On June 3, Bill Wenzel, a firefighter from Spearfish, South Dakota, was in a wildland firefighting class learning how to use chainsaws when he received a phone call. A Type 3 firefighting team was being formed to tackle the 416 Fire in Durango, and his engine crew was requested for assistance.
“They gave us a day and a half,” Wenzel said. “So we all rally, put our stuff together, load up the truck and leave.”
Wenzel, a third-generation firefighter, has worked “hundreds and hundreds” of fires over the course of his 23-year career, which has taken him to various locations across the country.
Firefighters are on-call for 14 straight days, then they get two days off. Last summer, Wenzel spent nine weeks away from his wife and five children.
When he arrived in Durango, Wenzel was assigned to the structure protection group, which has spent the past week evaluating and protecting homes from Hermosa north to Electra Lake.
“We see what we can do to mitigate them and keep them from the ultimate sacrifice of losing it,” he said.
A lot goes into mitigation, he said. Wenzel and his crew makes sure there are not latter fuels on the trees that would carry a fire from the ground level up; makes sure canopies are not touching; and they clear grass, leaves or woodchips that are around houses. They will try to keep a house as close to untouched as possible, but sometimes they have to move furniture or woodpiles to protect the home.
Wenzel usually wakes up in his tent at 4:50 a.m. After breakfast at 5 a.m., he joins firefighters for a main briefing that goes over daily operations, fire behavior and weather forecasts. After the main briefing, individual branches and divisions will hold their own meetings to plan their tasks for the day before heading out. Besides a 30-minute lunch break, the team works the entire day.
The crew will eat dinner when they return to base camp. They spend the remainder of their evening preparing for the next day. This includes resupplying their engine, checking their oil levels, and sharpening and cleaning their tools.
“You don’t have a lot of time when you get back to camp,” Wenzel said. “You lay down as soon as you can, hopefully not much past 10 p.m.”
Of all the assignments he has had over his career, the 416 Fire is one of the most difficult fires he has fought.
“It’s been in the top 10 ...,” Wenzel said. “The environment, the rough terrain in the wilderness area on the other side (of Hermosa Cliffs), it all makes this fire so tough.”
Though he has not been fighting the fire on the front lines, he still faces risks. The smoke columns that rise in the afternoons have collapsed in the northern area, producing ashes that land near homes in the area.
Fire officials are also concerned that unpredictable wind patterns could alter the pace of the fire, which could move at 1 to 2 mph and could produce spot fires up to 2 miles ahead of its path.
“It’s a daily unknown with the weather,” Wenzel said. “We can predict it, but Mother Nature is going to do what it wants to do. You have to have a plan in place and think about it on a continuous basis in order to get back to camp and go home to your families in the end.”
Firefighters know that being in constant danger is part of the job description, he said.
“You can never be comfortable in this position,” he said. “You always have to have your head on a swivel. You have to watch your back as well as your workers. It doesn’t matter if they’re on your team or other people from other divisions and other areas, you’re watching everybody. We all watch out for everybody – the public as well as other firefighters.”
Despite the challenge of the 416 Fire, “The morale on this fire is very good,” Wenzel said.
“Everybody seems to be very welcoming. We don’t have any bad vibes. We’re all firefighters. We’re all brothers and sisters that work hard for a goal at the end of getting these people back into their homes.”
Wenzel plans to keep firefighting for as long as he is physically able to because he likes that his work of protecting houses is a service to communities – and that residents are grateful.
“Pulling out of base camp this morning (Sunday), there were people lined up along the road at 6:30 in the morning with their kids waving at us, giving us the thumbs up,” Wenzel said.
“Days that we have been traveling up and down this corridor, the people, before they were evacuated, were standing along the road giving us the thumbs up. It just makes you feel good that they recognize that we’re here to help. And we recognize them as a very good and supportive community.”