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Cameron Peak Fire: How Greeley (CO) Firefighters Protected Structures in the Red Feather Lakes Area

Smoke seen from the Cameron Peake Fire in Colorado.
Smoke seen from the Cameron Peake Fire, on October 15, 2020. The fire is now the largest wildfire in Colorado state history. Photo via InciWeb.

Greeley Tribune, Colo.

(TNS)

Since igniting on Aug. 13, the Cameron Peak Fire grew to about 161,140 acres, about 252-square miles, as of Thursday morning, making it the biggest fire in Colorado history and forcing more evacuations.

Firefighters from across the state have deployed to assist with the fire, including a handful from the Greeley Fire Department.

Greeley Fire Lt. Shawn Sorrow and firefighter Blake Weishel returned this month from a two-week deployment to the fire, where they hauled water and protected structures in the Red Feather Lakes area. Sorrow, 49, and Weishel, 34, are members of Greeley’s roughly 30-person wildland fire team. The team deploys crews to fires two weeks at a time on a rotation as needed.

Incident command staff assign deployed crews tasks. For Sorrow and Weishel, that meant first going down Manhattan Road and determining which houses could be protected from the fire. That includes accounting for nearby trees, brush and general clutter around the house, as well as assessing the building materials of the house or attached structures like decks. Most of the time, something can be done to try to prevent the fire from spreading to the home, Sorrow said.

First comes removing anything movable that’s up against or near the house, and moving it about 30 feet away. Weishel, who is authorized to use a chainsaw, would then look at nearby trees and determine whether he needed to remove any trees or cut their lower limbs. Removing the lower branches may prevent the tree from catching fire, Sorrow explained.

Different teams would then come in and use shovels, rakes and scraping tools to scrape around the house to bare ground. By scraping to bare dirt, crews remove possible fuels for the fire in the area of the home.

Another tool Sorrow and Weishel used to protect homes were the houses’ sprinkler systems. Unfortunately, a lot of the areas they’re deployed to don’t have a water supply available to directly hook up the sprinklers. Instead, crews set up portable water tanks that can hold 1,500 to 3,000 gallons of water. A small gas-powered pump is then hooked up to the tanks and sprinkler systems.

Timing the sprinklers right is essential. They need to start early enough that everything around the home is wet enough to prevent fire spread, but starting them too early could mean the sprinklers run out before the fire gets there. Starting them too late could also mean danger to the crews setting the sprinklers. Weishel said he and Sorrow saw the sprinklers work pretty well on a handful of houses they worked on.

Sorrow and Weishel deployed to the fire with a water tender truck, hauling about 2,000 gallons of water. The portable tanks they used for structure protection sometimes took two trips to fill. Weishel said they had to get creative about pulling water. Although the area had a lot of little ponds and lakes to pull from, there wasn’t very good access to get to a lot of them. With so many engines, tenders and even helicopters also pulling out of those bodies of water, they were constantly moving to new locations to pull water, Weishel said.

To make sure deployed crews like Weishel and Sorrow are being used efficiently, Forest Service teams will go out and get an aerial view to see how many structures need to be protected and how much equipment is needed. The days are long, working straight through 16-hour shifts. To make matters easier, crews are provided with meals, including hot breakfasts and dinners, as well as brown bag lunches. Crews bring their own ready-to-eat meals for nights meals can’t be provided, which happened just a couple times on Sorrow and Weishel’s deployment.

More than 850 personnel are on the fire, according to InciWeb. Sorrow estimated he and Weishel worked with probably 20 different agencies.

“They moved us around quite a bit. We were pretty versatile,” he said.

Both had been deployed to numerous other wildfires before their most recent deployment. Weishel, who’s been with the department for four years, said he worked on the Pine Gulch fire this year. Sorrow, who’s had 12 years with the department, said he helped two years ago on a fire in Sequoia National Forest in California.

Sorrow and Weishel were the third Greeley crew with a truck to respond to the fire, they said. Currently, two other Greeley Fire Department employees are deployed to the Cameron Peak fire with a tender, according to Fire Marshal Bob Fries. They are set to return Oct. 19.

Another Greeley Fire Department employee is currently working in incident command, according to Fries. That employee is scheduled to return next week. Additionally, a crew is scheduled to backfill at a station in Loveland for about 12 hours Thursday, while those firefighters are assisting at the Cameron Peak Fire.

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©2020 the Greeley Tribune (Greeley, Colo.)

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