Lava Mountain: far from home
September 2, 2016
Every year firefighters throughout the US, and especially in the American west, head out from their local departments and travel far from home to protect the lives and structures of people they will never know. Some never make it back.
The term for this particular sort of operation is "mutual aid", a surprisingly benign pairing of words for something so significant and essential to the livelihoods of millions. Firefighters in Grand County regularly engage in the practice, which typically involves one local fire district calling up others in Grand County for assistance. Sometimes however our local fire agencies are called to respond to massive wildfires burning outside Grand County on, what are known as, national wildfire assignments.
So far this summer local firefighters have left Grand County to assist on two immense conflagrations; the Beaver Creek Fire, still burning just north of Grand County in North Park, and the Lava Mountain Fire in central western Wyo.
Working large wildfires in the west has become something of a summer tradition for our county firefighters. Mintier explained local agencies have responded to at least two national fire assignment calls on large fires outside Grand County each year for the past five years including tours in California and a single round trip that saw local personnel deploy to Utah and Idaho before returning home.
Back in July four local firefighters, three from the Grand Lake Fire Protection District (GLFPD) and one from the Grand Fire Protection District (GFPD) headed out to Dubois Wyo. to assist with the massive Lava Mountain blaze that was then burning in the Shoshone National Forest. Paul Mintier, a retired career firefighter with the US Forest Service, led the crew of four on the Lava Mountain operation serving as Engine Boss.
Grand Lake Fire's Lieutenant Blake Mertz served as the Engine Operator while Grand Lake Resident Firefighter Matt Reinhardt and Grand Fire Firefighter Joe Starika also fielded the call. The four men spent 14 days working the Lava Mountain Fire with seven days spent at a forward operating base, which are termed "spike camps" within the firefighting community.
For a full fortnight Mintier, Mertz Reinhardt and Starika worked 16-hour days, lived out of tents, ate cold MRE's and breathed the acrid smoke that filled the mountain valleys around Dubois. At one point in time the fire burned right past the spike camp they were assigned to, coming to within about 100 yards of the camp and prompting aerial flame retardant drops so close to the firefighters Lt. Mertz joked he thought he would get drenched in the substance. All four made it home safely on August 2.
The four men carried all their personal gear with them while the fire engine functioned as both a fire mitigation resource and a sort of quasi-supply wagon. "We all travel in the engine," Mintier said. "It is our home away from home."
The drive north from Grand County to Dubois Wyo. is a long one, giving the firefighters ample time to think about the perils they will be facing; but despite the very serious and dangerous nature of the work, or perhaps entirely because of it, Mintier and Mertz both explained how their thoughts on the drive revolved around the particulars of the assignment, and not on more philosophical questions about life and death.
"For me as Engine Boss even before I leave I try to research a bit about the fire," said Mintier. "We start thinking about fuel type, what kind of vegetation is it burning in, about what we might be asked to do. You rely on your experience."
Experience is a key motivating factor for local agencies participating on national wildfire assignments. By assisting on large fires in other states our local fire districts and firefighters gain invaluable experience that could quickly be applied to wildfire outbreaks in Grand County. Logistics, communication and other essential elements of firefighting become more and more complicated as the scope of a wildfire expands with thousands of individual moving parts needing organization and some semblance of cohesion to have any hope of suppressing a massive conflagration.
A DAYS WORK
Each morning the four Grand County firefighters would rise from their sleeping bags around 5 a.m. After grabbing a quick breakfast, usually cold MREs, military rations whose acronym stands for "Meals Read to Eat", the four would participate in a morning briefing, grab supplies, stock up on water and head out to their assignment area where they would stay until about 7 p.m. After returning to camp and grabbing a quick bite to eat it was right to bed before the routine began again the next morning.
Their first few days on assignment were spent conducting road patrols, searching for spot fires and assisting with fire containment. After three days though the men were bumped from the main base camp in Dubois to a spike camp at the Teton Valley Ranch, a regional children's camp with about 50 structures including two main lodge buildings.
TETON VALLEY RANCH
Lt. Mertz said the Grand County crew was bumped to the spike camp in anticipation of the fire hitting the camp. "Our sole responsibility was to protect that camp," Mertz said.
"When we got there (Teton Valley Ranch), there were about 10 engines all together in two task forces," Mintier explained. "We were assigned on the north side of the camp."
The day after arriving the Lava Mountain Fire swept pass the north side of the Teton Valley Ranch. With a bulldozer constructed fire line in place and other hand-crews working the camp our local firefighters were assigned to watch over nearly two-dozen structures. Their third day at the spike camp saw the fire burn past the south side of the Teton Valley Ranch and all along the ridges that surrounded the camp.
After seven days at the spike camp the four Grand County firefighters were reassigned to the main basecamp in Dubois for a few more days before they were demobilized and sent home. Their second to last day on the fire saw hot action though as the four were sent back to the spike camp at Teton Valley Ranch to mop up a quarter-acre spot fire.
"We were just one engine in there with a whole bunch of people," Mintier said. "It was a team event and it is always an honor and a pleasure to be a part of it."
As the four men headed home their thoughts turned to the previous days. "For me it is kind of like, 'okay we are done, it is time to go rest and recoup and reload and get ready to go out again'. But there is a part of me, a little bit that says, 'I wish we could stay longer'." Said Mintier.
Lt. Mertz echoed his sentiments. "You are tired, that is for sure," Mertz said. "But you also want to stay and keep helping. That is why we're all here."