Fort Carson engineers, firefighters help contain Waldo Canyon blaze

By Capt. Darin Overstreet, Joint Task Force Centennial Public AffairsJuly 3, 2012

Building Firebreaks
1 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Sgt. 1st Class Justin Payne, horizontal construction engineer, 576th Engineer Company, 4th Engineer Battalion, uses a Caterpillar D7F bulldozer to clear a firebreak during efforts to contain the Waldo Canyon Fire at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colo... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Bulldozers Clearing Firebreak Around U.S. Air Force Academy
2 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Fort Carson Soldiers, assigned to 52nd and 4th Engineer Battalions, assist efforts to contain the Waldo Canyon Fire at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. The engineers used bulldozers and support vehicles to create strips of cleare... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Soldiers Clearing Firebreak
3 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Staff Sgt. Erick Lappi (front), and Sgt. 1st Class Justin Payne, both horizontal construction engineers, assigned to 576th Engineer Company, 4th Engineer Battalion, build a firebreak during efforts to contain the Waldo Canyon Fire at the U.S. Air For... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT CARSON, Colo. (July 2, 2012) -- With the sun slipping behind the mountains, more than 100 Army engineers from the 4th and 52nd Engineer Battalions worked tirelessly to set up a base of operations and begin making firebreaks before dark.

By 4:30 a.m. Sunday, Soldiers from the 43rd Sustainment Brigade and Fort Carson firefighters were busy readying bulldozers and road graders to start the mission by dawn's break to slow down the Waldo Canyon fire and keep it from spreading through the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

Working under the direction of the academy's fire department, Fort Carson engineers used tracked bulldozers to build firebreaks, stripping vegetation from the land to eliminate the fire's fuel and halt its progress.

The U.S. Air Force Academy, or USAFA, firefighters received the Fort Carson team, June 27, and immediately put them to work building defenses against the fire.

"We work well together. We support them, and they support us," said Lt. Col. Danielle Ngo, commander, 52nd Engineer Battalion, referring to the academy's firefighters. "The Soldiers are so enthusiastic to help in a real-world mission, and be part of a team that hopefully will save lives and homes."

Integrated with the USAFA Fire Department and working in conjunction with the Army engineers, Fort Carson firefighters extinguished spot fires caused by embers drifting from the main body of the wild fire onto the academy grounds, and patrolled areas susceptible to fire outbreaks.

"The Air Force Academy Fire Department has been on Fort Carson many times helping us, so has the Colorado Springs Fire Department as well as the fire department from El Paso County," said T.J. McCloud, leader of the Fort Carson firefighter task force. "We have an excellent rapport with the departments around us for that reason. All of us need help at certain times. Those people have come and helped us, so this is how we return the favor.

"We all work together, train together; then, when the big fires happen, we know each other. We know our limitations and our capabilities," he said.

Ken Helgerson, deputy fire chief, USAFA Fire Department, said both Fort Carson military and civilian personnel proved to be important assets in the fire-containment effort.

"They have been of huge value to us," Helgerson said. "Fort Carson has been priceless in defending the Air Force Academy from this wildfire."

Within the first 72 hours of the mission, the engineers cleared more than 12 miles of vegetation to prevent the wildfire from spreading throughout academy grounds.

"With one dozer we can churn up roughly a couple hundred meters an hour," said Staff Sgt. Erick Lappi, horizontal construction engineer, 576th Engineer Company, 4th Eng. Bn. "These firebreaks are definitely going to make a difference if the fire keeps coming this way."

Lappi said after multiple deployments overseas, he found satisfaction in serving his nation by protecting its citizens on the home front.

"Doing a mission like this on American soil, for one of our fellow services, has a lot of meaning to us," Lappi said. "We want to do this right and protect all of our brothers out here."

The firefighter's continued success stems from solid leadership and cohesion between all of the units and agencies working together to counter the threat, said Capt. Donald Schmidt, operations officer, 4th Eng. Bn.

"Everybody is working together, taking guidance from the Air Force Academy firefighters and response officials," said Schmidt. "We are pulling support from our own resources, self-sustaining our operations and life support requirements."

Soot and dust clogging the vehicles' air filters was the most common problem with the dozers, said Spc. Melody Kirsch, a wheeled vehicle mechanic with the 4th Eng. Bn. Clogged air filters may cause an engines to overheat, so before turning in for the night, the engineers and their maintenance team cleaned or replaced the filters, and inspected the vehicles thoroughly for damage.

Working toward a goal with visible results and clear margin of success boosted the engineers' morale and confidence in their technical proficiencies, said Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald Patterson of the 52nd Eng. Bn.

"This has all been positive. The Soldiers really like getting out here on their equipment, doing something for the community," said Patterson. "In a situation like this, at the end of the day, these Soldiers get to see a finished product and that finished product helps their neighbors."

While Fort Carson and Air Force Academy teams were working to make the firebreaks around the grounds, a UH-60 Black Hawk with the Colorado National Guard, Task Force Aviation dropped 20 Bambi Buckets of water onto the fire bringing the total to 106 buckets and 48,760 gallons.

Additionally, Soldiers and Airmen from Task Force Security from the Colorado Air and Army National Guard established 13 traffic control points and five security check points around the fire.

The Forest Service mobilized eight Defense Department C-130s equipped with the Modular Airborne Fire-Fighting Systems. To date, these aircraft have conducted 83 sorties and dropped 190,000 gallons of fire retardant in 73 air drops in the Waldo Canyon area.

The Forest Service also trained Soldiers at Fort Carson to potentially serve as ground firefighters. The training involved one day of classroom and up to two days of field training where the Soldiers learned about wildfire suppression including fire behavior and fire-line safety.

During field exercises, Soldiers received instruction in fire suppression methods and procedures. This effort will ensure there are additional resources available should the U.S. Forest Service require them, officials said.

Since the beginning of the fire, Fort Carson units and services have committed more than 120 Soldiers, 10 bulldozers and other equipment and resources to provide assistance to ongoing fire-containment operations and inter-agency support to the Greater Colorado Springs community.

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