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While the Decker Fire continues to burn, one question is gaining momentum. How does this community thank the firefighters for their momentous efforts to protect Chaffee and Fremont counties? There are now more than 900 firefighters assembled from across the nation, continuing to fight what has been called the number one fire priority in the U.S.

Our natural disaster began Sept. 8 with a lightning strike in remote and rugged wilderness nine miles south of Salida. The extreme terrain and the area’s fuel load of dead and downed trees where it started meant that it couldn’t be fought directly. It wasn’t safe to put firefighters in areas where they couldn’t be retrieved. Within weeks, the local emergency was designated a Type 1 emergency – a designated federal response because of the eminent danger to people and structures.

(Courtesy photo)

How the community feels is apparent in the signs in shop windows, among the older adults from Howard, who have shown up with cakes and hugs and encouragement. Along the roadways, people smile and give ‘thumbs-up’ to fire crew trucks, with license plates from places far away from Chaffee County. In Salida, a few young children created a collaboration with a couple of local businesses, raising more than $175 to present energy bars to incident command Thursday evening.

When word got out that temperatures were about to plummet overnight Wednesday, and the firefighters were sleeping in tents, people called to offer spare rooms in their homes. This is a gracious response, but federal response teams have contracts that delivered dozens of yurts and generators to supply heat on this record-breaking cold October night.

The terrain remains rugged, and the teams are battling in dangerous situations, requiring what Communications Manager Jay Burkhalter describes as four-point protection. That protection includes a lookout, communications, escape routes and safety zones. Firefighters never enter new terrain without establishing communications so that if conditions change or someone is injured, they or the entire team can be extracted. That doesn’t mean that injuries don’t happen, even with all the safety precautions.

This comes back to the original question – the big thanks the community owes to these men and women, who have put down their regular jobs, to respond to our emergency because they are part of a Type 1 federal disaster response. What might be a fitting way to honor their dedication?

There are two foundations created especially to help wildland firefighters and their families if they are injured or killed, or otherwise need support from what is known as “Line of Duty Trauma.”

“This work is dangerous, and they can get killed or injured. There are two foundations that really focus on helping firefighters and their families,” said U.S. Forest Service Salida Ranger Jim Pitts during the public fire briefing in Salida last week. “The Wildland Firefighters Foundation and the Eric Marsh Foundation know what firefighters and their families need.”

The Eric Marsh Foundation is named for a firefighter killed in the line of duty in June 2013 in an Arizona wildfire known as the Campfire. In 2018, the Eric Marsh Foundation was also bestowed the honor of stewardship of the Granite Mountain Hotshots gravesites and memorial at the Pioneer’s Home Cemetery in Prescott, Ariz.

The foundations are quietly focused on service. “Most people don’t know that the person who runs the Wildland Firefighters Foundation was awarded recognition from Mother Teresa,” said Public Information Officer Penny Bertram. “It’s such a solid, true, humble organization.”

To find out more about these foundations or to donate go to:

The Eric Marsh Foundation

The Wildland Firefighter Foundation