As the US Drought Monitor continues to show most areas of Garfield County below the most immense “exceptional drought” level, the Grand Valley Fire Protection District continues to prepare for the worst.
“We kind of anticipated this just from the weather forecast,” Deputy Fire Chief Chris Jackson said. “I just knew we were going to be hot and heavy at the start and then it would kind of be a lull, and then towards the end of the season we can also anticipate a high fire potential. .”
Many fire mitigation projects are currently underway in the communities of Parachute and Battlement Mesa. Landowners whose properties are located in vulnerable positions are being contacted by the local agency in an effort to clear vegetation and space shrubs, Jackson said.
The Colorado River Fire Rescue District, meanwhile, completed spring and winter mitigation projects.
“Right now we have our nature guys on deployment,” Colorado River Fire Chief Leif Sackett said. “We have people on the Sylvan Lake Fire, and then we also have people on the Deep Creek Canyon Fire in Montana.”
But this year, Grand Valley has to fulfill its duties due to a lack of seasonal staff. They are currently looking for four seasonal employees to fill two two-person teams, Jackson said.
Jackson said he suspects COVID-19 may be to blame, but it’s most likely the large number of openings offered by other agencies.
“There’s high demand everywhere,” Jackson said. “The federal firefighters — the (Bureau of Land Management) — they recruit hundreds of people every year, and then we have state resources looking for firefighters.”
The BLM currently has at least 35 fire-related job openings posted on ZipRecruiter.com. Salaries and hourly pay vary widely, but the average is around $51,000 per year.
A Grand Valley Fire Protection District Crew Supervisor earns between $22 and $26 an hour, depending on qualifications and experience. A seasonal firefighter in partnership with the supervisor earns between $12 and $18 per hour, which also depends on qualifications and experience.
“We try to make sure the hourly compensation is competitive. Our board has always stuck to the fact that we want to try and keep our salaries in the top 25% just so we’re competitive and people are enticed to come and work for us,” Jackson said.
But after posting jobs this season, the GVFPD hasn’t gotten many qualified people, Jackson said.
“So what we did instead was open an additional position for our existing members,” he said. “So now, instead of two extra people a day, we have three.”
Leaving positions open could delay response time, Jackson said.
“But we are fully staffed 24/7 between our full-time, part-time and volunteer members,” he said.
“We usually have a full staff every day.”
The department currently has 43 people trained, from basic firefighter level all the way up to captain. The department also employs emergency medical services, including ambulance attendants and paramedics.
On a daily basis in the summer, the potential staff could reach 10 people, Jackson said. Out of season, there are only six left.
Meanwhile, the district’s current budget of $4.6 million supports three “type six” brush trucks, two “type one” fire trucks, two water supply tenders and three ambulances. The department also has a few ATVs and snowmobiles.
Thus, the district has an adequate supply of personnel and equipment to conduct initial attack operations, Jackson said.
“But if we did start to walk into a large catastrophic fire, it would take mutual aid and other assistance from state and federal resources to bring it under control,” he added.
Jackson has been in Grand Valley since 2012, and between then and now, he’s experienced a pretty big spike in call volume.
Jackson recalls that the annual call volume hovered somewhere in the 700 range. In 2020, the district received about 1,200 calls.
Among those calls, the Spring Creek and Wallace Creek fires come to mind, Jackson recalled.
“I think it was in (2014) that we had the Spring Creek fire that was started by a lightning strike, and it grew into a pretty big one,” Jackson said. “We have had federal entities here for several weeks to mitigate this fire.”
But, even though a total of eight wildfires are actively consuming parts of Colorado, according to an online incident reporting system, Grand Valley is still actively trying to recruit.
The fire district maintained annual partnerships with Colorado Mountain College and Grand Valley High School. Each fall, they teach emergency medical response courses to interested students.
Jackson said this year, the Grand Valley Fire Protection District will be offering wilderness training to help future firefighters or senior graduates become certified.
Help, of course, is always appreciated.
“I mean, we’re in a bumper drought, which is the highest drought you could ever be in,” Jackson said. “And we just don’t have the water to keep things hydrated.”
Journalist Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or [email protected]