PROVIDENCE – A forest ranger with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) recently returned from a wildfire assignment outside Grand Junction, Colorado, where he headed up a 20-person Connecticut Interstate Fire Crew that was deployed to fight two fires in the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area.
During his 14-day assignment that began on July 27 – the same day that top federal and state fire managers raised the National Fire Preparedness Level to 5, its highest level – Ben Arnold, a principal forest ranger at George Washington Management Area in Chepachet, served as a "crew boss" of an "initial attack" crew that represented "the first resources deployed on fires that had just started and been detected," Arnold said. Arnold's was one of more than 500 crews constituting more than 20,000 firefighters battling dozens of wildfires throughout the western United States. Arnold, 35, was responsible for his crew's welfare along with making strategic and tactical firefighting decisions, engaging fires, managing the workforce both on and off the fire line, and handling financial and time-keeping duties.
"This crew had a lot of rookie firefighters who had never been on an assignment before," said Arnold. "They had great training, but never the experience of an actual wildfire incident. Both fires we were assigned to were great training opportunities. I am extremely proud of the people I worked with and would not hesitate to fill the role of crew boss again."
Arnold and his crew members first went to the Grand Junction District of the vast Gunnison Gorge Wilderness and were assigned to the 350-acre Buttermilk fire in Crawford, CO. Because this fire was burning in a wilderness area and caused naturally by a lightning strike, the US Bureau of Land Management wanted the fire to take its natural course – as long as it didn't threaten any communities. By the second day, with the weather becoming hotter and drier, however, "the fire behavior exploded with the fire taking several big runs" and Arnold and his crew switched into "full suppression mode" to fight it.
"For the next nine days, our crew installed fire breaks using hand tools and chainsaws," said Arnold. "We used helicopters to drop water onto hot areas where we worked to make it safer for us to be in these areas." They used a firefighting tactic known as "bone piling," which means "sawing down heavy fuels and burning them in piles within the burned, black area of the main fire to reduce fuel," said Arnold. They were also aided by fixed-wing aircrafts that dropped retardant to slow the progression of the fire. By the time Arnold and his crew fully suppressed the Buttermilk Fire, it had more than doubled in size, reaching 750 acres.
On August 8, the crew was reassigned to the Green Mountain fire, which also was caused by lightning. The 15-acre blaze was burning on a steep, rugged terrain at an elevation of around 10,000 feet. Because the fire was threatening several ranches in the area, the crew again used a full suppression strategy.
Arnold and the incident commander from the US Forest Service were the first firefighters to scout and "size up" the Green Mountain fire. After walking the fire and getting an idea of what fuels it was burning in, what the topography was like, and how the weather was influencing the fire behavior, they came up with a plan of attack. For the next four days, the crew installed "direct handline" right along the fire's edge to remove its fuel, thus stopping progression. The crew was stationed in a camp close to where the fire was burning. They slept in tents, had no running water, and meals consisted of military rations. According to Arnold, the terrain was some of the roughest he has ever seen in his firefighting career. "The elevation made the work very challenging, and our crew performed beyond expectations," he said. "This was an excellent assignment for our rookie firefighters, as well as seasoned folks. We successfully stopped the Green Mountain Fire at 53 acres, and no one was hurt doing so."
"Through mutual aid agreements, DEM is able and glad to pitch in and help other states and jurisdictions respond to wildfires," said DEM Director Janet Coit. "We are so proud of Ben Arnold's leadership, firefighting skills, and commitment to duty – and we're glad he's home safe and sound!"
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