Gunnison As wildfire season bears down on the Western Slope, more than 700 people from Colorado and 24 other states attended the Colorado Wildland Fire and Incident Management Academy at Western State College last week, including several Yampa Valley officials.
Because of forecasts for above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation this summer and millions of acres of dead trees from the state's mountain pine beetle epidemic, officials say this could be an active year for Colorado wildfires.
"We've kind of been expecting it every year," said Paul Gilbertson, a Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue member who attended the academy. "We're prepared every year."
Wildfires burn more than four million acres in the U.S. annually, and suppression efforts cost about $1 billion a year. Wildland blazes claim a varying number of firefighters' lives each year.
"What we hope is that somewhere down the road something you learned here saves your life," Bob Kittridge, crew chief of the El Paso County Sheriff's Office Wildland Fire Suppression Team, told his class of introductory students. "The end result of this could be death. You just got to accept that. : Here's where we want to make the mistakes."
Fighting wildfires is typically an interagency undertaking - a major reason why the term "incident management" is in the academy's title. In addition to firefighting techniques, the academy also teaches Incident Command System, a federalized and standardized incident management concept. The system is designed to manage various hazard situations such as hurricanes and terrorist attacks, in addition to fires.
"In all due respects," Academy Coordinator Wendy Fischer said, "we no longer fight just fires. We have to be prepared for all incidents."
The affiliations of academy students ranged from federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Department of Defense, to state and local agencies such as the Colorado State Forest Service and local fire departments, in addition to private, unaffiliated students.
Yampa Valley participants included North Routt Fire Protection District Chief Bob Reilley; Tara Mehall, a state forester based in Steamboat Springs; Lynn Barclay, a Craig-based fire mitigation education specialist for the BLM; and Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue members Gilbertson and Bobby Davis.
Gilbertson was taking advanced classes that will qualify him for supervisory roles such as being a crew boss or engine boss.
Gilbertson said local departments often are the first to arrive to wildfires, which makes wildland fire training very helpful.
"We have a large urban interface," Gilbertson said of Steamboat. "We're trying to identify hazards and risks in various situations and how to handle them."
Mehall, who has worked wildfires as a member of both engine and hand crews, said she was taking an intermediate course to improve her qualifications.
"We have a choice, but most of us throughout the agency go out on fires," Mehall said.
Mehall also is a volunteer with the Oak Creek Fire Protection District. She said fighting structure fires is completely different from fighting wildfires but that it is nice to have experience with both because of the increasing number of people choosing to live in the wildland-urban interface.
Mehall said foresters who don't want to be on the front lines of fires have other options, but those aren't for her.
"I like to be fighting fire," she said.
Barclay was one of four instructors of a class for those who do take up those other options. Working with journalists and the public was the major focus of the advanced public information officer class. Public information officers are essentially the spokespeople for wildfires and other hazard incidents. They provide interviews, disseminate information and handle media requests. Barclay said the job can be intimidating.
"A lot of people are apprehensive about working with the media," Barclay said.
To prepare their students, Barclay and her fellow instructors simulate situations such as newspaper and television interviews, and even stage an "ambush interview" for trainees as they travel from one media engagement to another.
Dave Steinke, a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Forest Service and one of Barclay's fellow instructors, said the goal is to stress the importance of educating the public and viewing journalists as allies, not foes.
Steinke said students need to realize the public relations job has just as much value as the firefighters' job.
"They're there to put the fire out," Steinke said. "We're there to tell the story of putting the fire out."
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