Firefighters hold a morning briefing about the Saddleridge Fire in the Los Angeles. Three Telluride firefighters are part of the team. (Courtesy photo)

Last season’s long winter and heavy snowpack has helped prevent severe wildfires in Colorado. In California, however, the prolonged drought and lack of sufficient recent precipitation has led to dangerous conditions for wildfires. 

Near Los Angeles, a wildfire started below a voltage tower and quickly spread. As of press time Tuesday afternoon, the Saddleridge Fire burned nearly 8,300 acres and was 45 percent contained, according to an update posted by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection on Facebook.

To help California firefighters battle the flames, the Telluride Fire Protection District (TFPD) recently sent three members to the Golden State. The three firefighters are part of Telluride’s seasonal task force, which was established in May 2018. The seasonal crew operates with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, as it is part of efforts to make battling wildfires more effective. 

By having designated Seasonal TFPD firefighters, the program allows TFPD to assist other districts battling severe wildfires without reducing resources and team members in Telluride. When wildfire risk increases in nearby states, such as in California, the TFPD is able to send members of the seasonal program to assist.

“Given our current conditions and relatively moderate risk in Colorado, we operate on a neighbor basis and go to those who need help,” Telluride Fire Chief John Bennett said.

The resources of the Telluride seasonal program are on a “national resource list” that districts can consult and use to request backup when needed. The resources that a fire district has available at a given time determine which fire district will send engines and firefighters.

This is the Telluride wildfire crew’s second tour in California. Towards the end of September, the Telluride team worked in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service for the season’s first tour in California, where they fought for 18 days in the San Bernadino Valley.

“California is in an extreme drought, so they’re calling in for resources from the rest of the country,” Bennett said.

Currently, Telluride task force members Mike McCoach, Logan Pipher and Jeff George are in California. Along with Telluride, there are four other Colorado fire districts fighting in California as part of the collaboration with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control — Berthoud, Rocky Mountain, West Metro, and Greater Eagle fire districts also sent members. 

Colorado fire districts sent aircraft, engines, and hotshot crews to California. There are two aircraft and five engines to fight current California fires. Several hotshot crews from Colorado also arrived in California last week.

The TFPD team in California is working to prevent and mitigate fires before they spread. 

“We call it initial attack,” Bennett explained. “When there is a fire, they have plenty of resources on it before it gets out of control.”

Aside from wildfires, the team is responding to car fires, grass fires and providing backup on “structure fires,” according to Bennett.

The current extreme fire danger is expected to reach its peak soon and last through November. Due to the high risk, California is receiving resources from other states — such as Colorado and Utah — for initial attack operations.

“California’s fire season is forecasted to last through December and they’re building up resources for the peak of the season,” wildfire coordinator John Cheroske said.

Earlier this season, the seasonal wildfire team fought two small fires in Colorado. With the long-lasting snowpack, Colorado managed to avoid the severe wildfires of the summer of 2018, such as the 416 Fire in the Durango area. As a result, the TFPD did not have to dispatch the seasonal crew frequently.

“Our team stayed pretty local most of the summer just because we had such a spectacular snow season,” Bennett said. 

Even the fire near Salida only required hand crews, not engines, Bennett added.

Collaborative task forces help prevent wildfires from spreading rapidly. Working between districts, firefighters respond quickly and more easily contain wildfires to a manageable size.

The TFPD seasonal team could be part of a bigger trend in changing the ways that districts combat wildfires, according to Cheroske.

“Having resources available has set up a model in Colorado,” he said.

Since the establishment of the wildfire task force, Cheroske has noticed better collaboration between fire districts.

“It’s gone great. The communication between members of the task force has been excellent,” he said.