Wallowa-Whitman fire crews helping in Colorado
Wildfire season is in full swing in Colorado and a pair of fire crews from the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest are on the front lines as that state battles to get a handle on the growing number of blazes.
The La Grande Hot Shots, a Type 1 handcrew of 20 firefighters specially trained in wildfire suppression tactics, and part of a rappel crew are among the firefighters currently helping to battle the blazes that have scorched that state, including the Black Forest Fire, which is the most destructive in Colorado history, surpassing the Waldo Canyon fire of 2012 that destroyed 346 homes.
Nearly 500 homes have been burned by the 22-square-mile Black Forest Fire, which is 65 percent contained. Crews hope to have it fully under control by Thursday.
“We have about 30 people in Colorado right now from the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest,” Bret Ruby, the fire staff officer for the national forest, said on Friday.
The hot shots crew left for Colorado on June 10, leaving after being released from fighting a fire in Nevada, while the rappel crew left June 12.
“We also have engines and people working down in Arizona and New Mexico,” Ruby said. “It wouldn’t surprise me to get more orders for crews in Colorado.”
Ruby said getting a crew to a fire once orders are received depends on the assets needed.
“It depends on the resources order. For example, the rappel crew, because they are assigned with a Type II helicopter, they were probably operational at least somewhat within 30 hours (of being called for),” Ruby said. “Whereas, like an engine going to Colorado or a hot shot crew that drives, it would take them probably two days to drive there and then they would be operational that third day. Just depends on where it’s at and what resources it is.”
Ruby said the crew should be able to come home after 14 days of being assigned to the fire, not including travel days, for a couple of well earned days off.
“They might go back down or they will go wherever the need is the greatest at that time,” Ruby said. “Sometimes with crews, such as the rappelers, we might be able to leave the helicopter there and rotate personnel. Anyone that goes to a fire, in general, spends 14 days on the fire and then they come back for two days off.”
It’s unknown what sparked the Black Forest Fire, but investigators believe it was human-caused and have asked for help from the state and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as they sift through the ash.
The fire is only a few miles away from the state’s second-most destructive wildfire, the Waldo Canyon Fire, which burned last summer.
The memory of that fire might have made residents especially appreciative of firefighters. Large crowds have been turning out to line the road and cheer crews as they return from the lines.
In Canon City, 50 miles to the southwest, a wildfire that destroyed 48 buildings at the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park is fully contained. A lightning-sparked fire in Rocky Mountain National Park has burned about 600 acres and was 75 percent contained.
In western Colorado, a 500-acre wildfire burning north of Rifle is 60 percent contained. It was started Friday by a smoldering lightning strike.
In New Mexico, crews have contained the majority of the 94 square miles of wildfires raging throughout the state.
— The Associated Press contributed to this story.