Almost overnight, the Chaffee County Fairgrounds became a town of nearly 900 firefighters to do battle against the Decker Fire.

Look in any direction, and you see hand crews being trucked out, people unloading supplies, checking, loading or unloading equipment. Here and there, clusters of them lined up, getting briefed on what they’re about to face. Crews return, faces covered in soot and dirt, survival packs still on their backs, and head for the cafeteria to eat, or tents to sleep. Visit the camp at the right time, and you might see a few slumped against the wall of one of the fair buildings, eyes closed, sound asleep.

This is a fire camp focused on one thing right now: gaining control of the Decker Fire which is burning in Chaffee, Fremont and Saguache counties. Tuesday morning, for the first time, the incident command was able to announce 14 percent containment. This is the best containment news since the fire started Sept. 8 with a lightning strike in the rugged wilderness, nine miles south of Salida.

“Fighting fires in the wilderness is very difficult,” said Incident Commander Jay Esperance. “It’s rugged. It’s dangerous. I can’t say enough good things about the crews. I’m very proud of the operations plan that has been put together.”

Fighting fires consume more energy each day than most people expend in a week. Every day a firefighter consumes more than 9,000 calories of food to keep going. Crews work in shifts through the night. They keep working when winds come up, when rocks and trees come down, when spot fires ignite and when direct fire lines have to switch to indirect lines due to conditions. Unfailingly, they show themselves to be dedicated, well-trained – and serious about the fire.

Wildland firefighting crews face dangerous working conditions. Including cutting direct fire lines to stop the spread of fire, as well as working the burn area after a fire has passed through. Even putting out fires in forest floors and tree root systems. (Courtesy photo)

“By contrast, every meal for a firefighter – breakfast, lunch and dinner — is at least 3,000 calories, said Incident Command Public Information Officer Penny Bertram. “That means 9,000 calories per day. They need that to keep going in the extreme conditions they face.”

As of Oct. 8, 29 fire crews from at least nine western states, plus a security team from Puerto Rico, have arrived to participate in the firefight, burning only two miles south of the city of Salida. That’s not counting the air support.

The fire teams, now totaling 896 people, include both ground and air teams. A look through the list, and you see a widespread geographic commitment: the Breckenridge Hotshots Type 1 crew from California, the Ft. Apache #4 Type 2 from Arizona, The Helena Hotshots Type 1 from Montana, the Mescalero Type 2 crew from New Mexico, the Alpine Hotshots from Colorado, the Lone Peak Type 2 from Utah, the Tallac Type 1 crew from California. And with them, members of the Salida Fire Department and the Chaffee Fire Department with Buena Vista Fire providing backup for other fire and emergencies that might occur across the Arkansas Valley.

Night-time firefighting. (Photo courtesy FEMA)

The fire has been declared a Type 1, the highest level of a federal response to a natural disaster emergency. That means that every resource available to combat the emergency is brought to bear on it. The mantra of firefighters is always: first protect people – firefighters and residents — then protect structures, infrastructure, and finally natural resources, in that order.

“Rule number one is the safety of firefighters and the residents [of homes.] After that, right now all of us are focused on – ‘Oh God, keep the fire away from the valley,’” said Operations Section Chief Paul Delmerico.

The 896 people, who range from local crews to teams with expertise in specific areas such as weather prediction, smoke jumpers, a Rapid Extraction Team, EMT crews and extremely tight helicopter rescue teams working from Type 3 helicopters. But all share a commonality: a grounding in training.

“We’ve all trained for this, so we know how to work together in teams,” said Supervisor of Flight Operations Sonya Straka, from Ft. Collins, leading the flight command teams based at Salida Airport. She explained that the crews work on cooperative agreements to come to each other’s aid.

“Even if we’ve only just met the people we’re working with, it’s cohesive. We’ve all been trained the same way. And that training, by the way, means that every decision we make is weighed as a risk versus benefit – is what we’ll gain worth the risk – to the crew, to the equipment, [and] to our safety standards.”

As we talked, the weather report from the Meteorologist Aviva Braun came in on walkie-talkie, indicating a move to a Red Flag Warning. Straka began a roll call of all her helicopter teams on the fire, asking them to confirm they heard the message.

“When we go to Red Flag Warning, we leave it up to the pilots to make the decisions on whether these are conditions they can confidently continue to fly in,” said Straka. “It’s based on their aircraft, the weather conditions, the terrain, the weight they’re carrying.

“Once we get here, we’re all on the same team,” added Public Information Office Rick Barton. “We’re all trained the same way. We’re all working to the same standard. From the locals who live here working on the fire, to every team in from across the country.”

Ark Valley Voice has been asked if there are ways to thank the firefighters for their efforts in the protection of our communities.

“Every fire we get, we give to the Wildland Firefighters Foundation,” said Bertram. “We know how much they do for the firefighters and their families, what compassion they provide. Most people don’t know that the person who runs this foundation was awarded recognition from Mother Teresa. It’s such a solid, true, humble organization.”

“This work is dangerous. They can get killed or injured. The foundations help by serving the human needs of the firefighters and families,” said U.S. Forest Service Salida Ranger Jim Pitts during the public fire briefing in Salida last week. “There are two foundations — the Wildland Firefighters Foundation and the Eric Marsh Foundation for Wildland Firefighters. These foundations know what firefighters and their families need.”

Donations can be made to:

The Wildland Firefighter Foundation

Decker Fire crews as of Oct. 9, 2019

Alpine Hotshots Type 1 crew – Colorado

San Juan Hotshots Type 1 – Colorado

Juniper Valley Type 2 (2 )crews – Colorado

Pike Hotshots Type 1 crew – Colorado

Helena Hotshots type 1 crew – Montana

Salt Lake Type 2 Crew – Utah

Breckenridge Hotshots Type 1 crew – California

Mescalero Type 2 crew – New Mexico

Twin Peaks Type 2 crew – Utah

Navajo Scouts Type 2 crew – Arizona

PatRick Type 2 crew – Idaho

Chloeta Type 2 crew – Idaho

Dalton Type 1 crew – California

Tallace Type 1 crew – California

Truckee Type 1 crew – California

Plumas 13 type 1 crew – California

Salmon River 4 Type 1 crew – California

Fort Apache #4 Type 2 crew – Arizona

Miller Timber Type 2 (2) crews – Idaho

Grayback 12 type 2 crew – Idaho

Fulton Type 1 crew – California

Kings River Type 1 crew – California

Lone Peack type 2 crew – Utah

SRV#10 Type 2 crew – Oregon

PatRick Type 2 crew – Idaho

Eldorado Type 1 crew – California

Security personnel – Puerto Rico

Decker Fire Information Office

Fire Info Line:  (719) 626-1095

InciWeb:  www.inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/6592/

Facebook:  facebook.com/DeckerFire2019

The Decker Fire is divided into two Branches:

Branch I (on the northeast side by Salida) and Branch II (on the southwest side the San Luis Valley). Then subdivided into five divisions.

Branch I - Salida

  • Division T (northeast side by Wellsville)
  • Division R (north side by Salida)
  • Division W (southeast side by Howard)

Branch II - San Luis Valley

  • Division A (west side by Poncha Pass)
  • Division X (south side by Alder)