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Wildfire fighter: Bristol man battles blazes in Colorado, Montana

BRISTOL — Chris Casey of Bristol returned to Addison County on Sept. 10 after fighting wildfires in Colorado and Montana. Casey spent a total of 50 days out West this summer, fighting four different wildfires.
When he’s not battling wildfires, Casey works for the Green Mountain and Finger Lakes division of the U.S. Forest Service as a silviculturist, a specialist in forest management.
In addition to his duties in New York and Vermont forests, Casey is a safety officer with the Northern Rockies Wildland Management Team, one of dozens of similar response teams all over the country. This type of team specializes in fires in forests with the toughest access, often in the most remote regions of the country.
Casey left Vermont June 21 to help battle a fire in one of these regions — deep in the Rio Grande National Forest of Colorado.
The West Fork Complex Fire was sparked by lightning on June 5 and burned in Del Norte and Pagosa Springs, Colo., near the state’s border with New Mexico. It grew to more than 110,000 acres. More than 1,400 firefighters battled the blaze at its peak in mid-June, just as Casey arrived.
“That fire blew right across the Continental Divide, along the Rocky Mountains,” Casey said.
Mike Blakeman of the Rio Grande National Forest explained that embers from the blaze, then contained to the San Juan National Forest, blew over the 12,000-foot peaks that make up the divide and ignited trees in the Rio Grand National Forest. 
See the photos Casey took out West here.
Fire crews battled high temperatures, extremely low humidity and wind gusts of 60 miles per hour.
Casey, 59, has to maintain the same physical fitness levels as when he started fighting wildfires 36 years ago.
“I’m out there with guys half my age,” Casey said.
As a safety officer, Casey often goes out alone to observe the fire line to establish lookout positions with a good vantage point from which to view the fire.
“I’m what they call a single resource,” Casey said, explaining that he often goes out by himself to inspect the fire line. He has to carry all his equipment — tools, sleeping bag, fire blanket — and be completely self-sufficient.
“I have to be prepared for anything, from the Arizona heat to the Alaska cold.”
This summer Casey participated in daily helicopter reconnaissance flights over the Western wildfires. These low-level flights, necessary to get a good view of the developing blaze, were dangerous as visibility was often obscured by smoke.
Casey works with Type II incidents. Type V incidents are the smallest, while Type I are the largest, often requiring thousands of firefighters. The Rim Fire burning in Yosemite National Park, for example, is a Type I incident.
Casey, who works directly under the incident commander, has to develop strategies and tactics for fighting the fire, as each one presents a different set of challenges.
“I have to make sure firefighters aren’t taking undue risks, and look at every possible hazard. Our goal is to make sure everyone comes home at night.”
Still, Casey said there are frequent close calls.
“You pull up in your truck and there’s fire on both sides of the road, and a burning tree comes smashing across the road behind you,” Casey said. “You just wonder what if you had been in that spot.”
Casey is responsible for developing medical plans, medevac routes, and evacuation plans. As a safety officer, it is his job to anticipate every possible scenario that could arise.
He said he never commits firefighters to a fire if it cannot be battled safely.  
“Some people are confused when we identify a fire but don’t attack it,” Casey said. “But we let fires burn until we can fight them safely.”
That’s exactly the approach firefighters took to battling the West Fork Fire.
“We let it work its way down from the mountains, where we couldn’t get at it safely,” Blakeman said. “When it got close to communities, helicopters dumped water to slow it down.”  
There were no serious injuries or fatalities in that fire. Only one structure was destroyed.
Every day there are hundreds or thousands of fires across the country, and accidents do happen. Thirty firefighters have died this season, the highest death toll in 10 years, according to statistics compiled by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. The most recent firefighter death occurred just before Casey returned to Vermont.
“We take these lessons and learn from them,” he said.
It’s been a busy summer. Casey spent 17 days at the West Fork Fire. After two days off, he was assigned to a blaze that had broken out near Lolo, Mont. He then spent 11 days there, and after five days off was sent back to Montana to assist fighting the Beaver Creek Fire near the town of Big Hole.
Casey rose up the ranks over three decades to become a group supervisor, part of the command general staff. He fought his first fire in California in 1977, at a blaze that encompassed 300,000 acres.
It was there he realized he had found his calling.
“The fire bug bit me pretty good,” Casey said.
 
 
 
 
SIDEBAR:
possibly just run this in a box
 
Chris Casey’s summer
6/21 Leaves Vermont for Colorado – West Fork Fire
7/14 Two days off
7/17 Leaves for fire in Lolo, Mont.
7/28 Five days off
8/3 Sent to Beaver Creek Fire in Montana
9/10 Returns home to Vermont

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