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Thick Fires Stretch Resources Thin

Wildfires: Many factors go into deciding which blazes get attention. Some are swarmed with help while others are allowed to rage.

June 19, 2002|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DENVER — With two massive wildfires raging in the state, it's all authorities can do to keep them from burning down vast subdivisions.

The real difficulties come when they have to make the daily decisions that determine which fire gets more fire crews and support. Why are some fires swarmed with help and others allowed to burn?

Why does the Hayman fire, burning across four counties south of Denver, have three times the number of firefighters as the Missionary Ridge blaze near Durango, the nation's priority fire on Tuesday?

Fire officers at Durango report that residents are confused and angry, wondering whether the implication is that their homes are not worth saving like those in the wealthy subdivisions on Denver's southern flank.

"I know people think that, but once you understand the two fires, it's not difficult to understand," said Mary Bell Lunsford, on the Durango fire management team. Lunsford said the Missionary Ridge fire is so dangerous that even if she had more crews, it wouldn't be safe to use them.

In the hectic business of fighting wildfires, it may appear that fires near urban areas or in states with political clout, such as California, receive more support, but officials say they carefully allocate resources where they are needed, not just where they are noticed. They prioritize fires according to threat to human life, communities and natural resources such as endangered species.

At 6 p.m. every day across the country, fire commanders prepare a chilling inventory of each wildfire's destruction: Homes damaged, subdivisions threatened, residents evacuated.

By morning, at a 10 a.m. meeting, regional fire managers convene to scan the reports and set the day's priorities, moving air tankers and fire crews like pieces on a flaming chessboard.

By midday, those working smaller, rural or remote fires gripe that their request is overlooked, passed over in favor of a higher priority fire in a more glamorous or populous area.

"There's more to it than 'Hey you guys, send me more stuff!' " said Lynn Young of the U.S. Forest Service. "Each day the incident commanders predict the worst-case scenario on their fire. And each incident commander would like to have everything he can get. There's only so much to go around."

Colorado's two major fires flared Tuesday. High temperatures and high winds whipped the southern end of the Hayman fire, which has grown to 115,000 acres. The northern end of the fire is as close as 25 miles to Denver.

The 44,300-acre Missionary Ridge fire near Durango in southwestern Colorado continued to cause evacuations. More than 2,400 structures are threatened and 1,724 homes have been evacuated.

On Tuesday, more than 400,000 acres across the country were on fire. At the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, fire directors sent federal firefighting crews to areas where local resources are exhausted. With so many fires, competition is fierce.

Alice Forbes, the Forest Service's acting assistant director for operations, laughed at the suggestion that fire managers might overstate their case when seeking help.

"The squeaky wheel theory?" Forbes said. "No, the way it works is that the incident commanders who do the best job of providing the [most specific] information we need get the help."

Lunsford, of the Durango fire management team, acknowledged there is competition among the regional fires for the experienced teams and said she has requested more help for the Durango fire. But she said fire managers' professionalism prevents them from asking for more than they need.

"Fire managers are highly professional and experienced," she said. "Even though they want to put their fire out, they don't play those games."

Bill Wallis, who is among those making strategic decisions on the Hayman fire, said if the pace of the fires continues, there may not be enough firefighters to go around.

"The competition is already growing, with fires starting in other parts of the country," he said. "If we don't get to all of our priorities, we're going to be asking fire managers to allow for fires to get big. We do have a finite number of resources."

Meanwhile, authorities on Tuesday debated filing state charges against Forest Service employee Terry Lynn Barton, whom federal prosecutors have accused of starting the Hayman fire, the largest wildfire in Colorado history.

Barton is charged with willfully setting fire to timber in a national forest, damaging federal property and making false statements to investigators. She is due in court Thursday for a bond hearing.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney made the distinction Tuesday between whether Barton accidentally or intentionally started the fire. Prosecutors say Barton confessed to setting fire to a letter.

"We are not saying she intended to light a campfire or set the largest wildfire in Colorado history; we are saying she intentionally set a fire," said Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for U.S. Atty. John W. Suthers.

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