Communications Key in Colorado Wildfire Response
July 18, 2012
The High Park fire threatened but did
not burn a communications site.
Photo courtesy David Rowe.
When the recent Colorado wildfires were at their worst last month, half of the federal government’s firefighting resources were deployed to the state.
The fires in the Western states also drew a large percentage of the communications resources of the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). About half of the agency’s communications equipment was deployed to firefighting efforts in the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico at the height of the crisis during the first week of July. Up to 25 percent of its equipment at the time was in the state of Colorado, according to Stephen Jenkins, chief of the National Interagency Incident Communications Division of NIFC.
Driven by record heat and dry, windy conditions, several wildfires flared up around the state during June and early July, two of which drew national attention. The High Park fire burned more than 87,000 acres in the foothills west of Fort Collins and destroyed 181 homes. The Waldo Canyon fire burned more than 18,000 acres and became the most destructive fire in state history when it engulfed several neighborhoods west of Colorado Springs and destroyed 346 homes.
The Larimer County fire and law enforcement agencies that responded to the High Park fire operate on the Colorado 800 MHz statewide digital trunked radio network and also have some legacy VHF systems primarily to communicate with U.S. Forest Service (USFS) firefighters and other groups. During the initial phases of the fire, volunteer fire crews responded using VHF and 800 MHz radios and regional mutual aid channels, said David Rowe, Larimer County’s radio systems administrator. Law enforcement agencies, including the Colorado State Patrol, also responded to handle evacuations, roadblocks and traffic control.
Early responders also included fire and law enforcement agencies from nearby Weld County, as well as the cities of Fort Collins and Loveland. As the fire grew, the National Guard and military police were brought in and were issued 800 MHz radios, some belonging to Larimer County and others from the Colorado Office of Emergency Management, said Rowe.
The county encountered two significant communications-related problems while fighting the fire. Rowe noted that the county has a specific area with no radio towers, causing a coverage gap for all available radio resources. VHF equipment works slightly better because it can operate at 100 watts, he said. The 800 MHz system, operating at 35 watts, worked at about 90 percent of the roadblocks and checkpoints, said Rowe. But the county had to deploy a VHF mobile radio at a checkpoint deep in the Cache La Poudre canyon where the 800 MHz network did not reach. Technicians created a transportable 100-watt VHF radio system that clipped onto a Humvee battery and attached mag-mount antennas to the vehicle roof to address coverage gaps.
The other challenge the county faced was the threat of the fire burning its installed transmission equipment and power supplies. In the early stages, the fire burned equipment at a major communications site on Buckhorn Mountain, which housed sites for more than a dozen agencies and commercial entities. Rowe said the fire burned private shelters at the site and some commercial equipment, and came within a few feet of burning the county’s shelters that contained microwave and VHF transmission equipment. One of Colorado’s statewide digital towers at the site was also threatened.
“If that had burned off, it would have taken out not only local communications but also backbone connections to eight or nine other statewide network sites throughout the state,” said Rowe.
While sparing the transmission equipment itself, the fire did burn commercial power lines to the sites, causing the county to operate on propane generators for two weeks and the USFS to switch to solar-powered batteries.
Another communications site on Horsetooth Mountain was also threatened but did not burn. Crews worked to limit potential damage to the site by cutting back trees, weeds and grass surrounding the facility.
The NIFC was involved in all the major fires in the region, including the fires in Colorado. NIFC provides communications equipment including low-power land mobile radios, small portable repeaters, linking equipment, satellite equipment, base stations, aviation communications resources and infrared technology. Most equipment is low power for portability, said Jenkins.
The agency has 11 geographical coordination centers, including one in Denver, which coordinated allocation of equipment and system design during the fires.
“The only time we get involved in a fire or all-risk event is when it has gotten out of the control of the local resources,” said Jenkins. He noted local agencies typically try to deal with an event themselves, before reaching out to local cooperators and then finally to NIFC. “Usually if we get involved, it’s an event that is getting national attention.”
NIFC pre-positions equipment in areas that are at higher risk for incidents. Jenkins said the agency has equipment in California in anticipation of earthquakes, as well as in the Southeast, where it can be moved into areas that could be affected by hurricanes. The agency provides starter systems that include 16 radios, mics, antennas, repeaters and other equipment housed in a 3.5-cubic-foot module.
The terrain involved with the Colorado fires was challenging, said Jenkins. The foothills and mountainous landscape involved in the fires sometimes hindered line-of-sight transmissions for NIFC’s low-power FM radios. Repeaters were deployed near the fires to overcome these issues, he said.
For more on the NIFC’s role in fire communications, see “National Fire Agency Ignites Interoperability” on Page 18 of the June issue of MissionCritical Communications.