By Alethea Smock
21st Space Wing Public Affairs
CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN AIR FORCE STATION, Colo. — With the wildfire season starting, a team of wildland fire experts met here recently to discuss best practices for fighting fires in the arid west.
The team was comprised of top fire experts from the U.S. Air Force and local Department of Defense wildland fire experts from bases across the Front Range including Peterson AFB and Cheyenne Mountain AFS as well as agencies such as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service. They met for three days to develop practices and procedures to efficiently work together during a catastrophic fire.
The Colorado Front Range is a top priority for the Air Force to ensure comprehensive response during a potential incident such as the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires. Wildland fires are of large concern in a dry state such as Colorado and highlight the need for a comprehensive approach to preventing, mitigating and extinguishing burns. What is described initially as a small fire can quickly be pushed by the strong winds to become a major fire in a matter of hours — making response times critical.
“The Air Force has recognized that fighting fires is an interagency effort that requires cooperation,” said Kevin Hiers, the acting chief of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s Wildland Fire Center at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. “There is a significant risk of fire along the Front Range and we are building processes to leverage expertise from all agencies to be in a better position to fight the next major fire.”
“We need to take proactive steps in our approach to fire mitigation and be collaborative when we discuss how to mitigate the fuels that help fires grow,” said Hiers.
Discussion centered on the lessons learned from the last major fires in Colorado Springs. Since fires don’t recognize boundary lines, the team worked on ways to better collaborate during an incident to reduce the devastation of large burns. Diverse land ownership highlights the need for a joint response to an incident and also fire mitigation efforts to help prevent an incident.
The Air Force installations in Colorado Springs are surrounded by local communities who share an interest in keeping fires contained. Cheyenne Mountain AFS shares a fence line with both a state park and a local homeowner’s community.
The team at CMAFS is focused primarily at stopping a fire at the fence line. The team has computer-modeled potential fire paths and determined best practices to fight a fire given different wind, weather and terrain combinations. This has allowed them to prioritize mitigation efforts and plan resources.
The steep terrain of Cheyenne Mountain, coupled with the wildland-urban interface can make fighting a fire along the installation a challenge. Large fire trucks cannot maneuver into remote locations and wildland firefighters are typically not equipped to handle a structure fire. This makes the need for fire preventative programs even more valuable.
The installation has partnered with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Service to create a firebreak along their shared fence line. This is one of the several recommended steps to become fire-wise according to the CPWS. Other steps include reducing the amount of available fuel to burn and removing lower tree branches so a fire will not ladder, or climb, trees.
“I am excited to have such an experienced team working here,” said Steve Rose, 721st Mission Support Group deputy director.” This has been a great week of collaboration in support of maintaining our mission, as well as protecting our installation and our community during a potential fire. With fires in Colorado, it’s not an issue of if, it’s a matter of when and preparation is key.”
“Regional response to emergencies, such as wildland fires, is all about relationships. If you wait until a fire breaks out to build a relationship, it’s too late. Working with (AFCEC’s) Wildland Fire Center now will pay great safety dividends for Cheyenne Mountain AFS, and all the bases on the Colorado Front Range,” added Rose.