Berthoud Weekly Surveyor | Covering all the angles in the Garden Spot

Berthoud firefighters take on wildfires across the country

December 11, 2018 | Local News
Courtesy photo – A Berthoud Fire Protection District firefighter works on a wildfire in California during the summer of 2018.

By Amber McIver-Traywick

The Surveyor

The death toll for California’s worst-ever wildfire has reached 85 people with nearly 300 still unaccounted for and more than 14,000 homes destroyed. The Camp Fire, which officials say as of Nov. 25 is now completely contained, is a catastrophic reminder of the almost unimaginable power fire has to completely consume everything and everyone in its path. While most hope and pray they never experience anything close to the fires that have plagued states like California and Colorado this year, there are some, like the men and women of the Berthoud Fire Protection District’s (BFPD) wildland fire crew, who anticipate the opportunity, when fires do inevitably happen, to face off with one of nature’s most powerful forces with the singular goal of protecting homes and lives.

According to BFPD’s public information officer, May Soricelli, this year alone BFPD wildland crews responded to around 25 fires in three states with 18 firefighters deploying to assist in the efforts.

Two of those firefighters are Captain Nico Romero and Lieutenant Nathan Aldersea. The two men have combined experience of over 30 years fighting fires here in Colorado as well as participating on wildland crews around the country, including this past summer’s massive Carr Fire that stopped short of destroying the town of Redding, Calif., after burning 229,651 acres and razing more than 1000 homes.

While talking to Romero and Aldersea you quickly realize both men are passionate about what they do, particularly when talking about fighting wildfires. “It’s a totally different experience than what we do around here – it’s cool being able to travel around the country. The big thing is getting that experience and an understanding of how the big incident-management teams work. It’s all super beneficial information that we’re able to bring back and implement here,” Aldersea said.

BFPD has been fairly unique compared to other fire departments around the country, as nearly every career and reserve firefighter in the department has obtained their Incident Qualification Card or what firefighters call their “Red Card.” This certification enables personnel to work on state- and federally-managed incidents, and it shows the individuals have been thoroughly trained. Wildfires are a very real possibility, living in an area like Larimer County, and Romero commented about the benefit of having such a capable department. “If you’re only trained on house fires you aren’t going to be as effective as you think when everything else around the house is on fire – you want to stop it before it gets to the house.”

When a call comes in that help is needed on a wildfire, BFPD has 30 minutes to confirm they have a crew and equipment committed to go. Soricelli explained after that decision has been made, “Our wildland coordinator sends out a message to everyone. They’ll come to the station and start prepping the engine and their gear, and they’ll usually deploy pretty fast.” In a matter of a few hours, the crew is on the road. Back at home, Soricelli explained BFPD doesn’t reduce staffing while those crews are gone but utilize seasonal firefighters to continue to fully cover the needs of Berthoud.

Wildland crews deploy for a minimum of 14 days. Many, like Aldersea and Romero, leave behind spouses and children to go help save other people’s homes and families. Communication back home can be spotty at best with little or no communication for days at a time. Particularly if there has been a major incident or a loss of life, that is sure to make the news, Romero said. “You’ll have bosses that will tell you, before you leave today I want you to call family,” which can mean heading hours back into town for cell service or to use phone banks set up by the agency in charge of the effort.

Wildfires can move between six and 14 miles-per-hour and sometimes, depending on the terrain, even faster. Fires can last from days to weeks, with crews remaining active on the job for 16 to 20 hours at a time. The fires are dangerous and can be unpredictable, quickly shifting and jumping fire breaks, requiring the crews sent to fight them to have both endurance and bravery.

In the case of the Carr Fire, which both Romero and Aldersea traveled to this past summer, the fire would have to be fought after traveling hours down winding dirt roads, many of which were old mining or logging roads or ones that had only recently been bulldozed, to get the engines to where they needed to go. “One mile might take six miles to get where we needed to be, going 10 to15 miles an hour. If something were to go wrong, and a fire didn’t go as expected, it’s just as slow and tedious and dangerous to get back down and out of the way of it,” Romero said. Danger was made all the more a reality as two firefighters were killed while working to stop the Carr fire’s path of destruction.

On that topic Romero recounted an incident that could have easily proven deadly while fighting the Carr fire that was, as he put it, “… the closest I’ve ever come, period.” Romero’s group, along with six other hand crews, were cut off from the engines they were meant to work with that day in late July as the fast-moving fire unexpectedly collapsed around them. The only road out was blocked by downed power lines, and options were quickly diminishing. Romero and his driver had to communicate the severity of the situation to the rest of the team. “We had the conversation, if we get out the only thing you need is water, radio and your shelter. I’ll take a drip torch, he’ll take a drip torch, and we’ll start burning everything around us so we can kind of have a better option.” The shelter is a domed safety device used by wildland firefighters and made of aluminum, woven silica, and fiberglass, opened as a last resort to try to deflect heat and trap breathable air. “Anytime you have to actually ask anyone, hey do you have your fire shelter nearby, everyone now realizes how serious it is,” he said.

Earlier in the day Romero had “luckily” exchanged cell phone numbers with a bulldozer operator whom he contacted in a last-ditch effort to find a way out. The dozer operator found a gate and just broke it through. He said, “If you come across a green gate, I’d go through there. I think that’s your best bet.” The gate led to an abandoned mine shaft where Romero estimates close to 100 firefighters took shelter overnight. The next day they were back to work.

Both firefighters are quick to acknowledge stories like that, in all of their years of experience fighting fires, are extremely rare and every precaution is taken to prevent incidents like those from ever happening. However, it’s risks like those, both men gladly accept to continue keeping communities like Berthoud and others across the country safe. Regardless of the inherent risks, Romero summed things up by saying he has, “the best job in the world.” Aldersea nodded in agreement.

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