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Local responders tasked with national relief

West, South Metro crews help with Irma, Harvey and Western wildfires


First responders see a lot of tragedy in their line of work, but Eric Hurst, who recently returned from assisting local emergency services in Orlando, Florida, after Hurricane Irma, described the experience as “especially eye-opening.”

“As I drove to Valdosta (Georgia), gas stations were all out of gas… it was a struggle to find fuel or find stores that had food,” said Hurst, public information officer for South Metro Fire Rescue.

“Then, heading south on I-75, just seeing the traffic jam of everyone going north and fleeing the storm… it was disaster movie-like,” he said.

Colorado Task Force 1, a FEMA-administered group composed of more than 200 members from more than a dozen Colorado departments, spread out across the United States over the last month as Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Harvey and ongoing wildfires in Oregon and California tested the limits of local resources.

The force included more than two dozen responders from the West Metro Fire Protection District and South Metro Fire Rescue.

Ronda Scholting, public information officer with West Metro, said 11 members of her district went to Texas and Florida. All but four — HAZMAT specialists assisting with potentially dangerous cleanup details — had returned as of Sept. 20, she said.

The work takes the crews far from their jurisdictions, but Scholting said it’s what they signed on for.

“These crews have gone to the floods in Lyons, they helped (in New York City) after 9/11,” she said. “Their job is to do whatever they’re called on to do.”

West Metro search teams combed through neighborhoods in four small islands in the Florida Keys, using boats they brought with them to search homes and structures and identify survivors in need of medical assistance, food or water.

Hurst coordinated law enforcement protection for Urban Search and Rescue teams, who may encounter looter-wary residents, abandoned methamphetamine labs or any number of dangerous circumstances upon entering flood-damaged homes.

While those teams headed south and east, other crews from both districts continued to battle wildfires to the west.

South Metro recently sent four firefighters to a 14-day deployment to the Eclipse Complex Fire near Happy Camp, California, replacing another four-person team after their two-week deployment ended.

Scholting said West Metro has sent teams to California and Montana this summer, while a four-person crew recently finished work in Oregon fighting the Miller Complex Fire and a team of three responders just completed their 14-day deployment in California.

As of Sept. 21, they were all on the road back to Colorado, “but that could change in an hour,” Scholting said.

In case any Coloradans worry local resources are being spread thin, Scholting said inter-departmental agreements at the local level ensure each district has the manpower needed to protect itself.

The big picture, she said, is cooperation between national and state organizations to serve citizens wherever help is needed.

Out-of-state forces came to Colorado to assist when floods struck Lyons in 2013, and they helped battle the Hayman Fire in 2002, as well as other wildfires since. It’s not a question of if Colorado will need the help again, it’s more likely a matter of when.

“Everyone does it with the assumption that if we need it, we count on being able to call on federal agencies,” Scholting said. “We may need this help at some point in time.”


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