For observers, the front line of a wildfire fight follows the path of flames. Walls of fire shoot up into the sky, turning trees into torches, and drawing the eyes of observers parked along roadways.
For wildland firefighters, however the front line of a battle against a blaze lies deep in canyons and crevices, in small areas where fires spark, often times far from the plumes of dark smoke rising against an electric blue sky.
The hidden front lines of the fire were where firefighters working the Weber Fire were located Monday, protecting structures and property throughout the fire zone.
Weber Canyon was eerily quiet Monday afternoon. With County Road 41 under evacuation orders, homes were abandoned and fields vacant of farmers. Sheep grazed in pastures, oblivious of the charred hills that surrounded them. Sprinklers ran nonstop in yards and near homes, a last-ditch effort by homeowners to salvage their property from the flames.
Deep in the canyon, the firefight continued as small crews worked hot spots and battled a reinvigorated blaze. With manpower spread thin over the 8,300-acre fire, fighting flare-ups along the edges of the fire zone is the most crews can handle at the moment.
“Right now, we have pretty limited resources and with limited resources we are patrolling lines and looking for flare-ups and keeping structures safe,” said Chris Zoller, Division Alpha Supervisor for the Weber Fire. “It puts us back on a defensive strategy. We are a little more defensive than we like to be, but right now we are holding our own.”
Zoller said his crews fought back against hot spots at four structures Monday, working to tamp down small fires started by blowing embers or wayward sparks.
“We work them the best we can and then if something else pops up we bounce around,” he said.
Small crews of wildland firefighters respond to flare ups with a variety of tools at their disposal. From hand tools to tanker trucks and hoses to air support, crews work small fires as if the containment of the entire blaze rests on their success or failure. In many ways, it does.
“We don’t fight the big flames, the flames people see,” said John Helmich, an information officer with Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team C. As Helmich spoke, he watched a crew of six firefighters haul hose up a steep hillside, fighting a small blaze that erupted on the back side of private property along Road 41.
The crew worked quickly, pulling and dragging hoses up the hill and arranging them far from the smoldering embers of the fire, while working the water over to flames that were threatening to jump to a small tree.
“This isn’t the sexy fire, but this is what wildland firefighting is all about,” Helmich said. “There is not much you can do against the larger parts of the blaze, but you can get fires like this and you can keep them from spreading.”
Helmich said a misconception of wildland firefighting is the belief water and fire retardants are the largest tools in the firefighter’s arsenal. Observers see air support dropping water and slurry on flames and tend to think the fire has been successfully fought, when water and slurry are, in fact, simply used to slow the fire down so containment lines can be completed.
“Water is not the major tool on a wildfire,” Helmich said. “Slurry and water are not designed to put the fire out, they just keep the fire from walking into a house. It is the work done on the line, with shovels and hand tools, and the work of the firefighters that actually stops the fire.”
Though weather conditions Monday were not as dire as originally forecast, Zoller said the day kept crews busy putting out small fires that flared up in different spots in Weber Canyon and throughout the fire region.
“I anticipated an easier day today than what we actually saw because of the consumption of fuels that has already occurred,” Zoller said. “But there are nagging issues and things that kept flaring up behind houses.”
A total of 240 fire personnel are now fighting the Weber Fire and will continue to work the hot spots and protect area structures until additional resources arrive and a full containment line can be established. The fire is now 10 percent contained.
Once that line is stable, crews will do “mop up” work, walking through the burn site, shutting down hot spots, and making certain the ground is cold.
In terms of good news for the Weber Fire, Zoller said the many fields on the floor of Weber Canyon have provided an immense benefit in the fight against the blaze, creating a natural fire line that, up to this point, has not been breached.
“So far, the ag fields have save us,” he said. “That irrigated land has created a place where the fire has burned to, but not crossed. Those green grasses have made the most difference in this fight.”
Regardless of the status of large flames or giant plumes, Zoller said crews will be out again today, working hot spots and building containment lines.
Doing the hidden work of firefighting.