While smoke from wildfire isn’t dominating the skies in Southwest Colorado this summer, lightning has sparked blazes on Missionary Ridge and near Dolores.
Fighting those fires can require airplanes, helicopters, fire engines, bulldozers and other forms of attack.
The federal and tribal firefighting teams battling the blazes in the air and on the ground are synchronized by a team of six at Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch Center, located in the Tech Center. The center is responsible for coordinating firefighting activity across 4.5 million acres.
Dispatchers are the eyes and ears over all major events in the forest, monitoring firefighting activity down to the smallest of details, said Lorena Williams, an initial attack dispatcher.
“When somebody says, ‘Hey, I need a truck full of Gatorade,’ it’s our job to determine who is going to send the Gatorade,” she said.
The center has handled 49 wildfires this season, many of them ignited by lightning that started fires in short succession, she said. Most of them have been contained and controlled before growing into sizable fires.
“It’s exciting, but it’s short-lived,” she said.
The center handled 336 other incidents this year, such as search and rescues, illegal firewood harvesting and ATVs in areas closed to that use, she said.
But at the center, staffed by almost all former wildland firefighters, fire is top-of-mind, she said.
Overall, the fire season has been far calmer than last year when an exceptional drought set the stage for the 416 Fire, a 54,000-acre blaze that kept dispatchers busy for six consecutive weeks.
“All you knew was the computer screen,” Williams said.
When the center is busy with a big fire or multiple fires, it gets a little “eerie,” Williams said.
Normally, radio traffic is audible through the dispatchers’ computer speakers, but at high-traffic times, dispatchers plug in and the center goes quiet, she said.
“That’s how you manage the chaos, you got to take the noise level down,” she said.
During major fires, additional dispatchers come in to help manage all the traffic, she said. For example, during the 416 Fire, eight extra dispatchers helped manage the traffic, she said.
At emotional high-stress times, dispatchers try to take a deep breath before relaying information. But Williams suspects she probably sounded a bit overwhelmed on the first day of the 416 Fire.
“The first day was definitely the one full of adrenaline,” she said.
Dispatchers use several computer programs, including a mapping program that does multiple overlays to track heat, smoke and lightning strikes, called a “situational map” or “live map.”
“It has some insanely high-level capabilities,” Williams said.
Another program tracks air resources.
Like a symphony conductor, the Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch Center helps unify all the parts of a major operation, from organizing portable toilets on the ground to managing the movements of aircraft in the sky. The center allows agencies to work with one another, including Mesa Verde National Park, Bureau of Land Management, San Juan National Forest, Bureau of Indian Affairs, among others.
The different agencies allocate part of their budgets to pay for dispatch services, said Justin Moore, the center’s manager.
La Plata County receives more calls about possible fires compared with less-populated counties because more people are around to see and report incidents, Williams said.
The center’s employees typically work 10-hour shifts, but that can increase to 16 hours depending on the emergency, something that has happened only a few times this year.
“We are getting a major break after last year,” Williams said.