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When hurricanes make landfall or wildfires take off, and if earthquakes topple buildings or terrorists attack, it's emergency responders who are tasked with protecting the public.
In the event of large-scale emergencies, what unfolds is a multi-jurisdictional response drawing personnel from across the nation — including many from Colorado.
Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Harvey and the Thomas and Lilac fires, two of the massive wildfires that plagued California in December and January, were just some of the most recent natural disasters to which Denver metro agencies deployed crews.
It's a call to action they're happy to answer when the job is bigger than any one agency can handle, officials say, but there's also a benefit to the local departments that respond.
The first priority is offering aid in the form of manpower, equipment and other resources, agencies said. What they get in return is real-life experience and training they can use should a similar tragedy strike at home.
Rod Tyus, a captain for West Metro Fire Rescue, also heads up the FEMA-funded Colorado Urban Search and Rescue Task Force, one of 28 task forces across the country that respond to local, state and national events. West Metro Fire Rescue sponsors the program in Colorado, which has more than 200 members from 23 agencies in the state.
The task force had back-to-back deployments over the summer, first in Texas for Hurricane Harvey and then in Florida for Hurricane Irma.
“We had over 100 members, close to 100 members deployed this past summer to hurricanes,” Tyus said.
During Hurricane Irma, Eric Hurst of South Metro Fire Rescue deployed to an Air Force base in Georgia, although he was working as a communications unit leader for crews in Florida. His focus was making sure all the responders could communicate with one another.
“There are various types of radios, as far as the frequency range, that they can talk on,” he said. “Where I was, my team was coordinating law enforcement resources from across the country. We had different federal agencies that were coming together for the first time.”
Hurst can still recall his chilling two-day drive from Colorado to Georgia. As he traveled on a nearly empty southbound interstate toward the hurricane, the opposite lanes stood in a gridlock as locals attempted to evacuate. Pumps ran dry at gas stations, he said, and shelves were emptied of food.
“As a responder going into a disaster you are part of the disaster, essentially. You are not immune from not being able to get fuel,” he said, describing the trip as eerie. “We take a lot of things for granted in our daily lives. That the gas station is going to have gas and the grocery store is going to have food.”
Despite the challenges in deploying to emergency zones, Hurst said the trip was well worth the trouble because of the lessons he learned.
Battling California blazes
Lt. Patrick Richardson with Castle Rock Fire and Rescue said crews from their department spent three days working the Lilac Fire in San Diego before working 11 days on the notorious Thomas Fire.
The Thomas Fire was the largest wildfire in California history, burning in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. The U.S. Forest Service announced the blaze was 100 percent contained as of Jan. 12, more than a month after it began. What caused the Thomas Fire remains unknown, but before its end, it burned 281,893 acres, destroyed more than 1,063 structures and damaged 280 more.
The Lilac Fire started three days after the Thomas Fire in San Diego County. It burned 4,100 acres, destroyed 157 structures and damaged 64.
Richardson, with more than 20 years of experience in wildland fires, described the Thomas Fire as the “largest, most complicated and most expensive” fire in the state's history.
“We were protecting homes that were in excess of $15 million apiece,” he said.
The crews will have ample opportunity to use the skills they learned in the California fires along the Front Range, Richardson said, which he describes as notorious for its wind-driven fires.
“A lot of people will look at wildland fires here on the Front Range and say, 'Oh, it's just a grass or weed fire.' But if you ask a rancher what's out in that field, they see feed,” Richardson said. “We can save that landowner quite a bit of money and feed for his livestock.”
That task is easier when firefighters have learned to stay calm and focused on the job through deploying to events like the Thomas or Lilac fires, he said.
The Castle Rock team, like personnel from West Metro Fire and Rescue that also worked the Thomas and Lilac Fires, were assigned to what they call “mop up.” In essence, the job means cleaning up after the fire has passed through an area to make sure it doesn't reignite, or, working ahead of the fire to clear out fuel.
“The vast majority of firefighting is not hero work. It's dirty work. It's grunt work,” Richardson said.
Mike Johnston, an engineer with West Metro Fire Rescue, and Jonathan Ashford, a firefighter and paramedic with the agency, have both deployed to numerous natural disasters in the past, but each time, they learn something new.
“It's kind of mixed emotions,” Johnston said, “because we enjoy doing what we're doing and you're working hard and you're sweaty and you're dirty and you stink but you're all doing it together. You have a huge feeling of accomplishment when you persevere through all of that.”
Ashford said they learn something new each time they deploy, one more reason the trips are worthwhile.
Overall, Tyus said, the system is reciprocal. Colorado agencies respond to other states' emergencies knowing that the favor will be returned if there's ever a local catastrophe, such as the Colorado floods in 2013.
“We needed it in 2013, Texas needed it last year and Florida, and Puerto Rico needed it,” Tyus said. “It means a lot to be able to work with each other and be able to serve the nation and be able to help people in need.”
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