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90th CES firefighters help protect USAFA

Heath Bichel and Jesse Johnson, 90th Civil Engineer Squadron firefighters,  pose outside of Building 324 in front of Brush 15, the fire truck they drove to Colorado Springs, Colo., to fight wildfires that threatened the U.S. Air Force Academy from June 27 to June 29. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jason Wiese)

Heath Bichel and Jesse Johnson, 90th Civil Engineer Squadron firefighters, pose outside of Building 324 in front of Brush 15, the fire truck they drove to Colorado Springs, Colo., to fight wildfires that threatened the U.S. Air Force Academy from June 27 to June 29. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jason Wiese)

F. E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. -- The personnel of the F. E. Warren Air Force Base Fire Department waited outside large bay doors in front of their fire engines June 29 for the return of their fellow firefighters from Colorado Springs, Colo..

Heath Bichel and Jesse Johnson, 90th Civil Engineer Squadron firefighters, pulled the Brush 15 fire truck close to the awaiting crowd and exited the vehicle to handshakes and hugs from the Warren firefighters who gathered to welcome their wingmen home.

As the Colorado fires encroached upon the U.S. Air Force Academy's territory, Ernst Piercy, USAFA fire chief, requested assistance in containing the blaze from nearby military installations' fire departments, said John McDougall, 90th CES fire chief.

"[They] went down there to establish a line of protection to keep the fire from reaching base infrastructure," McDougall said. "Within 15 minutes of arriving, they were put right on the line."

They deployed with a Type-6 Wildland Firefighting Apparatus, which was originally procured to help fight brush fires, here, McDougall said. The vehicle is a pickup truck, capable of delivering 250 gallons of water, which meets the U.S. Forest Service requirements for wildland fires.

"It's designed to fight brush and range fires that we get around here," he said. "We don't have the forests that they do in Colorado Springs, but our truck helped."

Bichel and Johnson travelled to Colorado Springs June 27 where they spent their time assisting firefighters already on-location, putting out spot fires and mopping up the charred, smoldering remains of fires so they did not re-ignite, Bichel said.

According to reports, by the time they left for Colorado, the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs had burned more than 15,517 acres; many military bases and residential areas were in danger and facing mandatory evacuation.

Being near the fires was trying because the flames made the atmosphere smoky and hot. The wind also added to the unpredictability of the flames, Bichel described.

"You could just watch [the fire] creeping up the ridge," Johnson said. "Everything around you is dead or burning, and you're trying to keep it from getting to private homes."

At one point, Bichel and Johnson found themselves protecting what was left of a neighborhood.

"All the houses nearby burned down," Johnson said. "We were there protecting the ones that didn't."

The USAFA received help from several installations nearby. Firefighters from F. E. Warren; Buckley Air Force Base, Colo.; Schriever Air Force Base, Colo.; Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.; and Fort Carson, Colo., assisted in containing the fire, McDougall said.

Johnson said C-130s from the Wyoming Air National Guard base also helped fight fires by dropping "slurry," a fire-retardant substance, on the fire and areas threatened by fire to help stop its encroachment.

All of the firefighters worked as a team, Johnson said.

This was made easier by the fact that all of them underwent training from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group to become qualified to take on forest fires. The training aided in their suppression of the fire, Bichel added.

Living conditions near the fire line were somewhat harsh. Firefighters found themselves sleeping on the street or on their vehicles to remain ready in case of a fire emergency, Johnson said.

When Bichel and Johnson returned, their previously shaved faces were covered with stubble, their uniforms were blackened from the smoke they encountered and their fellow firefighters claimed they looked very tired.

"I'm one of those guys who can sleep anywhere and function on almost no sleep," Bichel said, denying his wingmens' claims.

Likewise, Johnson denied that he was nervous at all when going to fight fires in Colorado.

"Bichel probably was though," he chuckled.

While the firefighters who made the journey to Colorado shrugged off the hardship and danger they faced, the rest of the F. E. Warren Fire Department was more concerned, McDougall said.

"Anytime you put guys into a situation where you don't have eyes on your people, you're going to be concerned," he said.

Fortunately, Bichel and Johnson returned safely, and the USAFA is safe for now from encroaching fire even though only 15 percent of the wildfires in Colorado and surrounding areas were contained by the time they left, Bichel said.

There was a sense of relief; F. E. Warren Fire Department personnel were glad to see Bichel and Johnson come home unharmed, McDougall said.

Base firefighters were also excited to hear what sort of experiences Bichel and Johnson had in Colorado. The fire department personnel are trying to learn from what they did and saw while they were there so they can use the knowledge in future operations, he explained.