Story and photo by Pfc. Andrew Ingram
4th Infantry Division Public Affairs Office
With the sun dipping behind the mountains June 27, the engineers worked to set up a base of operations and begin clearing fire breaks before dark.
The Soldiers were up by 4:30 a.m. the next morning, readying their dozers and graders, continuing their firebreak mission at first light.
More than 100 Fort Carson engineers, assigned to the 4th and 52nd Engineer battalions, with support from the 43rd Sustainment Brigade and Fort Carson firefighters, supported efforts to prevent the Waldo Canyon Fire from spreading throughout the U.S. Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs.
Working under the direction of the Air Force Academy Fire Department, Fort Carson engineers used tracked dozers to build firebreaks, stripping vegetation from the land in an effort to eliminate the fire’s fuel, thereby halting its progress.
The academy firefighters welcomed the Fort Carson team and immediately put them to work building defenses against the fire.
“We work well together. We support them and they support us,” said Lt. Col. Danielle Ngo, commander, 52nd Eng. Bn. “The Soldiers are so enthusiastic to help a real-world mission, and be part of a team that hopefully will (save) lives and people’s homes.”
Integrated with the Air Force Academy Fire Department and working in conjunction with the Army engineers, Fort Carson firefighters created controlled burns to safely clear areas before the wildfire could spread and extinguished spot fires caused by embers drifting from the main body of the wildfire onto the academy grounds.
“The Air Force Academy (Fire Department) has been on Fort Carson many times helping us, so has the Colorado Springs Fire Department (and) El Paso County,” said T.J. McCloud, leader of the Fort Carson firefighter task force. “We have an excellent rapport with the departments around us for that reason. All of us need help at certain times. Those people have come and helped us, so this is how we return the favor.
“We all work together, train together; then, when the big fires happen, we know each other; we know our limitations and our capabilities,” he said.
Ken Helgerson, deputy fire chief, Air Force Academy Fire Department, said both Fort Carson military and civilian personnel proved to be important assets in the fire containment effort.
“They have been of huge value to us,” Helgerson said. “Fort Carson has been priceless in defending the Air Force Academy from this wildfire.”
The engineers arrived at the academy with their equipment within hours of receiving the order to mobilize.
During the first 72 hours of their mission, the engineers cleared more than 12 miles of vegetation to prevent the wildfire from spreading throughout the academy.
“With one dozer we can churn up roughly a couple hundred meters an hour,” said Staff Sgt. Erick Lappi, horizontal construction engineer, 576th Engineer Company, 4th Eng. Bn. “These firebreaks are definitely going to make a difference if the fire keeps coming this way.”
Lappi said after multiple deployments overseas, he found satisfaction in serving his nation by protecting its citizens on the homefront.
“Doing a mission like this on American soil, for one of our fellow services, has a lot of meaning to us,” Lappi said. “We want to do this right and protect all of our brothers out here.”
The firefighters’ continued success stems from solid leadership and cohesion between all of the units and agencies working together to counter the threat, said Capt. Donald Schmidt, operations officer, 4th Eng. Bn.
“Everybody is working together, taking guidance from the Air Force Academy firefighters and response officials,” said Schmidt. “We are pulling support from our own resources, self-sustaining our operations and life-support requirements.”
At the end of each day, the engineers returned to their base of operations and conducted preventive maintenance, checks and services on their heavy equipment in preparation for the next day’s work.
Soot and dust clogging the vehicles’ air filters was the most common problem with the dozers, said Spc. Melody Kirsch, wheeled vehicle mechanic, Forward Support Company, 4th Eng. Bn. A clogged air filter may cause an engine to overheat, so before turning in for the night, the engineers and their maintenance team cleaned or replaced the filters and inspected the vehicles thoroughly for damage.
Working toward a goal with visible results and clear margin of success boosted the engineers’ morale and confidence in their technical proficiencies, said Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald Patterson, senior enlisted leader, 52nd Eng. Bn.
“This has all been positive. The Soldiers really like getting out here on their equipment, doing something for the community,” said Patterson.
“In a situation like this, at the end of the day, these Soldiers get to see a finished product, and that finished product helps their neighbors.”
Fort Carson firefighters and Soldiers continue to support efforts to prevent the Waldo Canyon Fire from spreading to the city of Colorado Springs.
With firefighting efforts complete on the academy, Fort Carson Soldiers and emergency responders stand ready to protect their own and the broader Colorado Springs community as a whole.