East Peak Fire Tests the Mettle of Huerfano County Volunteer Firefighters

Sep 29, 2014

Volunteer firefighter Fred Partee of the Huerfano County Fire Protection District
Credit Kate Perdoni / KRCC

It’s been over a year since the East Peak fire in Huerfano County challenged the largely rural area’s resources. It came at a time when other fires were burning throughout the state, including the devastating Black Forest fire. Huerfano County’s volunteer fire protection district was the first responding agency to the southern Colorado blaze. KRCC’s Kate Perdoni reports on the challenges of the volunteer agency in the wake of the East Peak fire.

Fred Partee is one of 41 volunteer firefighters with the Huerfano County Fire Protection District, serving more than 800 square miles across the county. In June of last year, he was on the first responding engine to the East Peak fire near LaVeta.

Originally detected by a group of camping Boy Scouts, the fire would go on to burn more than 13,000 acres over the course of three weeks, prompting evacuations and putting the entire region on alert.

East Peak Fire map image from Inciweb, Tue 6/25/13, 11 AM.
Credit Inciweb

“With the East Peak fire, just like any large-scale wildfire,” Partee says, “the stack is stacked against you.”

The size of largely rural Huerfano County means even when adequate help is available, it might take awhile to get there. Partee says with the East Peak fire, they got lucky.

“I think we had our first unit in right actually at about eight minutes, which is significantly fast for a volunteer department.”

“The problem with the East Peak fire, was at the time, there were five or six more fires that were going on throughout the state,” says Diego Bobian, Huerfano County’s Emergency Manager.

Bobian’s role is to coordinate resources, everything from extra water trucks and fire teams, to the Red Cross and community volunteers. Bobian says the demand on their resources when East Peak broke out meant he called the state for assistance almost immediately. 

“Our process is a series of checklists to make sure we understand what we’re looking at and we understand what the values at risk are,” says Rocco Snart, Acting Chief of Wildland Fire Management for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

Within about 24 hours, Bobian says they had more engines, hand crews and aviation assets.

Snart says the state also activated two aircraft from the Colorado National Guard, which dumped buckets of water over the fire. Snart, himself a volunteer with the Golden Fire Department, said Huerfano's crew worked hard throughout the duration of the East Peak fire.

“Volunteer firefighters are a big core of what's going on in Colorado,” says Snart.

Recent numbers compiled by Rocky Mountain PBS I-News suggest the state has a shortage of volunteer firefighters. Fred Partee with the Huerfano County Fire Protection District says he thinks they have a good number of volunteers, but the majority of them are older.

“Young people generally are either off at school or working,” says Partee. “I’m in my mid 40s, so I’m fairly active. I can still hang with the young guys. But some of the older guys, we have to assign their assignments based on their abilities.”

During the East Peak fire, that meant limited and supervised roles--not everyone was able to be on the front lines. But Partee says regardless, it’s critical to provide volunteer firefighters with strong training and work ethic. The department actively recruits candidates at community events, then trains and provides continuing education on a monthly basis.

“I think that our folks do a really good job for what we can provide and what we do provide,” says Partee. “I think we're adequately staffed for the readiness portion. For an actual large-scale incident, you can always use more.”

Huerfano County's Emergency Manager Diego Bobian says the East Peak fire has led to changes, including the creation of an Emergency Operations Center.
Credit Kate Perdoni / KRCC

Emergency Manager Diego Bobian says the East Peak fire has led to changes. In a lot of ways, he says the firefighters and emergency workers there had never been challenged to that extent.  Since last summer, Bobian has been updating the county’s preparedness manuals, and received a $60,000 grant from the state to create an emergency operations center, which he says has become instrumental in further disaster preparedness training.

“If we'd had the Center during the East Peak fire, things would have went a lot smoother,” says Bobian. “We would have had a member of the fire department in there, a member from the hospital in there, a member from public health in there. And we would have all been together, rather than what happened with the East Peak fire. I was constantly on the phone because they weren't there.”

As for the Huerfano County Fire Protection District, Partee says equipment is always a concern.

“It’s always something we strive to get, is updated equipment to keep our folks nice and safe, and to be able provide the best possible fire protection to our citizens.”

Both Partee and Bobian say they feel more prepared to deal with a similar circumstance should one arise. Huerfano County officials encourage residents and businesses to sign up for an emergency alert system called Code Red and to create their own plans in the case of an emergency.