When living in a valley surrounded by flammable landscape, where climate change is lengthening and intensifying fire season, having local firefighters with actual wildland firefighting experience can help deter disaster. But as with most things, wildland firefighting is a craft best learned by doing. Boulder County buttresses this skill by sending its employees to where fires are currently burning on a “hand crew” called Shadow Canyon.

“If we’re waiting for fires [in Boulder] to get people [wildland firefighting] experience and qualifications, we’re doing a disservice to the community,” said Brian Oliver, Boulder Fire-Rescue’s wildland division chief.

Though all City of Boulder firefighters are wildland certified — as are those on the City’s Open Space and Mountain Parks forest restoration crews — the wildland certification is bare bones and should be complemented by actual experience, according to Oliver.

“It’s a 40-hour course and a physical fitness test,” Oliver said of the certification. “It’s basically how to operate in a wildfire environment and not get yourself killed.”  

Seth McKinney, the fire management officer for the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office – the crew’s organizing agency – agreed with Oliver: There’s no replacement for real wildfire experience. 

“Going out on hand crews is where folks really learn how to be a wildland firefighter,” he said. “It’s where a lot of the work consistently occurs.”

Staffing a nationally available hand crew

Made up of 18-20 workers, hand crews are the ones trekking through the woods establishing fire lines, back burning (starting small fires ahead of the wildfire’s front to consume available fuel), and rehabilitating already burned areas. The most elite hand crews, Type 1, are also known as Interagency Hotshot Crews. Established in Southern California in the 1940s, Hotshots gained their name from their tendency to work in the hottest, most dangerous part of wildfires.

Type 1 crews are often full-time and spend fire season moving around the country to wherever flames beckon. Type 2 hand crews, however, are made up of those working other jobs who activate when called upon. Boulder County staffs a Type 2 IA crew — the “IA” of which stands for “Initial Attack” implying more skill and capability than a regular Type 2 crew. It also means the crew is available to national efforts.

“[Our crew] has been to Montana and California; it just got back from New Mexico a couple weeks ago,” McKinney said. “It goes all over the place.”

Called the Shadow Canyon Crew, Boulder’s Type 2 IA hand crew is staffed by those working for varying departments in the county. Boulder Fire-Rescue and Open Space and Mountain Parks add bodies to its roster, as do the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office and other county fire departments: Lefthand, Boulder Mountain and Four-mile. 

This inter-departmental collaboration not only helps fill slots on the hand crew, but also provides camaraderie that makes veterans of Shadow Canyon more effective on burns near town.

 “I’ve seen it pay off a few times now,” McKinney said, citing the NCAR fire as an example. “You’ll have several departments responding to a wildland fire and it’s the guys who spent time together out on the hand crew who link up, know what to do and get to work.”

The East Mesa Fire from the view of the Shadow Canyon crew. Credit: Dylan Perry

Lessons from New Mexico

Shadow Canyon most recently returned from New Mexico. Initially sent to help fight the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, the crew spent the first half of their deployment providing initial attack on the 85-acre East Mesa Fire outside of Las Vegas, after which they returned to the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, putting out spot fires and using heavy equipment to repair some of the burned areas.

“I learned more about building different kinds of [fire]line, especially in steep terrain,” said Dylan Perry, a third-year Shadow Canyon crew member and seasonal firefighter with the Boulder Sheriff’s Office. “Whether I was running a chainsaw or digging with a hand tool, I was learning tactics on how to improve the line.”

In addition to learning more about how fires react to different fuels and weather patterns, communication is another skill Perry said he honed in the field. Where crew members often interact over radio with firefighters they’ve never met, practice can dissuade self-doubt.

“Sometimes it can be a little nerve-wracking, especially talking to other units,” Perry said of communicating over the radio. “Building that confidence by getting constant practice helps a lot.”

According to Ben Cook, a forest restoration crew leader for Open Space and Mountain Parks and a Shadow Canyon crew member since its inception six years ago, every fire has lessons to impart.

“You learn something from every fire no matter its size and scope,” Cook said, “On [the East Mesa] fire, we ended up with bizarre fire behavior. It was moving in two directions simultaneously, so we had two heads to the fire. It was in a mixed group of vegetation that was interesting to see how it burned.”

Seeing and adapting to the variations of different fires, Cook said, is what makes leaders of the crew members when they return to Boulder. It’s what makes them “able to advise others who are fresh to the fire line.”

“You need to get that on the job experience,” Cook said. “You need to see fire behavior. You need to see leadership dynamics both grow and fail or grow and succeed. You need to get exposure to different fuel types, different weather, different terrain. And the only way to do that is to go into the field.”

Helping make ends meet

Cook added that the benefits of going out on a hand crew extend beyond experience. With many of those on the Shadow Canyon crew working seasonally, the “tons of overtime” gained fighting a national wildfire can help crew members make ends meet when work drops off. 

“When you make $30,000 a year, an extra $5,000 can float you through the winter,” Cook said.

And those on the city’s 10-member forest restoration crew — who spend much of their time completing fire-mitigating, forest-thinning projects — can be a valuable asset to Boulder’s firefighting arsenal.

“We want to leverage their skillset,” Oliver said of those on the restoration crew. “They’re great with chainsaws; they’re great with hand tools; they know how to work hard and walk around in the woods. Putting them on the [hand crew] roster to send them out is how we get them more experience and more qualifications so we can use them here.”

Since the federal government picks up the tab for national firefighting efforts, Oliver said such fires can be seen as free training. “It’s a cool way to help the national effort, grow our experience base, and keep people ready for when we have fires here.”

For those concerned that Boulder is sending away all its firefighting people and resources, leaving the city vulnerable to flames, Oliver provided reassurance that the city only supports national firefighting efforts when local conditions allow it. “We don’t do that when fire danger is high here,” he said.

Tim Drugan is the climate and environment reporter for Boulder Reporting Lab, covering wildfires, water and other related topics. He is also the lead writer of BRL Today, our morning newsletter. Email: tim@boulderreportinglab.org.

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