Curt Orde held an orange cab light Friday atop a Grand Avenue Wilderness Response ambulance as Amanda Morley screwed the fixture down.
Just north of the Wyoming border on the Big Creek Ranch, the ambulance was parked between a wall of hay bales and a barn about a half mile from the Ryan Fire line.
“We do a lot of training throughout the day,” said Orde, a Grand Avenue Wilderness Response paramedic. “But, as you can see, today we’re more focused on maintenance.”
At 73 years old, Orde has been fighting wildland fires for about four decades.
“I’m retired, so I can chase fires all year long,” he said, a smile parting his gray goatee. “This is my 75th day on fires this year.”
Throughout his firefighting career, Orde worked with and on numerous medical teams, but when he started talking to Wilderness Response owner John Jacobs at a wildfire seminar, Orde said he knew Jacobs had something special.
“Wildfire ambulances have been around for about a decade,” Orde said. “But they haven’t become commonplace yet, and I don’t know of any others in Wyoming.”
Created by the owners of Grand Avenue Urgent Care about three months ago, Wilderness Response is sailing its maiden voyage at the Ryan Fire, which started Sept. 15 about 27 miles northwest of Walden, Colorado.
A veteran wildland firefighter of seven years, Morley said she was driving past Grand Avenue Urgent Care when she saw the ambulance.
“It was out there in the parking lot,” she said, climbing down from the vehicle’s cab. “So, I just walked in to see what it was all about.”
Day nine of their Ryan Fire tour, Orde and Morley were in high spirits.
A week before, the blazed doubled in size, then doubled again during a three-day wind event, coating the Laramie Valley in red-hued smoke.
But Friday, the sun was shining, eagles flew overhead, aspen leaves colored the landscape in brilliant reds, yellows and greens, sharply contrasting the fire-blackened hills and brown pastures below — and the fire activity was low.
“I’m used to being a lot closer,” Morely said, using a handheld device to check the wind speed, temperature and relative humidity. “So, I’m learning to be in more of a support role, but I love it.”
Living in rural Albany County, Morely said she started looking into medical training about a year ago, because she wanted to be able to handle emergency situations that might pop up at home. Just before the Ryan Fire kicked up, she hired on at Wilderness Response as an Emergency Medical Technician.
“My husband got me into wildland firefighting years ago,” she said. “We don’t go out on fires together, though. That way, someone is always home to care of things that need tending.”
Barely visible beneath Orde’s yellow, fire-retardant shirt, a cross dangled from a silver necklace next to medallion emblazoned with the image of a saint.
“That’s Saint Raphael, patron saint of healers and those that provide care,” Orde said proudly. “I pray to him and God to get me through the worst of it.”
While he retired from the U.S. Forest Service, he said fire fighting never stopped calling out to him.
“I’m from greater metropolitan Centennial, about 30 miles west of Laramie,” Orde said, barely containing his grin. “Actually, that’s not true. I shouldn’t say that. I’m from the suburbs outside Centennial.”
After talking to Jacobs, Orde took up a position as a paramedic for Wilderness Response.
A preliminary investigation indicated the wildfire was human-caused and likely the result of an escaped campfire, according to the Forest Service.
Consuming more than 20,000 acres in less than two weeks, the fire quickly spread north from Colorado into Carbon County. Two structures and 10 outbuildings were lost to the blaze.
On Friday, a Type I National Incident Management Organization team assumed control of the Ryan Fire firefighting efforts, incident command spokesperson Carin Vadala said.
With 321 firefighters and support personnel, 25 fire engines, two Type III helicopters, one Type II helicopter and one Type I helicopter, Vadala said the team is doing everything they can to contain the fire, but they’ll still need the help of mother nature.
“We call it a season-ending event,” she said. “A wetting rain or snow. Wetting is anything over a quarter-inch of precipitation in a day. But for it to be effective, we’re going to need a few days of wetting rain.”
Despite the fast-paced fire and uncooperative weather conditions, Vadala said no major injuries have been reported.
Orde nodded, adding, “Firefighter safety is always our No. 1 goal. There isn’t a patch of land or structure out here worth a firefighter’s life.”
The lack of major injuries, however, doesn’t mean the ambulance crew hasn’t been busy, he said.
“We’ve seen our share of blisters and at least one rash,” Orde explained.
Morely said another benefit of an ambulance on the fire line is firefighters are more willing to tend to small wounds when they don’t have to stray far from the fire.
“I mean, yeah, they’re firefighters — they’re tough guys,” she said. “They might not tend to the blisters, rashes and small cuts if they had to leave the fire to do so. But if left unattended, those small things can get worse and require a firefighter to be pulled off the line, which can really hamper a crew.”
Founded independently of Grand Avenue Urgent Care, Wilderness Response is staffed with two teams, featuring an EMT and paramedic each, Grand Avenue Urgent Care Practice Manager Kelly Wolfe said.
“This is a brand new program for us — this is our first fire,” Wolfe said. “There’s no independent ambulance service in Wyoming that does this that we were able to find.”
During talks with Jacobs about creating the business, she said the original plan was to only contract out to fires in neighboring states, but that could change in the future.
“In the winter months, when something comes up on the East Coast — a hurricane or other major natural disaster — we might look into doing it,” Wolfe said.
On the Ryan Fire, Orde and Morley said the crew typically works 16 hours a day.
“We start the morning with breakfast and a briefing, figure out where the incident commander wants us that day, then head out,” Orde said. “When we head back at night, we do a debrief with everybody, then break off and do another after-action report with the medical teams.”
The hours in between are filled with on-site training, tending patients and maintenance, he explained.
Just past the halfway point in their 14-day rotation, Morley and Orde said they felt good about Wilderness Response’s first excursion.
“I’ve been a medic and a line medic on fires for 40 years, and there is always a need for an ambulance,” Orde said.