IN Firefighters Respond to CO Fires: ‘It’s Kind of an Indicator That It’s Going to be a Very Long Fire Season’

Area firefighters have been sent west to assist with wildfires earlier this year compared to last year, officials said, which indicates a long fire season ahead. The air quality in the Midwest has been impacted by the most recent fires as well, officials said.

Alexandra Kukulka

Post-Tribune, Merrillville, Ind.

(MCT)

Jul. 30—Area firefighters have been sent west to assist with wildfires earlier this year compared to last year, officials said, which indicates a long fire season ahead. The air quality in the Midwest has been impacted by the most recent fires as well, officials said.

Brandon Ramirez, 48, a firefighter and engine captain with the Great Lakes Fire Management Zone stationed at Indiana Dunes National Park, recently returned from a two-week assignment to fight fires at Dinosaur National Monument, a 210,000-acre park on the Colorado-Utah border.

When he and other firefighters returned, two other Great Lakes Fire Management firefighters were sent to the area, said Micah Bell, the fire prevention, education and mitigation technician for the Dunes National Park. The Great Lakes Assistant Fire Management Officer Nate Orsburn also recently returned from a fire assignment in California, he said.

Ramirez, along with Christian Pichay and Rachel Lim, arrived in Colorado July 9. Once they arrived to the park area, Ramirez said they spend the first day or so getting familiar with the park area with a directive to be prepared for potential fires.

“If a fire broke out, they were going to need more people there to try and contain and control it without wearing everybody out,” Ramirez said. “We had a briefing and then we’d stand by or patrol the park getting to know the area, and whenever a fire call came across we were asked to go to it.”

In this region of Colorado, July through September is monsoon season, and Ramirez said in the evenings the weather would shift and heavy rains would hit followed by lightning. During their two weeks at the park, Ramirez said they would wake up each morning to assess if the storm from the previous night caused fires.

The group responded to four fires that were caused by lightning striking a tree, Ramirez said. The firefighters would hike to the area, cut down the tree and let it burn out a little bit before crews worked to “mop it up,” Ramirez said.

“These guys were going out to find where the lightning struck and keep the fire small so that it didn’t turn into the mega fires that end up making the national news. There’s as much of this type of work as there is the mega fire stuff — probably more of this that doesn’t get talked about,” Bell said.

While talking to the firefighters who serve in that area year-round, Ramirez said he was told there have been more fires in the park because “the lightning strikes that are hitting are actually catching a lot easier.”

President Joe Biden said Friday that the fires burning in the west and along the Canadian border “is affecting air quality in states across the country.” Air quality in the Midwest was affected last week, Bell said.

Last fire season, area firefighters weren’t called out to assist with fires until September and this year groups have already been called out in July three times, “which is way early,” Bell said. Two of those assignments, area crews were sent to Midwest regions: Michigan and Minnesota, he said.

“Sending them out West as early as we did, it’s kind of an indicator that it’s going to be a very long fire season and resources are already stretched thin,” Bell said.

Nationally, there is preparedness level system, on a scale of one to five, that firefighters use to indicate to fire units what resources are needed to go toward fighting wildfires, Bell said. A level five is the highest, which means “anyone who is possibly available is going to be out,” he said.

This year, the preparedness level reached five in June, Bell said, which is only the second earliest time that has happened in the last 20 years. Typically, the preparedness system reaches a level five in late July or August, he said.

“That’s an indication of long, hard fire season that still lies ahead of us. We’re only part way through it,” Bell said.

The direct cause to this year’s fire season, Bell said, is that the winter out west saw less snow, which means less moisture in the ground, which means plants get drier quicker. Scientists say fire seasons have been getting longer because of global warming, Bell said.

As of Friday, the National Interagency Fire Center reported 83 large fires have burned 1,741,281 acres across 13 states, with new large fires reported in Idaho, Washington and Wyoming, “as critical weather conditions and extremely dry fuels persist.”

In recent years, there have been parts of the country, like Southern California, that have had yearlong fire seasons because of dry weather conditions, Bell said.

“It didn’t use to be like that 30 or 40 years ago,” Bell said.

Ramirez said he will be sent out for another two-week assignment in early August, but he doesn’t know where he will be sent yet. Overall, it feels good to help assist other fire departments as they work to control and prevent fires, he said.

“It feels good to go out there and spread out the workload. A lot of the folks out West that live out there and do this for a living are getting worn out and they need breaks too,” Ramirez said. “It feels good to be able to give them some relief.”

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