate their homes due to the danger posed by the Waldo Canyon wildfire outside Colorado Springs.
At Fort Carson, Soldiers and civilian volunteers are in-processing evacuees from Colorado Springs and the U.S. Air Force Academy and finding them a place to stay until the fire is contained. The installation is prepared to house as many as 1,600 people, officials said.
Meanwhile in northern Colorado, Guard troops from Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and Kansas are using air and land resources to help fight the High Park wildfire. The Soldiers are working alongside other crews as the High Park wildfire nears the end of its third week. The troops are under tactical control of civilian fire chiefs at two different locations and are fully integrated with other firefighters.
From 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. or later every day, the Soldiers and firefighters, representing the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado State Forest Service and several crews from inside Colorado and surrounding states, are hard at work keeping the embers from crossing over the containment lines they're building.
Sgt. 1st Class John Schreiber, fire chief and first sergeant with the Colorado Army National Guard's 1157th Engineer Firefighter Company, said the strategies and tactics of the civilian firefighters are similar to those of the Army National Guard.
"They understand us because of what we do in the military side, and we understand them because of what they do on the civilian side," Schreiber said. "We all understand chain of command and span of control, so it's a natural partnership."
The aviation response to the wildfire also marks the building of a larger inter-agency relationship. Colorado National Guard and the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team are collaborating to integrate National Guard assets into large-scale fire incidents, Maj. Quinton German, Colorado National Guard liaison officer to the incident management team, said.
Pilots and aircrews from the four states are flying and maintaining the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters that dump water on the flames from above. With a Bambi Bucket slung under each helicopter, crews drop 500 gallons of water at a time on the raging inferno below. As of June 22, Army National Guard aviation crews had effectively dropped 179 buckets of water on the wildfire, roughly 82,000 gallons.
This fire is the second time Chief Warrant Officer 2 Dave Flores, a pilot with the Nebraska Army National Guard's Company C, 2nd Battalion, 135th Aviation Regiment, has been involved in such an emergency. He said the highlight of this mission was working with other Army National Guard members in a mixed crew, as well as working with other agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service and the High Park Fire Incident Management Team, who worked diligently to minimize confusion among the various aircraft crews.
"The Forest Service has procedures to ensure we're all talking on the same frequency to get in and out of the fire without confusion," he said.
Back on the ground, Soldiers from the Colorado Army National Guard's 1157th Engineer Firefighter Company are responding to their first domestic emergency by using tactical fire trucks in the attack against the High Park wildfire.
Unlike more familiar fire engines, the company's tactical firefighting trucks, affectionately called "beasts" by their crews, roll on eight heavy-duty tractor tires for off-road maneuvering, and are suited to attack fires in remote areas. From the safety of the truck's cabin, crews can conduct a mobile attack with remotely controlled bumper turrets, or water cannons, to effectively beat back flames.
Followed by water tenders that carry 2,500 gallons each, one team from the unit has used more than 36,000 gallons of suppressants in efforts to prevent flames from crossing Poudre Canyon.
During wildfires like this, firefighters normally get two day of rest and relaxation for every 14 days on the line, until the fire is out or contained to the extent that an incident commander can start demobilizing assets.
"It's very much like the military," said Schreiber.
The firefighters are sleeping in camps scattered throughout the area of operations. For these Soldiers, rest comes in the form of sleeping bags and open air, and while they're self-sustaining in nearly every other way, bathing isn't an option. But, showers aren't the only thing they've given up.
"I have a Soldier who is missing a wedding," said Schreiber. "Another Soldier has a landscaping business that's on hold, and one is missing a job interview and not one of them has complained. They're 100-percent volunteers. These are the kinds of personalities we draw. Every time you see them, they're just happy to do their job. It's a passion."
(Pfc. Andrew Ingram of the 4th Infantry Division Public Affairs, and Air Force Master Sgt. Cheresa D. Theiral and Army 1st Lt. Dan Vancil III of the Colorado National Guard contributed reporting from Colorado. William Garbe contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.)