"This fire is not a devastating fire , " observed Lou French, USFS Information Officer for the Craig Draw Fire.
As a matter of fact, "it may actually be healthy for the forest here," French points out.
As the USFS enters its 100th year (and its 100th year of fire suppression), there is evidence to suggest that some fire is beneficial to the health of forested ecosystems, although debate continues as to how much suppression or burning is the right amount.
For now, the danger of the Craig Draw fire has passed, with no property damage or injuries to fire crews, livestock or wildlife.
As of Thursday, the Craig Draw fire is 85 percent contained. As the smoke settles, crews are "mopping up" the last hot spots.
Although record temperatures and blustery winds have contributed to everything from flare-ups to creeping, backing, torching and even a spot fire outside the fire line, full containment is expected today.
On Thursday, the expanding operation at the Craig Draw Fire engaged 254 firefighters. As for equipment, three engines, five crews, one 'dozer, three helicopters and one fixed-wing aircraft were deployed to battle what was left of the blaze.
Not quite one week ago, plumes of smoke billowed thousands of feet above the mesas, filling the mountain valleys with haze.
Now, it's just small puffs of isolated flare-ups and steadily smoldering hot spots wafting smoke into the mountain air.
And while the potential to escape containment exists, firefighting teams are confident that the fire is on its way to being under control.
"We always make conservative estimates of containment," said French
Just one week ago today, lightning ignited the Craig Draw Fire; with hot dry winds fanning the flames, it exploded the next day, going on to burn approximately 580 acres of pinion, juniper, ponderosa and scrub-oak forest along the rim of the San Miguel River Canyon.
Four miles east of Norwood, Craig Draw's thick stands of scrub oak (much of it standing dead) alongside weeds and grasses provided a substantial fuel source in the understory, further complicating the firefighting effort.
"This stuff makes it tough to fight," Forest Service Safety Officer Jim Cafferty said of the scrub oak.
"It won't burn when you may want it to," added Cafferty (like you want it to when clearing a fire line, for instance) and then "when it does burn it doesn't want to go out," he said of the timber that's fueling this particular fire.
'ONE FOOT IN THE BLACK'
So just how is forest fire put out?
"It's a coordinated team effort from the lowest to the top," said USFS Operations Chief Jim Dunn. "Everyone is important.
"Most of these firefighters have worked together before, and that helps to be more effective and safe," he added.
From the initial attack to when the fire is declared to be out, fighting forest fires is a complex logistical effort - a virtual military campaign.
Once a fire is reported, the most experienced and capable local firefighters are deployed to mount the initial attack - in an effort to establish a firebreak to contain the fire before it blows up.
Once crews arrive on scene, they start work at the fire's point of origin cutting, slashing, digging and clearing a path along its perimeter, keeping "one foot in the black" - firefighter jargon for the safety protocol mandating that crew members never enter with both feet an area where fuel remains to be burned up. It's safer to fight the fire at the line than indirectly with fuel, between the blaze and the firefighters.
Charred areas are likely to be cooler than are places the fire has yet to consume; in fact, one guaranteed safety zone is any place where the fire has moved through and burned up 100 percent of the fuel. Working with one foot in the black, firefighters race to catch up to the fire's leading edge, and to eventually circle it with a firebreak. Forest fires are fought from the outside in; generally, once contained, they are then left to burn out. When firefighters talk about "containment," they are referring to what percentage of the burn area they have cleared a fire line around.
Oftentimes, that initial attack is successful in putting out the fire. According to Dunn, several small fires scattered across the Western Slope just this last week have been successfully put out by initial attack, although other larger fires have kept on burning.
If the initial attack is overwhelming, an extended attack ensues, ramping up with more local personnel and equipment. If the fire continues to grow into a full-blown forest fire, it will be categorized as a type three incident, requiring more support from a wider region of resources. Larger-scale fires are classified as type two, calling for any additional personnel and equipment available to be brought in (often from thousands of miles away). At any point during the operation, air support may be deployed; when this occurs, the Federal Aviation Administration is notified and a no-fly zone is created, encompassing the burn area and adjacent space. This prevents any chance of collisions with aircraft not involved with the fire-fighting operation, while allowing the fire-fighting aircraft to fly freely where they need to go.
The Bureau of Land Management, USFS, law enforcement, firefighters and support personnel work together like a kind of orchestra, which the incident commander then conducts to its conclusion. What tactics are employed depends on the Incident Action Plan, a plan of attack prepared by the incident commander and other officials as data from on-site weather stations and from the fire line come in.
