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Cars drive south out of Boulder on Highway 93 as a wildfire moves west down the hill at Marshall Mesa on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, near Eldorado Springs, Colo. Fighting fire in the winter poses unique challenges because fewer aircraft and crews are available. (Timothy Hurst/The Gazette)

The inferno that swept into Louisville and Superior last week proved the destructive power of a winter wildfire, but many of the aircraft and crews available in the late spring, summer and fall to fight massive Western blazes are not working in the heart of winter when many fire-prone states should see snow. 

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control is making changes to its staffing to be less seasonal and purchasing a $24 million Type 1 helicopter to be more prepared to fight fire year-round, as wildfire becomes more of a constant threat. But it's an ongoing process, said Mike Morgan, division director. 

"We are trying to adapt to it, but we are still a little bit behind," he said. 

Preparing to fight fire in winter is also a balance for public agencies because it can be expensive to extend contracts for aircraft and crews into the winter when fires have historically been unlikely, Morgan said.

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Many firefighting aircraft also need to have their engines rebuilt during the winter, Ralph Bellah, spokesman for the Blodgett Peak fire, previously told The Gazette.

Just days before the Marshall fire, Blodgett Peak was sparked by an illegal camp fire on the northwest edge of Colorado Springs, triggering preevacuation orders for the Peregrine neighborhood but burned less than an acre small despite gusty winds and dry conditions.

To stay prepared for fire danger lasting longer, the Colorado division started planning to change its staffing models in 2016 when it employed about 110 people total, Morgan said. The division expects to employ 300 total soon, and about 120 staff members are year-round fire fighters. When fires aren't burning, they can help with projects like prescribed burns to reduce fire risk in the summer. 

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But the bulk of firefighters in the state, between 12,000 to 15,000, work for local departments, including cities, towns and special districts. About 70% to 75% of those firefighters are volunteers. Some small rural departments are run almost completely by volunteers and don't have much equipment to be part of aggressive initial attacks on wildfires.

Those department are also the first to respond to fires and try to keep them small and limit their destruction, which is a focus for the state, Morgan said. 

"The longer the event goes the more the impact," he said. So the division wants to increase state assistance to help keep fires small.

A bill that might be introduced into the state Legislature this session could focus on improving training available to fire departments across the state. 

The Legislature has taken other steps recently, including approving funding for the new FireHawk helicopter expected to arrive in November or December this year that will ensure the state always has one available no matter how busy California and other fire-prone states get.

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The helicopter is expected to have a 30 to 50 year life span, said Caley Pruitt, division spokeswoman.  It will be the third aircraft owned by the state. The state also owns two multimission airplanes. 

Most firefighting aircraft are owned by private companies that contract with states or the federal government. The state has expanded exclusive use contracts for aircraft but those can be quite expensive, said Vaughn Jones, Wildland Fire Management section chief for the division. The state also has call-when-needed contracts with companies, but there is no guarantee those aircraft will be available, he said. 

Aircraft are also not a silver bullet to beating back a ferocious blaze. During the Marshall fire on Dec. 30, the 100 mph hour winds made it unsafe for any aircraft to fly.

Colorado Springs experienced similar conditions to Boulder County days before the Marshall fire during the Blodgett Peak fire. Fortunately, the peak sheltered the fire from high winds keeping it small, said Mike Smaldino, spokesman for the Colorado Springs Fire Department. A single helicopter was on call in the state to fight the fire because other aircraft were getting rebuilt, Bellah said. 

"We got really lucky," Smaldino said. 

If the Blodgett Peak fire had blown downhill, Colorado Springs firefighters would have built fire breaks with bulldozers, among other measures to help protect homes. All 467 firefighter in the department are cross trained as wildland firefighters. About 100 department firefighters have higher level training for wildland fires, Chief Randy Royal said. 

Since the fire was burning on Forest Service land, crews were also limited by the off season. 

The Forest Service "kept searching until they found the resources," Royal said. 

Crews coordinated through the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center to fight wildfire across a 5-state region including Colorado are limited right now to three from the Department of Corrections.

Royal said his department would like to have more crews and aircraft available, but acknowledged the costs can be high. 

However, a winter fire can carry hefty price tag as well and the risk of such a blaze can be compounded by the drought, like the conditions the state saw this fall. 

Last week, the Marshall fire was carried through dried grass that wouldn't have moved so quickly had it been matted down by snow, Morgan said. The state is accustomed to similar grass fires on the Eastern Plains. 

"They will go 30,000 acres in a couple hours," Morgan said. 

While fire mitigation can play an important role in protecting homes, decades of fire suppression that have contributed to the build up in fuels across the state that will likely take decades to address, Jones said. 

"We aren’t going to mitigate our way out of this … We are always going to have to be prepared to respond aggressively," Morgan said.  

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or (719) 429-9264.

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