Change in command

Federal team takes over the Weber Fire battle

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A Skycrane firefighting helicopter banks hard as it delivers it’s load of water along the west ridgeline of Elks Springs Ranch subdivision south of U.S. 160 Saturday afternoon in the continuing fire fighting efforts to contain the Weber fire that started Friday south of Mancos. Enlargephoto

Shaun Stanley/Durango Herald

A Skycrane firefighting helicopter banks hard as it delivers it’s load of water along the west ridgeline of Elks Springs Ranch subdivision south of U.S. 160 Saturday afternoon in the continuing fire fighting efforts to contain the Weber fire that started Friday south of Mancos.

MANCOS — As the Weber Fire continued to grow Sunday and into Monday, a Type II federal firefighting crew assumed control of operations, taking over for the San Juan Type III team, which has been on the ground since late Friday afternoon.

Rocky Mountain Type II Incident Management Team C arrived in the Mancos area Sunday afternoon and took over the battle against the Weber blaze ar 6 p.m. that night, relieving local crews, many of who had been fighting the fire for 48 straight hours.

Connie Clementson, Bureau of Land Management agency administrator for the Weber Fire, made the decision to call in the Type II team from their base in South Dakota when it became clear the fire exceeded the resources of local management teams and would require more time than local teams normally commit to wildland fires.

“The Type III teams are the interagency first response teams,” Clementson said at incident command located at the Montezuma County Fairgrounds on Monday morning. “They are the ones who respond first to smoke calls and try to get on fires right away. We needed to be able to pull those people off this fire and allow them to get rest and then be able to utilize them if other fires break out in other locations.”

Beth Hermanson, public information officer for Team C, said the Type II team doesn’t necessarily provide more experience than local response teams, but they do provide an additional level of training and strategic planning capabilities for dealing with large fires, such as the local blaze.

“Type III is your basic level of firefighting,” Hermanson said. “Those teams are often made up of volunteers and local agencies. With Type II teams, we have been all over the U.S. managing fires. This is our job.”

Team C began operations on the Weber Fire by shadowing Type III members, learning the geography of the region and the behavior of the fire, Hermanson said. The new crews were given information on what work had been done on the fire already and what strategy the Type III team had implemented in the region.

Officials with the federal team were very impressed with the work done by the local teams on the blaze, which has charred an estimated 8,300 acres.

“I’ve been fighting fires around this country and on international assignments for 37 years and the best firefighting I’ve ever seen is what the locals did here the past two days,” Deputy Incident Commander Jay Esperance told a crowd of roughly 300 people at a community briefing at Mancos High School Monday morning. “They deserve a lot of credit for what they have done to protect you and your property.”

Craig Beckner, operations section chief for Team C, said the crews on the ground are going to continue to work the fire in much the same way as Team III, with priorities on structure protections and firefighter safety.

“Team III was great and did a lot of good work and we have really just tied in to that and kept moving on,” he said.

On Monday, crews were focused on point protection and structure protection and adding to fire lines begun by Type III teams.

Heavy equipment has been brought in to dig lines between the fires and local homes and ground crews are working with hand tools to expand on existing lines or dig new trenches.

“We’ve got hand crews with shovels working to dig lines and expand scratch lines,” Hermanson said. “They are digging to mineral soil and creating lines 8 to 10 inches wide, which will stop four to five foot flame lengths, as long as the flames aren’t laying down. We are utilizing dozers and air resources and everything we have to fight this fire.”

Monday evening, there was still 10 percent containment of the blaze, which began Friday afternoon in Weber Canyon, three miles south of Mancos.

In terms of resources, crews and equipment on the ground were not enough to fight the scope of the fire, Esperance and Hermanson said Monday.

“We don’t have enough resources,” Hermanson said. “We’ve pushed for them and we’ve ordered a lot of resources, but right now we don’t have them.”

According to the Incident Information System, there are currently eight active wildfires in Colorado, all of which are demanding resources to battle flames.

“We are really short on resources right now,” Esperance said. “There are so many fires burning in the state there just aren’t enough resources to go around.”

However, due to the size and location of the Weber Fire, the local blaze has been ranked as the third-highest wildfire priority in the nation, behind the High Park Fire in northern Colorado and the Waldo Canyon Fire, in Manitou Springs. The prioritization of the fire means resources will soon start flooding the area, according to Esperance and Hermanson.

“Being that high we will be getting resources shortly,” Esperance said. “You can except incident command at the (Montezuma County) fairgrounds to begin to resemble a small city. We are just going to work to hold our own until we get those resources.”

Hermanson said additional fire engines and air tankers are on their way to the Weber Fire, and Beckner said locals can expect to see an influx of fire personnel.

As of Monday, there were 240 people on scene fighting the Weber blaze.

“We are throwing everything we have at this fire and we will be here until it is contained and we can safely turn it back over to the Type III team,” Hermanson said.

This Type II team will only be on the scene for a total of 14 days. If after that time, the fire is not ready to be turned back over to local fire crews, a second Type II team will be called in.

Officials cautioned that looks can be deceiving and though weather conditions have cooperated somewhat in the past few days with calmer winds, the fire is still very active and there is no estimation as to when the battle against the Weber Fire will be finished.

“This is still a serious fire,” Beckner said. “There is plenty of fuel left to burn.”

An information hotline has been established at incident command. For information, call 605-381-7232. Information is also available at inciweb.org.

Reach Kimberly Benedict at kimberlyb@cortezjournal.com.