Drawn up overnight, while fire crews are resting, the Incident Action Plan covers everything from decisions on tactical assignments and tasks to equipment deployment and safety issues; it also identifies which resources or properties may be in danger and in need of defense. Contingency plans are prepared as well, ready to adapt to changes in the fire's behavior.
But the most important component of the Incident Action Plan is its communication plan. Certain channels of communication must be kept clear, while others are dedicated to specific crews or functions to avoid the confusion that might occur if everyone was using the same channel. Staying on top of the communication plan is crucial for coordinating work efforts and, more importantly, for insuring the safety of crews.
"Our number one priority is making sure everyone returns home in as good as shape as they came in," Cafferty emphasized.
Hazards to firefighters are plentiful, some of them obvious, others inconspicuous, like the tree trunk that has been hollowed out by fire and is now waiting to kill or maim when it collapses suddenly, with no warning.
Fire-fighting keeps its personnel in constant peril. Long days of extreme physical exertion that can go on for up to 14 days in a row, 16 hours at a time, can lead to fatigue both mental and physical fatigue, opening the door to mistakes in judgment and to a heightened risk of incurring a simple but debilitating injury -- a sprained knee or ankle. Most dangerous are the widow-makers - dangling limbs and chunks of timber hanging above the work area - and burned-out snags and pits filled with hot ash and coals. These concealed pits can be detected by the white ash that accumulates in them, a telltale sign of their presence. Forest firefighters' eyes are of particular concern; it's the nature of this business whose workers are constantly thrashing through slash, stumps and tree limbs. Most workers don't wear eye protection, however, because it's too likely to fog or smudge, reducing vision. Not surprisingly, dehydration is a common problem.
Awareness and teamwork are the keys to surviving a forest firefighting mission. To do this, firefighters continuously remind themselves of "L.C.E.S." - Look out, Communicate, Escape routes, and Safe zones. Front-line crews are assigned to specific details -- monitor the weather, watch the fire, watch the crewmembers. Constant assessment of the situation and of everyones' position is crucial to firefighter's survival in the field.
"We watch the weather like crazy," Cafferty said, "and we watch out for everyone on the crew." Wind speed and direction, temperature and relative humidity all influence a fire's behavior. Weather conditions and forecasts are monitored both at the incident command center and on the fire line. When things get serious, weather checks may be demanded, often every ten minutes. Escape routes to safe zones are assessed continually, because they're so likely to change in the course of a blaze. Generally, safe zones are found downhill and upwind from the fire. Often a safe zone exists inside the burn area, where the fire has burned out all the fuel. Safe zones, which must be large enough to accommodate several firefighters, are screened from the fire, at a certain distance that's dictated by the exact circumstances.
When trouble hits, if there's no escape or safe zone, each firefighter carries a personal fire shelter. This fireproof insulating blanket barrier is the last resort, should a fire turn on and engulf a firefighter, and is crawled under to wait until the fire passes by. Other than a personal fire shelter, however, forest firefighters don't use much fire protection equipment (unlike firefighters who work structure fires). That's because the gear is too heavy and bulky to allow the necessary movement along a fire line. Breathing apparatuses have been tried before, but since fires are fought from the upwind, downhill side, smoke typically blows away from crews, making them more of a problem than a solution, should they melt, hold in even more heat than is already on the firefighter, or have their view portals become smudged or fogged.
Now that the Craig Draw Fire is mostly contained, crews are mopping up before they pronounce the fire out. With Pulaskis (a special digging and chopping tool named for its firefighter designer), long runs of hose and their bare hands, firefighters work the fire line inch by inch, turning over every smoldering hot spot they find. Wet-mopping (or dry- mopping, when water is not available), they turn soil and rocks over and over again, feeling for heat with their hands. When they can squeeze a handful of soil without being burned by it, they move on to the next spot.
Although there may still be visible smoke and flame in the burn area, the fire will soon be declared out by officials in charge, and the rehabilitation process can begin. The Craig Point road and fire site will be opened to public access (if you really want to go there) when the incident commander and local land managers, in a concerted decision, consider it safe to do so.
Foresters, biologists and many other specialists will assess the burn area and begin any procedures necessary to restore wildlife habitat, protect water and soil resources and mitigate any other impacts that need attention.
This time, Forest Service ponderosa and pine plantations were spared, and impact in the San Miguel Canyon was kept to a minimum.