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Josh Graham (NIFC-05) Receives Regional Award

by Chad Abraham-Aspen Daily News |

On a scorching July day in West Texas in 2011, a firefighter collapsed and later died from hyperthermia, a heat-related illness.

Emergency responders could not get to the man for four hours, an amount of time that Josh Graham, assistant fire management officer for the White River National Forest, recently called “unacceptable.”

In 2008, a firefighter working at a fire in Northern California was struck by a falling tree and bled to death before he was transported to an airport three hours and 20 minutes after the accident, according to

Closer to home, the valley this summer will mark the 20-year anniversary of the Storm King Mountain tragedy, in which 14 wildland firefighters were killed after fire overwhelmed them.

With those incidents in mind, Graham has developed medical training and landed new equipment to better the chances of a firefighter surviving in the Western Slope’s wilderness.

For his efforts, Graham was recognized earlier this month in Denver, where he received the Regional Forester’s 2013 Safety Award.

“We’re sending guys into the forest,” he said of the firefighters under his command, including ground forces and smoke jumpers based in the summer out of Grand Junction. “Do we have the best equipment, if they do get injured, to take care of patients?”

Josh Graham, assistant fire management officer for the White River National Forest, pictured before a smoke jump, received an award earlier this month for improving the safety conditions for backcountry firefighters.

In 2011, when he arrived at the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit, an agency responsible for the White River and other forests, Graham said the unit’s trucks and helicopter weren’t ill-equipped.

“They just needed extra love,” said Graham, a Rifle-based veteran of 60 operational firefighting jumps out of planes.

After highlighting the need for more training and equipment, his superiors said, “OK, you’re it,” Graham said.

He secured funding for the equipment and to provide training, and Graham also started a medical committee that meets annually to discuss new techniques and technology, he said.

Now, the unit’s trucks and its helicopter are equipped with a backboard and an automated external defibrillator. And firefighters are tackling training scenarios to know what to expect if a member of their crew, say, breaks a leg in the backcountry.

“We go to a project site and say, ‘This guy’s injured. What are you going to do?’” Graham said.

The “injured” party is then transported out via the backboard as the crew talks with dispatchers, just as would happen in a real incident.

Fighting fires is inherently dangerous and becomes even more so when a smoke jumper plunges into a remote area to battle the blaze.

As such, the training and equipment Graham helped secure will likely be needed at some point.

Because the smoke jumping field “unfortunately has a lot of accidents in the backcountry,” he said.