International firefighters head to US to help battle wildfires

By week's end, 145 fire personnel from New Zealand and Australia will arrive to help fight fires across more than 1 million acres

By Liz Forster
The Gazette

BOISE, Idaho — By week's end, 145 fire personnel from New Zealand and Australia will arrive to help fight fires across more than 1 million acres of the West.

The international call for resources comes as the National Interagency Fire Center moved to the most critical rating of resource demand, Preparedness Level 5, on Friday. The rating is based on fuel and weather conditions, fire activity and resource availability. At Level 5, national resources are fully committed, and the potential is high for significant wildland fires to emerge across multiple regions.

New Zealand firefighters board a plane to head to the Western U.S. to help with wildfire aid.
New Zealand firefighters board a plane to head to the Western U.S. to help with wildfire aid. (Photo/NIFC)

"We're having pretty severe burning conditions everywhere in the West," said Ralph Eardley, a spokesman with NIFC, which coordinates large fire management nationwide from Boise, Idaho. "We have to make decisions and think critically on what resources we send where so we can respond to everything we need to."

As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 27,000 fire personnel were stationed at active fires.

The Carr fire in northern California has killed six people, including two firefighters, and torched more than 1,000 homes in and around Redding, The Associated Press reported. The Ferguson fire has enshrouded Yosemite National Park in smoke, and the Mendocino Complex fire is burning about 150 miles south of the Carr fire.

But despite California's death toll and widespread destruction, NIFC's priority is the 22 large, uncontained fires in Washington and Oregon and the 10 in the Great Basin, mostly in Nevada. The latter areas are at Preparedness Level 5. California is at a 4.

"California is a priority, of course, because it's impacted a tremendous number of homes and lives," Eardley said. "But when you look at the larger picture of geographic area, the Northwest and the Great Basin areas are experiencing more large fires that require more resources."

Requesting international help is not uncommon. Eardley said the U.S. swaps firefighting personnel with Canada most years, and Australia is a close partner.

"Historically, we have a close relationship with Australia because, one, we have opposite seasons," Eardley said. "Also, their entire fire organization is set up very similar to ours. We can take an individual, an overhead person or a crew from those guys, and they're largely interchangeable."

Resource coordinators also tap other non-traditional partners, such as the military, said Brian Achziger, fire manager officer for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Colorado.

"The military has identified units that partner with us for wildland firefighting, though it does take them about a week to get them trained," he said. "It's not something you see every year, though we did have military resources on a couple of fires, including the Spring Creek fire (around La Veta)."

Colorado's summer of wildfires slowed in the second half of July. But multiple wildfires that ignited over the weekend raised concerns about resource availability, prompting officials at the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center to move from Preparedness Level 2 to 3 on Sunday night.

"We saw an uptick in large fire activity and need for resources across our geographic area, which is why we decided to move to a PL 3," Achziger said. "Once we're at a 3, it's getting harder to get resources within our geographic area, and we have to order more resources from outside the Rocky Mountains."

Of chief concern is the Red Canyon fire burning 45 miles southwest of Meeker in drought-stressed timber and brush near petroleum well pads and a Federal Aviation Administration communications tower. NIFC reported "extreme fire behavior" that is inhibiting suppression and the potential for the fire to expand in unpredictable directions.

The blaze is zero percent contained.

Fire officials also have a close eye on the 6,310-acre Indian Valley fire northwest of Meeker, the 650-acre Cabin Lake fire south of Buford and the 995-acre Cache Creek fire southwest of Rifle. They are 80, 10 and 5 percent contained, respectively.

In Wyoming, the blaze of most concern is the Laney Rim fire burning 30 miles southeast of Rock Springs. The 8,000-acre fire ignited Saturday and is growing quickly, NIFC reported. Flames are threatening homes, oil and gas infrastructure and sage-grouse habitat.

In all, 1,208 firefighters are battling nine full-suppression fires in the Rocky Mountain area.

Some relief came Tuesday when the 416 fire was declared 100 percent contained after burning for 61 days north of Durango. Scattering hot spots continue to smolder, but San Juan National Forest officials told The Durango Herald they're confident the fire won't move beyond containment lines.

The fight against the Lake Christine fire near Basalt also is winding down. Command of the 12,588-acre, 90 percent contained fire was transferred from a Type 2 to Type 3 command team Tuesday.

Weather forecasts show potential for rain Friday, which could help quell fire activity.

"But the hard thing is that it's a weather forecast, and we know that those predictions aren't always what happen in the West," Achziger said. "So the question is whether we will see relief or we will continue to be dry and warm."

The window of favorable fire conditions in southern Colorado has allowed two firefighters from El Paso County to deploy to California and Oregon, said Jim Schanel, deputy fire warden and fire management officer for wildland fire at the county's Office of Emergency Management.

"From our standpoint, we have rain here and our fire activity is below normal," Schanel said. "We have enough people here to do our own response in case of a fire, but we have been able to send people out of the region to more impacted areas."

Copyright 2018 The Gazette

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