FORT CARSON, Colo. -- A spark, a bolt of lightning or a stray match -- and a wildland fire begins. If the fire stays small, a few firefighters and an engine truck can put it out, but if it grows, the call goes out for the next level of wildland firefighters, and that's where the wildland fire team comes in.

Fort Carson Fire Capt. Peter Wolf is an incident commander type 3, who supervises teams of people and may never see the actual fire.

"A lot of what we do here on the (post) are type 4 and type 5 (the lowest level) incidents, a couple of engines, a few acres, a day, maybe two days," he said. Many of them are handled by range control.

As a fire grows in size and complexity, firefighting responsibility passes to higher levels. A type 1 incident management team with a type 1 incident commander is the highest level, and one type 1 team and two type 2 teams cover a four-state area. It can take 24-36 hours for them to arrive at an incident.

The Black Forest Fire started as a type 4 incident, the second lowest complexity of wildland fire, but it quickly grew into a type 3 fire, and El Paso County took responsibility for fighting it. Scott Campbell, El Paso County assistant fire marshal, was named incident commander, and Wolf was called in as operations chief under a mutual aid agreement between Fort Carson and El Paso County.

"That lasted for about a day and a half," Wolf said. "We're still fighting the fire, we're doing what we need to do. We know we're in over our heads because we know we're not going to catch it."

They ordered a type 1 team, the highest level. At the same time, the Cañon City fire was growing, and a request went out for a type 2 team.

"Both of us were fighting for resources. Both of us were looking for teams," Wolf said.

The Fort Carson and El Paso County groups have been working and training closely together since 1993, Campbell said.

"More times than not, if we're going out on fires, Fort Carson is going with us, or we're going with Fort Carson," he said. "We'll go anywhere Fort Carson goes."

El Paso County has responded as far as Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site to assist Fort Carson wildland firefighters.

At each level, from type 5 to type 1, firefighting training requirements become more complex.

"At the basic level … they take you out to the field. You go dig line (to create a firebreak). You do all your safety stuff," Wolf said.

At higher levels, the tasks are broken down into job performance requirements. Trainees are evaluated by mentors as they train in each task. A minimum of three to five evaluations are usually required before the mentor will sign off.

"When we have big fires, we're very focused on who's training in what because we have to develop the next generation," Wolf said.

A type 1 fire with more than 500 firefighters requires about 45 people in the incident management team -- an incident commander and operations, logistics, finance and plans section chiefs and all their staff. Section chiefs have their own training requirements, and may have never worked as firefighters, but they are experts in their areas.

Details like food, portable toilets or time cards don't sidetrack incident commanders because section chiefs are responsible for them, Wolf said.

Large wildland fires present concerns absent in structure fires.

With a structure fire, there are about 15 firefighters and three or four trucks, Wolf said. They either put out the fire, or it goes out on its own.

"It's a whole different thing when a fire burns for 14 days," he said. "A lot more political intrigue, a lot more national attention … It's a whole different arena, and you can't just bullhead your way through it."

As a type 3 incident commander, Wolf occasionally needs to consult with subject matter experts -- forestry specialists, wildlife biologists and archaeologists. If a fire is burning at PCMS, for example, a bulldozer used to fight the fire might disturb a cultural site.

Every firefighter on Fort Carson is certified in both structure and wildland firefighting, a requirement that many departments in Colorado are moving toward. The state of California, a model for wildland firefighting, runs a dual system and resources are organized for a quick emergency response.

"It's a very aggressive system, but you think about California for the last 30, 40 years. They've been burning up the state of California every year. Well, that's come to Colorado now," Wolf said. "We have to start to get our people more out there."

But not every fire on post requires firefighters. Many fires that start in impact areas are monitored and managed with an emphasis on safety, if they aren't threatening any boundaries and don't have the potential to escape. The fire department also creates firebreaks with controlled burns.

"We don't want to do an environmental disservice by just burning indiscriminately, but it's what we do to try and control some of these fires," he said. "Then when we have big fires, we know where there's spots that we can hold … we've already removed the fuel."

Not everyone is cut out to serve on a wildland fire team.

"They have to be able to sleep on the ground … We don't go hang out in hotel rooms," Wolf said. "You're running a 16-hour day. You're going to get a few hours of sleep, eat a (meal, ready to eat) or go grab something in the food tent, then go back at it."

Page last updated Thu August 8th, 2013 at 11:39