COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The scream of chain saws echoed near Cheyenne Mountain on Thursday afternoon, drowning out the howl of strong winds that swirled around the hills at El Paso County's only state park.
Volunteers and firefighters joined forces to proactively build a fire line that officials with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Air Force hope will protect Cheyenne Mountain State Park and the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, and also keep wildfire from storming into southwestern Colorado Springs.
"If we weren't doing this, it wouldn't get done," said 65-year-old Glenn Scadden of northern El Paso County. Scadden joined about a dozen other volunteers and six firefighters from the Air Force station's fire crew in clearing 20-feet on the park side of the fence Thursday.
Air Force station Fire Inspector Matt Backeberg said his crews have cut Gambel oak and cleared out other brush on land 20-feet the other side of the fence that borders the park, the station and the Broadmoor Bluffs subdivision. The goal, according to Backeberg and Cheyenne Mountain State Park manager Mitch Martin is to stop surface fires from rolling out of the forest and threatening buildings and homes that were visible from Thursday's work zone.
Officials with several agencies, including El Paso County and the City of Colorado Springs, point to the southwestern part of the county when asked where the next monster wildfire could strike. The Waldo Canyon fire burned more than 18,000 acres in the mountains west of Colorado Springs in 2012 and the Black Forest fire blackened more than 14,000 acres in northern El Paso County in 2013. Four people died and 835 homes were destroyed during those fires.
Backeberg admits that during high winds and sweltering temperatures stopping a blaze with a 40-foot fire line will be challenging, if not impossible. But, the inspector said, "It's something to give the firefighters a chance to get on top of it and battle it directly."
The Cheyenne Mountain Fire Department does fire mitigation projects at the Air Force station every Thursday morning. Its mitigation efforts began about five years ago, but Backeberg said his crews have only recently teamed with state park volunteers.
According to Martin, all the work on the park side of the fence has been done by volunteers. Most of the costs have come from the Cheyenne Mountain State Park general maintenance fund, he said. He estimates the park has spent an $5,000 on supplies, fuel and safety equipment for this project.
Backeberg said costs have been minimal for his department as the firefighters do the work as part of their regular duties. The inspector said the only added expense has been fuel for the chain saws.
The volunteers on site Thursday were from the state park's trail maintenance and fire mitigation teams. Scadden said he and the other volunteers are mostly retired people "looking for outdoor activities to keep us going."
"We get out on a regular basis and do some real youthful things," Scadden said.
The 2,701-acre Cheyenne Mountain State Park opened in October 2006. According to Parks and Wildlife spokesperson Abbie Walls, the mitigation efforts began in 2004 as the park was being built, and about 99 acres have been included. She said volunteers re-treated 57 acres in 2014 and mitigated 19 more. Walls' department plans to thin another 90 acres before 2015.
Walls, Backeberg and Martin joined a tour of the latest mitigation project Thursday, walking through the cleared 20-foot section. All that was left where thick Gambel oaks once stood were tiny stumps, rocks and piles of slash.
"The next step," Martin said, "is to bring in the chipper and chip up (all the slash.)"