By Griffin Swartzell | 21st Space Wing Public Affairs
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Fighting fires on Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Colorado, is often unlike fighting fires anywhere else. That should be no surprise, given that CMAFS hosts the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, a massive subterranean facility made of steel, constructed under a mile and a half of rock.
According to David Arcilla, 21st Civil Engineer Squadron installation fire chief for Cheyenne Mountain, preventing fires inside the complex is only part of their job — CMAFS has outside buildings he can manage as normal, as well as 560 acres of forested land he and his team must attend to. They train to fight more typical structure fires and wildfires, as well as fires within the complex.
It’s an important duty station, as the complex serves as an alternate command center for North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command. Preventing fires helps NORAD and USNORTHCOM execute their mission of aerospace warning, aerospace control and providing advanced warning of ballistic missile or air attacks against North America.
The facility inside the mountain provides unique challenges, so the CMAFS fire department runs an extensive fire prevention and education program. Day to day, Arcilla and his team track construction efforts and any activities that might cause fumes to accumulate — underground, ventilation is a critical issue. That’s even truer during a fire response.
“I can’t just pop a door and expect hot gasses to come out,” he says. “If I go to a house fire on Peterson [Air Force Base, Colorado], I can put a hole in the roof, and all of the gasses come out. Here, we have to be more careful.”
Arcilla, a native of Molokai, Hawaii, has been a firefighter since he first joined the Air Force in 1980. He served for 22 years and earned the rank of master sergeant before retiring in 2002, when he was hired as a civilian to work as a firefighter on CMAFS, where he’s worked ever since.
“Any emergency on base that disrupts mission flow or the normalcy of the base, we respond,” he says. “We’re trained to mitigate, and we get things back to the ready state so the mission can continue.”
Beyond that, he manages staffing, equipment, fleet status, staff readiness and certification. As for certification, CMAFS has historically been on the frontlines in the Air Force. Arcilla’s team has been accredited by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International and the Center for Public Safety Excellence. Currently, he’s working to train the recently-combined CMAFS and Peterson fire departments to accredit both.
“We’re actively screening every document in both departments and planning for, hopefully, a full accreditation when we meet the board next year,” he says.
The CMAFS fire department also does a lot of work in the community, training alongside fire departments in Colorado Springs and El Paso County, part of what Arcilla describes as extensive mutual agreements. Their wildfire fighting training saved lives and land in 2012 and 2013, when his department supported efforts to fight massive forest fires in Waldo Canyon and near Black Forest.
“The May 2019 fire at Regency Tower apartments, the high-rise fire, we sent our mobile air unit to fill self-contained breathing apparatus bottles,” he says. “If I’m overwhelmed, we have an agreement where city and county fire departments come and help me, and if they’re overwhelmed, we’ll go and help them.”