Tour of fire camp

Decker Fire public information officer Rick Barton gives a tour of the fire camp Thursday at Chaffee County Fairgrounds. The sign on the door of the yurt reads “ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE WASH YOUR HANDS!”

The Decker Fire is the No. 1 priority wildfire in the U.S. right now, public information officer Rick Barton said Thursday. He estimated the fire has cost about $18 million to fight.

The fire camp is the nerve center of the operation, he said. A Level 1 incident management team is the most complex and therefore requires the most amenities in its camp.

The Decker Fire is a Type 1 incident primarily because of its threat to subdivisions, Barton said.

Incident commanders make calls on which type of team to bring in, he said. For example, a Type 3 incident commander might decide a fire is outside that team’s capabilities and request a Type 1 team.

The agencies that control the land the fire is burning on have a say, Barton said, as well as local officials such as a county sheriff.

The Decker Fire’s camp is at Chaffee County Fairgrounds. Barton said they try to find quiet places out of the public’s way, because they don’t want to take away from the community’s ability to respond to local needs.

Usually each crew member will be on site for up to 14 days, which can be extended if the crew member takes a day off. Everyone on the incident has a “red card” that shows what they’re qualified to do, Barton said.

When new crew members arrive at the fire, they check in at a yurt with the orders they’ve received. They are entered into a system that puts them into the Incident Action Plan. In the same yurt is a station that processes people leaving the incident, either to go home or to another incident. That station is where travel is coordinated as well.

Barton said safety is very important when leaving an incident like the Decker Fire, because you can get tired and sleepy when the adrenaline wears off. He said they have rules for leaving incidents such as no driving after 10 p.m. and no driving after working 16 hours.

The camp has its own finance department. Brian McCabe of Lakewood is the procurement unit leader.

McCabe said in the finance department workers track time spent by people and equipment on the fire. This is partially for safety reasons, McCabe said, to track work/rest ratios and to document lunch and dinner breaks.

They also work with contracts that have been set up prior to the incident to get resources in place, McCabe said.

The camp also has an incident business administrator and a human resources department.

Caterers supply the food for the camps, Barton said, because firefighters have special dietary needs and must eat 6,000 calories per day when fighting a fire. In a fire camp, there are no exceptions to hand-washing rules. He said they can’t have people from the community bringing food in for the firefighters.

They try to buy local gasoline, Barton said, and have fuel tenders set up. Water tenders patrol the camp to keep the dust down.

Overhead crews and firefighters have different sleeping areas in the camp.

The camp is maintained by a camp crew. Crew member Chase Baugh said the crew’s job is to make life easier for everyone and to set up and tear down the camp.

Crew member Brady Scott said they make sure everything is clean and comfortable and try to keep morale up.

A camp like this takes a lot of supplies, much of which is stored in warehouses near Denver until it is needed.

The supplies department issues everything from pumps and other firefighting equipment to uniforms and batteries and ballpoint pens.

Everything that is checked out must be checked back in, supplies officer JoAnne Barrett said.

The radio communications hub is in a trailer near the rodeo arena. Communications manager Jay Berkhalter said being in a rural area can be a hindrance to communications. All the radio communication related to the fire goes through the radio hub, which contains the dispatch for the fire. The hub is active 24 hours a day, Berkhalter said, because personnel are monitoring the fire 24 hours a day.

There is one radio network for within the camp and another for outside the camp.

When firefighters go into the field, there must be someone available to communicate with them, Barton said.

Three radio repeaters are arrayed around the fire, communications tech Chad Campagnola said. There’s one on Big Baldy Mountain, one near Howard and one on Methodist Mountain.

Campagnola said they try to cover as much of the fire as possible, but it’s hard because the fire is always moving.

“It’s on us to make sure the system works,” he said.

Incident commander Justin Esperance said he is in charge of making sure the agencies that manage the land the fire is burning on have their goals met.

The agencies set objectives, Esperance said, and he makes sure those objectives are followed.

Esperance, whose day job is fire chief for the state of South Dakota, has the finance, logistics, operations, plans, safety and information departments under his aegis.

The safety staff is considered part of the command staff. They have oversight over everything related to safety, including helping make sure everyone directly interacting with the fire has lookouts, communications, escape routes and safety zones.

Safety is housed within the camp with the air operations and operations staffs (the operations department is the one that actually fights the fire on the ground).

The communications department communicates with the press and public to disseminate information in as many ways as possible.

Communications manager Mike De Fries said people want to know what’s going on with the fire and why they’re seeing smoke. They also do a fair amount of dispelling rumors, he said.

Finally, the medical department works on everything from blisters to exhaustion and dehydration to medical emergencies near the fire, including extracting firefighters from the fire area.

Altitude has been a factor at this fire, since some crews are working up to 11,000 feet above sea level, medical unit leader trainee Dan Wenger said.

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