Fighting wildfire

RC Fire Chief Bob Carlson joins in the fight against wildfire in central and southern Colorado—

Much attention has been directed to the wildfires out West this summer, particularly the fire that killed 19 Granite City Hotshot firefighters in Arizona recently.

Fighting wildfire, or any fire for that matter, is perhaps incomprehensible to those who haven’t witnessed or experienced it. But one local man knows firsthand the challenges and rewards that come with this dangerous business.

Bob Carlson

Bob Carlson

Rush City Fire Chief Bob Carlson and a crew of fellow Minnesota firefighters recently returned from a 19-day deployment in keeping people, homes and parts of the Colorado landscape safe from wildfires.

Carlson, in his role with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, was called to action as a qualified tree faller and emergency medical technician June 12 by the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center. Based in Grand Rapids, Minn., the center serves as a hub for mobilizing wildfire and emergency resources that offers a wide array of services.

The fire center also houses the Minnesota Incident Command System, an interagency group with state and federal partners that cooperate in managing wildfire and all-risk incidents. Carlson served on one of two 20-person crews of firefighters that the command system deployed to the Black Forest fire just north of Colorado Springs. Those from the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Park Service joined the crew, as well.

Shortly after assembling in Grand Rapids, Carlson and crew started their drive west June 13 — two days after the fire began. They brought their vehicles, tools, expertise and diverse set of skills. As a Class B faller, Carlson is qualified to handle and cut down certain sizes of trees with a chain saw and other tools.

The group arrived at its destination — a highly populated area with homes tucked away in the pines in central Colorado — a day later and got to work with their incident action plans in hand. Temperatures were around 90 degrees.

“We mainly mopped up hot spots and took down weakened and damaged trees,” Carlson said, noting they went as far as 300 feet into the edge of the fire. “There were a lot of beautiful homes.”

At the beginning, the Black Forest fire covered about 8,500 acres, destroyed more than 100 homes and led to the evacuation of thousands of people. As of last week, days since the fire was contained, media reports said the blaze claimed over 500 homes and burned around 15,000 acres of land in Black Forest — more than any other fire in Colorado history.

The cause of the blaze is still under investigation.

Despite the damage, Carlson was amazed by the reception he and the crews received from the residents who endured the fire. He said the people put on a parade and couldn’t say “thank you” enough. It was also Father’s Day, which made it extra special for everyone involved.

“They were very appreciative,” he added. “One woman made us banana bread, and little kids hugged us saying, ‘thank you for saving our house.’”

Then it was off to the East Peak fire, about 200 miles south of Black Forest, near La Veta in southern Colorado. This second fire, started by a lightning strike June 19, charred more than 13,000 acres of mainly heavy timber in steep terrain and very dry and windy conditions.

As they did in the first blaze, Carlson and crew kept busy cutting trees to keep the fire from expanding while putting out spot fires along the way. Meanwhile, “we had aircraft watching our back,” he said of the several different helicopters and airplanes that responded.

Carlson, 50, who grew up in Rush City, has been fighting fires since joining his hometown fire department in 1981. He began working for the DNR in 1988, and it’s been an annual job to respond to disasters — from fires to flooding and tornado relief efforts — across the nation through the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center. He’s been to the West before, along with northern Minnesota, on various fire calls, and he assisted with Hurricane Sandy relief work in New Jersey.

“It’s definitely a challenge, and it can be hard on families,” he said of the workload during the warm and dry season.

Carlson said DNR personnel make themselves available for calls by putting their names on a list. When called, the Minnesota Incident Command System wildland fire agencies can view each individual’s qualifications — from sawyers (handling, cutting trees of various sizes) to chain saw operators — in selecting the best crew for the incident at hand. A crew typically consists of 20 people with different skills and is broken down into three squads of six, a crew boss and an assistant. The days can be grueling, sometimes requiring 15-16 hours at a time, he said.

Through his position with the DNR, Carlson has to be “ready to go” when the phone rings.

“When we receive that first call,” he said, “it’s kind of nerve-racking because we don’t know where the fire is.”

Eventually, crew members do receive the needed intelligence. Out-of-state duties typically last 14 days; in state, about seven days, he noted.

Back home, when he’s not in training or called to an emergency, Carlson enjoys spending time with his wife, Karen, and their daughters Amy, 23, and Kristy, 19.

Note: MNICS fire agencies recently said they are deeply saddened by the loss of the 19 Granite City Hotshot firefighters in Arizona. “We send our heartfelt condolences to the families, friends and coworkers of these fallen heroes.”

— PHOTOS SUBMITTED BY BOB CARLSON

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