Vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers are West’s guardians

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Maddy Butcher

If the uni­verse wanted to chal­lenge vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers, it would ar­range for a fire emer­gency right smack in the mid­dle of a small town’s an­nual fes­ti­val, when fire crews are busy help­ing run the pa­rade and other events.

In this case, light­ning started a fire some­time be­tween Sat­ur­day night and Sun­day morn­ing dur­ing Mancos Days, a July cel­e­bra­tion in this town of 1,400 in south­west­ern Colorado. Five mem­bers of the 15-mem­ber Mancos Fire and Res­cue crawled out of their beds and re­sponded when the wild­fire was re­ported at about 5:30 a.m. on Sun­day, July 30.

As if to test their met­tle, smoke was com­ing from a hard-to-reach cranny of a canyon, with steep ter­rain full of scrub oak, cedars and pine at an el­e­va­tion of 7,800 feet. The blaze was also close to homes and less than a mile from the harsh rem­nants of the dev­as­tat­ing We­ber Fire, which burned 10,000 acres and caused dozens of evac­u­a­tions five years ago.

Mas­sive fires tend to dom­i­nate the head­lines. But peo­ple of­ten for­get that even the big­gest con­fla­gra­tion starts out as a flicker, and that the first sight­ing is of­ten re­sponded to, not by he­li­copters and Hot­shots, but by lo­cal vol­un­teers with day jobs.

Be­fore sunup in Mancos that Sun­day, the crew headed east up U.S. 160 in three Type 6 brush trucks, spe­cially out­fit­ted pickup trucks loaded with 200 gal­lons of wa­ter and many yards of hose. They con­tin­ued as far as they could on pri­vate gravel roads, and got closer in an all-ter­rain ve­hi­cle driven by a lo­cal res­i­dent. Then they bush­whacked for 30 min­utes to get to the fire, ac­cord­ing to Mancos As­sis­tant Fire Chief Ray Aspromonte, who was on the crew. Aspromonte, who works in town as a diesel me­chanic, was joined by Gene Smith, a ma­chin­ist in a lo­cal lum­ber mill; Tavis An­der­son, a welder for a lo­cal con­struc­tion com­pany; David Franks, a park ranger at Mesa Verde Na­tional Park; and Drew Sim­mons, a plan­ner for neigh­bor­ing Laplata County.

Of the ap­prox­i­mately 30,000 fire de­part­ments na­tion­wide, nearly two-thirds are run solely by vol­un­teers, ac­cord­ing to a 2017 study by the Na­tional Fire Pro­tec­tion As­so­ci­a­tion, a Mas­sachusetts non­profit es­tab­lished in 1896. In com­mu­ni­ties with pop­u­la­tions un­der 2,500, more than 90 per­cent of the fire de­part­ments are all-vol­un­teer.

By about 8 a.m., at the site of the fire, the crew had felled a burn­ing tree and dug a perime­ter around it. The plan was to mon­i­tor the blaze. Lack­ing much wa­ter, they hoped that the tiny but volatile fire would sput­ter out from lack of fuel and lack of wind.

They’d car­ried in 15 gal­lons of wa­ter weigh­ing 125 pounds, along with fire shel­ters, tools, first aid kits, and the chain­saw. They rested briefly be­fore pick­ing up hoes and Pu­laskis to re­sume their work.

Most mem­bers of this crew are mar­ried, with chil­dren, and have been re­spond­ing to calls for years. They are a busy bunch, at­tend­ing train­ing ses­sions ev­ery Mon­day and han­dling calls al­most ev­ery day. Last year, they han­dled 340 calls within a district that spans about 200 square miles.

They were the first re­spon­ders to the We­ber Fire five years ago, and they stayed on it for 10 days.

As the sun climbed, the crew be­gan dis­sect­ing the dead tree to lo­cate its hottest seg­ments. They split the wood and doused the em­bers with wa­ter. They ex­tin­guished any per­sis­tent flames and re­layed in­for­ma­tion on their ra­dios. Some­time af­ter noon, they gath­ered their equip­ment and headed back to the trucks.

Mean­while, at the Mancos Days fes­ti­val, the Wa­ter Fights, an an­nual con­test be­tween lo­cal fire de­part­ments, were un­der­way. Fire­fight­ing teams from the towns of Mancos, Dolores, Lewis-ar­riola and Rico com­peted, and the Mancos women’s team tri­umphed. Though there’s only one woman in the fire de­part­ment, other fire­fight­ers’ wives joined her to com­plete the team. The men’s team fell to Lewis-ar­riola in the fi­nals.

It’s un­likely that many spec­ta­tors knew about the vol­un­teers who’d been up be­fore dawn to fight a nearby fire. “I’m sure there are some who don’t care,” said Aspromonte, but “most peo­ple seem to think we do good.”

Maddy Butcher of Mancos is a con­trib­u­tor to Writ­ers on the Range, the opin­ion ser­vice of High Coun­try News.

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