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Contracted crews construct two large metal sheds onsite, Wednesday, May 18, to house additional firefighting equipment — ATVs, UTVs and other vehicle attachments, shared by Fire, Forestry and Fuels.
Howard Richards, Assistant Fire Management Officer for the BIA Southern Ute Agency, served as the Task Force Leader on the historic Cameron Peak Fire in 2020, where he was stationed near Red Feather Lakes. Richards is a 20-year veteran in the field of wildland firefighting.
BIA - Southern Ute Agency firefighters stand together with personnel from two Type 6 Engine Crews from Fort Lewis Mesa (Brush 73) and Los Pinos (Brush 88) on Wednesday, May 18 — crews are on site ready to respond to fires on the Southern Ute Reservation.
Photo Credit: Jeremy Wade Shockley | The Southern Ute Drum
Photo Credit: Jeremy Wade Shockley | The Southern Ute Drum
Photo Credit: Jeremy Wade Shockley | The Southern Ute Drum
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Southern Ute Agency fire crews at the ready 


The Bureau of Indian Affairs, Southern Ute Agency is geared up, staffed, and ready to respond as fire season hits Southwest Colorado earlier than usual. A relatively mild winter, coupled with hot dry spring conditions and extremely high winds, have set the stage for wildfire across the Four Corners. “We are ready for lightning or man caused fire, anything with a high potential for spread — we are really hoping to avoid any big fires,” emphasized BIA Southern Ute Agency, Fire Management Officer, Rich Gustafson. “Tribal Forestry and Range, they are Red Carded and ready to go, to provide manpower to assist BIA.” 

“We recently had the Devil Fire, a four-acre fire on Devil Mountain — plus, a couple of Ag burns we had to respond to. No lightning caused fires yet.” Gustafson said, “Hopefully we’re getting the word out that things are hot and dry.” 

Earlier this week, the Plumtaw Fire broke out north of Pagosa Springs, Colo. and quickly reached 600 acres in size. Just last week, BIA was called into assist with the Ute Pass Fire in Durango, Colo. due to its complexity and the need for a Type 3 team onsite. “The conditions are extremely dry, this is early for large, high elevation fires — it’s not common to see these types of fires so early in the season,” Gustafson emphasized.    

Currently the Southern Ute Agency has two Type 6 Engine Crews from Fort Lewis Mesa (Brush 73) and Los Pinos (Brush 88) onsite ready to respond — the additional fire crews come by way of fire severity funding. “Resources are starting to become scarce with everything picking up in New Mexico — be it hand crews, engines, or helicopters,” explained Howard Richards, Assistant Fire Management Officer for the BIA Southern Ute Agency.  

“We might get a BIA helicopter in Dulce, N.M. to get us through our fire season,” Richards added. “The good thing about local resources is that they know the area. It helps the local fire departments too. Personnel, they get to go home to their families after work — vs. National resources.” 

Richards started his career in May of 1994 to the 2000 fire season. In 2008 he became a Fire Operation Specialist; Richards will hit the 20-year mark of his career in December of this year. One of Richards’ long-term goals is to bring on more tribal members into permanent positions within the BIA Southern Ute Agency, in addition to facilitating plans for a new building to house the BIA’s Southern Ute Agency with additional amenities and space.  

Hoping to secure funding through a Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Southern Ute Agency has a five-year plan for a new Fire Station on the Southern Ute Reservation to house BIA, Forestry and Fuels under one roof. Expanding the number of vehicle bays and providing improved workspaces. A fitness room with showers – the proposed facility would also be able to provide better technological support for staff and increase overall energy efficiency. “My personal opinion is that the [current] building doesn’t accommodate everyone — we need adequate space,” Richards said. 

“Chairman Baker is interested in getting more firefighters; we’re pursuing grassroots recruitment,” Gustafson said. “Were hoping to attract kids who like this sort of thing — and provide jobs, training, we’re always working to develop programs. It’s incumbent on us to become self-sufficient, to fight fires [on the Reservation] without outside resources.” 

The 2022 Wildland Fire Academy saw 250 students earlier this spring, where BIA and the Tribe cooperated with regional fire agencies. “That was in March, and it was hosted at the Casino, and it was a big success,” Gustafson said. “We plan to host it again in the spring.” 

Two new large metal sheds are currently being constructed on site, to house additional equipment — ATVs, UTVs and other vehicle attachments, shared by Fire, Forestry and Fuels. BIA, Southern Ute Agency also has a stock of backup supplies secured in two equipment trailers filled with hoses, field supplies and misc. firefighting gear — all in preparation for the anticipated fire season, which is well underway in Southwest Colorado.  

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