Union fire fighters risk life and limb in wildfires

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Hundreds of members of the International Association of Fire Fighters have been working to combat the flames that engulfed thousands of acres of land in Colorado and New Mexico. The two wildfires have destroyed forest area, buildings, and homes, and the fire fighters understand that containing the blaze will be no easy feat.

The 68-square mile Colorado 'High Park Fire' - located 15 miles west of Fort Collins, Colo. - has already destroyed 100 buildings and caused one confirmed death. Containment is said to be minimal at best. On June 14, however, 15 percent of the blaze was reportedly under control - this was a five-percent increase from the day before.

The progress is thanks to the union fire fighters, who were also assisted by air support as they managed to stabilize one part of the brushfire. But the remainder of the inferno remains wild and uncontained: It umped Highway 14 today and forced the evacuation of 80 residents in that area, CNN reports.

"Getting a wildfire under control in this part of the state is difficult because of the rough terrain," explained IAFF 9th District Vice President Randy Atkinson. "There are a lot of canyons, so just getting to the fire is a challenge."

Officials fear that the High Park Fire could go on burning all summer, and worry that it will hurt business - namely, its $10 billion annual tourist industry. The wildfire has also affected bicyclists, runners, fishermen, and hikers.

In Loveland, a town just southeast of the fire, children's swim lessons and sports camps have been cancelled. "The whole Front Range is a tinderbox," said Kevin Aggers, recreation division manager in Loveland. "But no one is complaining. There are more important things than a swim lesson."

Fallout from the fire, meanwhile, has scientists troubled. They note that the result of big fires like these will be severely diminished air quality, posing serious health risks. Exactly how much pollution a brushfire spews, experts added, depends on what types of trees burn, air temperatures, and the extent of fuel on the ground.

"Fire damage goes beyond burned homes or lives taken," said Bob Yokelson, a chemist at the University of Montana who specializes in climate change. "In the summer, one third of the pollution we face may be caused by fires."

In New Mexico, the fire fighters are working just as hard to gain the upper hand in the situation, as they try and save more homes from being consumed by the flames. So far, they have contained 30 percent of it. This was achieved after IAFF workers took advantage of a brief reprieve from the hot, windy weather, using that time to build containment lines.

"Because of New Mexico's Resource Mobilization Plan, resources - including fire fighters, brush trucks, and other apparatus - have been deployed quickly to various locations surrounding the fire," said Albuquerque Wildland Fire Management Officer Jeremy Hansen, who is a member of the IAFF's Albuquerque Local 244.

Fire fighters are also dealing with a second New Mexico fire in the Gila National Forest - that blaze is 37 percent contained, but it has been burning since mid-May and has already blackened 435 square miles of forest.

Photo: A sign thanking the fire fighters battling the High Park Fire is posted in front of a residence.   Laramie Boomerang & Andy Carpenean/AP

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