South Metro Fire Rescue Capt. Tom Crews has battled wildfires for more than 40 years. Never has he seen a wildfire season like this. “Fire behavior has been pretty — just not normal,” Crews …
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South Metro Fire Rescue Capt. Tom Crews has battled wildfires for more than 40 years. Never has he seen a wildfire season like this.
“Fire behavior has been pretty — just not normal,” Crews said. “Anymore, (fire season) is year-round. Twenty-twenty has not been a good year. It's been a rough year, and people are tired. They're worn out and tired, and they're still going to help.”
This summer, wildfires broke out in historic scale throughout the Western United States. Colorado, California, Oregon and Washington all faced catastrophic wildfires around the same time in mid-July. Resources were low. Manpower was thin.
“It didn't seem like any resources were available on any fire we were on,” said Crews, who returned from a 14-day stint in Northern California on Oct. 2.
In the past, firefighters could count on the fact that Colorado and California had different seasons, which allowed crews to request help from neighboring states.
"There are just no resources out there, especially this time of year,” Crews said. “What you see is what you get.”
Colorado is still battling the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires in the northern Front Range. The fires became the two largest wildfires in the state's history, burning 209,000 acres and 194,000 acres, respectively.
Crews assisted with the August Complex Fire, which has burned more than 1 million acres west of Chico, California and is 93% contained. Crews also assisted with Colorado's Pine Gulch Fire, which surpassed the 2002 Hayman Fire Aug. 28 to become the largest wildfire in the state's history. Pine Gulch would retain that title, and then its No. 2 spot, for only a few weeks.
The Cameron Peak Fire, near Walden, broke out Aug. 10. Two months later, the Cameron Peak Fire surpassed Pine Gulch. On Oct. 14, what would become the state's second largest wildfire in history sparked in Grand County, the East Troublesome Fire.
The lateness of the season provided a relatively new obstacle for wildland firefighters: cold weather. Though firefighters have long battled blazes at below-freezing temperatures, fighting a wildfire in October has its challenges. Hose pumps can freeze. Snow accumulation, though helpful in pausing a fire's growth, can obstruct firefighters' access to a structure.
Fires can restart after the snow melts, fire officials say, so even the promise of a blizzard does not necessarily mean the end of a fire. Wildland firefighters will need to wait for more regular precipitation before declaring the end of a long season. And the effects are taking a toll.
“The guys and gals are tired,” Crews said of his fellow firefighters. “This has been going on for a long time. I was home for 36 hours in I don't know how many weeks. You can say no, but that's not what we do normally.”
But the harsh conditions, limited resources and a persistent season compare little to the toll that weighs on a firefighter who loses a structure they had been working to save.
“It's devastating. And it adds to the stress,” Crews said. “You just know that has affected a family or maybe multiple families. Mother Nature — she's tough, and a lot of times, no matter what, you do she's going to win. That's hard to handle sometimes.”
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