Although it has been raging for a month, the wildfires known as the West Fork Complex in southwest Colorado present a seemingly odd profile of success: They remain only 20 percent contained, yet no significant structures have burned, residents have returned to the once-threatened town of South Fork and firefighters have reported only two minor injuries.
"Containment is not how you measure progress," said Bobby Kitchens, fire information officer with the Type 1 Incident Management Team. "One day, this will be contained and be out. But now, we're not concentrating on putting a perimeter around it. We're just protecting certain points. We don't have all the dots tied together. Eventually, we will."
The tactical approach at the West Fork Complex differs significantly from the way firefighters attacked the flames that ravaged the Black Forest north of Colorado Springs — or any number of other wildland fires, for that matter.
Proximity of valuable resources, such as homes or infrastructure, as well as concerns such as terrain, weather and safety all figure into the methods employed by firefighters in any given situation.
As the dry, beetle-kill pine blew up in the West Fork fires, which have charred more than 110,000 acres, firefighters used helicopters and air tankers to divert the fire from valuable resources and dug a "dozer line" to defend the town of South Fork. In the Rio Grande National Forest, where rugged terrain presents dangerous conditions for ground crews, firefighters have battled the flames judiciously, on their own terms.
"As it goes through dead spruce stands, we're not going in there," Kitchens said. "Success is hard to get, and it's too unsafe for firefighters. We'll allow it to burn through those stands and catch it when it comes out the other side, at a highway or river. The fire will be controlled. We're just being different in the way we approach it."
Aerial photos sketched a puzzling portrait of the Black Forest wildfire, with splotches of charred blackness bleeding across the landscape and giving way, in some areas, to incongruous bands of green.
Amid vast expanses of scorched timber, tragic anomalies: homes reduced to ash still surrounded by healthy trees, speaking to the whims of an inferno whipped by winds and fed by the area's bone-dry ponderosa pine and gamble oak.
So how do firefighters even begin to attack such an unpredictable creature? Crews took a two-pronged approach: perimeter control and protecting structures.
"One tactic was to confine and contain — that's to get a handle on it and stop further perimeter growth," said Mark Koontz, who fought the fire first as a division supervisor before training as an operations section chief. "At the same time, it had come through some communities — some houses had burned down, some hadn't. So with it creeping around that environment, we had to make sure no further structures burned down. That involved going house to house."
Although the terrain in the Black Forest is fairly gentle, even subtle topographical changes — such as drainages — can influence wind direction and fire behavior, Koontz said. And the extremely dry fuels, particularly pine needles, carried the flames quickly across the ground.
"It doesn't take much wind," he added.
But wind conditions, especially in the first few days, sent embers in unpredictable directions and, in some cases, triggered spot fires once they landed on a home's deck or roof. That explained how some of the homes were charred while the surrounding trees remained almost untouched by the flames.
Jay Esperance, South Dakota's director of wildland fire suppression, wasn't directly involved in fighting the Black Forest fire, but he watched from his home base of Rapid City, S.D. He described the tactics that firefighters employ — usually in combination — once they've been advised of the objectives by local authorities.
Direct attack sends firefighters as close to the fire as possible to stop it in its tracks. It's more expensive and less safe but can offer fast results.
Indirect attack involves firefighters choosing to fight the flames on their own terms, which often can mean yielding ground in order to prepare a line of defense at a more advantageous spot, such as a road, a lake or a bulldozer line where there's less fuel to burn. In this case, firefighters may set smaller fires to consume fuel and deprive the advancing flames of oxygen — literally fighting fire with fire.
A tactic called "point protection" can come into play when firefighters choose to defend specific areas, such as houses, knowing that the fire may consume the trees around them.
By the time the flames rolled into the Falcon Fire Protection District on June 11, it was a full-canopy wildland fire. Local resources focused on protecting structures.
"Our stronghold — what we called Fort Apache — was Meridian Road," Division Chief Vernon Champlin said, referring to the road that runs north out of Falcon along what became the eastern edge of the fire. "We were committed to keeping it west of Meridian Road."
The population density east of Meridian is between 10 and 15 times higher than it is on the west side, where properties can range from 20 to 40 acres. With the help of resources from Colorado Springs, Champlin said, crews set backfires, trimmed back trees and dug lines around homes in an effort to keep the flames away from defensible structures.
Air resources, such as the tanker planes and helicopters that spread fire-retardant chemicals and water on the fire, can be a huge benefit — though both yield diminishing returns when winds are high, as they were in the first days of the Black Forest fire.
In all circumstances, safety looms as a prime concern — and even more so in the wake of last weekend's tragedy that saw 19 members of an elite ground crew killed when a wildfire overtook them in Arizona.
After a brief ceremony at 7 a.m. Monday and a moment of silence at the base camp for the West Fork Complex, the crews had a two-hour "stand down" — a chance for firefighters to reflect on the developments and determine if they felt they could return to the fire lines.
"You could tell the difference in camp (Monday)," Kitchens said. "Everybody was a little more courteous, and there was an overall sadness. One of the ways I told firefighters to honor the ones we lose is to redouble our efforts for safety."
Kevin Simpson: 303-954-1739, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/ksimpsondp