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Wildland Firefighter Uses Calm Larimer Season To Plan

by Jason Pohl--The Coloradoan |

A seemingly nonexistent wildfire season in Northern Colorado means anything but a quiet winter for Poudre Fire Authority Capt. Geoff Butler.

PFA in April realigned resources and carved out a 40-hour-per-week position dedicated to bolstering and managing the department's wildfire prevention and attack efforts. From crafting training regimes, maintaining inventory on the agency's backcountry apparatus or conducting home inspections in the far reaches of Larimer County, 2014 has already been busy, even without a towering smoke plume nearby.

While the most damaging fire he battled in 2014 was while on a deployment in Oregon, the wildland fire officer isn't sitting on his hands for winter. Rather, he's using the dedicated position — up for final budget approval in coming weeks — to seek out better ways of managing the agency's wildland team and address concerns from the rural backcountry west of Fort Collins to fire-prone natural areas near homes in city limits.

To have found a full-time position in wildland firefighting was the result of a little luck and a little determination, he said. Most wildland slots nationally are seasonal or part-time.

"We have an amazing cadre of people who, among their other qualifications, have wildland experience and aptitude. I was just one of the guys who stepped up and raised his hand when they needed somebody."

In a lot of ways, it was the perfect synthesis.

Poudre Fire Authority wildland firefighters watch flames on a back-burn operation — one of the many preventative aspects of wildland firefighting. (Photo: Jim Lynxwiler )
Butler spent most of his 20s as a backpacking guide across the West, exploring rural areas of Mexico to remote reaches of Alaska. Eventually ending up in Colorado and guiding in Estes Park, Butler tied in with area search and rescue teams and soon discovered his passion for wildland firefighting.

In the span of just three seasons, he went from a county firefighter to a hotshot crew and eventually a smokejumper in California.

In terms of the fun factor, jumping tops almost anything else, he said. But he realized the seasonal work, as thrilling as it was, wasn't a long-term plan, so he went back to school for his master's degree in fire science at Colorado State University.

He came on board with PFA in 1998. Just after settling in, Larimer County became a hotbed for fire activity.

The Bobcat Fire in 2000 charred more than 10,000 acres and destroyed 18 homes. The 2002 Hayman Fire to the south charred 137,000 acres and was followed in rapid succession by the Big Elk and Picnic Rock fires closer to home.

PFA plans in 2004 sought a full-time wildland fire coordinator, but the matter was put on the backburner for a decade — a decade that saw hundreds of homes charred across Colorado and Larimer County, along with a sputtering economy and budget freezes or cuts throughout agencies.

"While High Park probably brought it home for some folks, we were headed in this direction," Butler said. "As important as that was, I really think it's the growth, the increased call volume and the increased training demands that made it eventually untenable for someone to do as a collateral."

Cooler weather, sporadic rains and strong snowpack reduced the likelihood of roaring wildland blazes west of Fort Collins this year. Even still, PFA has responded to 60 wildland fires this year across its 235-square-mile jurisdiction — down from the five-year average of 79.

Just 13 wildland fires were reported during the peak summer months. That's about half of what is typical for PFA, normally 20 percent of fire calls each year.

Though devastating blazes make headlines, smaller grass fires that can run through flashy fuels in natural areas and threaten homes in an instant pose one of the biggest hazards to plan for in the "offseason."

Butler thinks of the year in three sections. Spring months are spent training hard and putting mechanisms in place. Those efforts are tested in summer, when it's all hands on deck. Fall and winter, though never immune to fires, give a chance to plan an attack for the next year and take stock on what worked previously.

One year of no major fires doesn't mean much for the region. It's a chance for emergency crews countywide to plan for the worst down the road.

"The threat has not burned it self away," he said. It's simply different in its profile."