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WALDO CANYON FIRE: A day in a firefighter's life

By: RYAN MAYE HANDY
June 25, 2012
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photo - The Waldo Canyon fire camp is being set up behind Holmes Middle School, near Mesa Road and Fillmore Street. Photo by Ryan Maye Handy/The Gazette
The Waldo Canyon fire camp is being set up behind Holmes Middle School, near Mesa Road and Fillmore Street. Photo by Ryan Maye Handy/The Gazette 

For the hundreds of firefighters on the Waldo Canyon fire, the day begins before sunrise and ends long after sunset.

Firefighters are up by 5:30 a.m., most of them in a growing city of tents, trailers and various command centers at Holmes Middle School on the city’s Westside.

Firefighters eat and prepare their supplies for the day — water, gear, fuel, hoses and maps. And they attend a morning briefing, where they talk about the plans for the day and safety measures.

With any luck, firefighters hit the fire lines by 7 a.m. and work until 9 p.m.

As for lunch?

“We don’t sit down and take lunch breaks,” said Dave Groneman, a division supervisor. “We eat on the line.”

Groneman’s team consists of roughly 125 people in Division “Zulu.” The fire has been divided into five divisions —  A, B, C, Y and Z — based on geography, each team’s objectives and firefighter safety. Each division must have an egress, Groneman said — a way of escape in case the fire makes a run.

Division Z was working Monday on the southeastern portion of the fire in Cedar Heights, and their primary focus is “structure protection” — meaning homes. Their second goal: to establish a perimeter line. But that’s been difficult. His team can’t get directly to the fire because they are next to a steep canyon slope with a 1,500-foot drop and an 18 percent grade.

Groneman has five hand crews and 12 Colorado Springs Fire Department engines, each of which includes firefighters trained in structure protection. Hand crews dig fire lines using hand tools and, sometimes, bulldozers. Firefighters use water, hoses and other equipment to battle flames.

Members of a so-called Type 1 command team from across the West flew into Colorado Springs on Sunday. They’re all part of the small, close-knit community that’s emerging at Holmes, with mobile showers, map plotters, tents and a cafeteria.

Holmes is an ideal command spot, said Tom Dunn, the situation unit leader for the command team. His duties include talking to division supervisors to learn what they’re doing and what resources they need. He passes that information up the information chain to commanders. Dunn also manages map production, working with geographic specialists and others to create accurate maps for firefighters.

 “This right here for us is a luxury,” Dunn said of Holmes. Wildland firefighters typically work in rural environments with no paved roads and little access to civilization, he said.

Dunn and Groneman are both from the city of Reno Fire Department. Other firefighters have been pulled from California, Nevada, Utah and elsewhere in Colorado.
How long will they stay? Until the job is done, Groneman said.

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