State Natural Resources Director Dan Gibbs recently ditched the bureaucracy for the forest, and his business attire for a firefighter’s Nomex suit.
Gibbs, a certified wildland firefighter, spent last weekend with a crew protecting homes on the northeast side of the Grizzly Creek fire near Glenwood Springs. He’s held his certification for 13 years and is subject to call-up by both state and local governments, sometimes going out more than once in a season.
That’s more difficult now that he’s in the governor’s cabinet, he said but “this is really important for me to be on the ground to really understand the complexities that wildfire is bringing to our natural resources, how it impacts our watersheds, how it impacts our communities our wildlife, and just big picture overall.”
Grizzly Creek also gave him a first-hand look at firefighting in the age of COVID-19. Normally, he would have been stationed at a big central fire camp with a mess tent. This time, he camped in the woods with a small group of firefighters.
“Even though there are over 600 people working on this fire, my pod had maybe 35 people,” he said.
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Meals were dropped off by a truck, each in individual containers.
“They brought in kind of a hand-washing station that was very helpful but no showers or anything like that. And the morning briefings that would normally occur in person, that was all done by radio communications,” Gibbs said. “So you turned your radio on at 6 a.m.to hear the morning briefing, you got the direction you needed from that communication, and they really worked to minimize contact with people.”
A blaze as big as Grizzly Creek normally draws hundreds of firefighters from around the country. Because the pandemic limits travel, this fire is getting more air support from helicopters and tankers, a plus given where it’s burning.
“It’s very, very steep terrain,” Gibbs said. “Fires also create instability in the soils and the slopes so you have trees that have down, you have rocks that are continuing to come down that create a really unsafe environment.”
Looking ahead, the aftermath of the fire could raise silt levels in water as far away as Denver and cause floods, erosion and the prospect of more avalanches in winter, he said.