New Milford firefighter returns from Colorado wildfires
Shortly after arriving at the Buttermilk wildfire in Colorado, Sergio Liguori and the rest of the crew from Connecticut were told they would probably only spend a day or so ensuring the blaze had died down and the hot spots were controlled.
The next day, though, the crew watched as the fire blew up and took off, consuming more acres. Instead of moving to another fire as planned, they spent a week on the line and in a crater to keep the fire from progressing by digging ditches into the soil and removing trees. They also used their gloved hands and tools to put out smaller hot spots in areas the fire went through.
“It looked like a meteor hit,” said Liguori, 49, a New Milford resident who returned last week after spending 14 days fighting wildland fires in Colorado as part of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s fire crew.
The crew battled blazes at
Buttermilk and Green Mountain in the Aspen area. At the time, the fires totaled 800 acres. Both are no longer active.
These are just two of the nearly 41,000 large wildland fires this year that have already burned more than 5.7 million total acres — the size of New Hampshire. As of last Friday, there were 103 large active fires.
“It’s been said this year is going to be long,” Liguori said, adding climate change has worsened the fires. The fire season spans from March to November.
Conn. lends a hand
The 20-member crews are made up of DEEP employees and certified private firefighters, who are often volunteer or career firefighters in their own towns. These DEEP crews participate in a reciprocal aid program run by the U.S. Forest Service.
Wildland firefighters must be certified and pass a pack test, which requires the firefighter to hike three miles in under 45 minutes while carrying 45 pounds — the minimum weight they would carry at a fire due to their gear, shelter, tools and supplies.
Liguori has been a member of this crew since 2011 and fought fires in California, Montana and Colorado. He’s traveled with the crew every year but 2014, since his first wildfire in Montana in 2013.
“I came here and they welcomed me with open arms,” he said.
He rejoined the department around 2009, after moving back to town, as a way to give back to his community. He said he always wanted to get more involved and help with the wildfires he saw on the news, but thought he had to live out west to do so. The opportunity came when he discovered a DEEP brochure on the wildland crew at the firehouse.
East versus West
Liguori said it’s hard to compare the wildland firefighting with the structure fires and brush fires he deals with as a volunteer with the Northville Volunteer Fire Department.
Not only are the fires and techniques to extinguish them different, but the locations are also drastic contrasts, including the wetter climate in the Northeast compared to the dry heat out west.
Altitude is also a factor. The Buttermilk fire was around 8,000 feet elevation and the Green Mountain fire was around 10,000 feet. New Milford’s elevation is about 240 feet.
Liguori said adjusting to the altitude wasn’t that bad, but the crew did have to take it slower. He said it was harder to navigate the 10 percent grade to get in and out of the crater, especially because the ground was so soft and loose due to the shallow-rooted sage that grows there.
These differences often create reservations from the local crews about East Coast help, but the Connecticut team has repeatedly proven itself by its professionalism and expertise, Liguori said.
“It’s what we do,” he said. “We’re professionals. We do our job.”
The crew generally works 16 hours a day. The only way they stay for the maximum 21 days is if every member agrees, which can be hard because they all have their own jobs in Connecticut. Liguori sells parts for Harley Davidson in Danbury.
“We go out together, we come back together,” Liguori said. “We stay together like a family because we are a family.”