Heath Stuerke and James Gordon know the risks of their jobs. As caretakers at two of Denver Water’s mountain reservoirs, they live and work in the middle of a fire zone and know the best defense against wildfire is preparedness.
So when the two were offered the opportunity to head up Denver Water’s first emergency Strike Team — a group of six specially trained caretakers who are able to respond to wildfires that impact Denver Water in a moment’s notice — they jumped at the chance.
Caretakers are responsible for a wide variety of critical duties at Denver Water reservoirs and dams. Their primary function is maintaining operations at the dams and releasing water downstream. “We basically get the water to town,” Gordon said.
Denver Water operates a vast system, with facilities in 12 counties and more than 10 reservoirs on both sides of the Continental Divide — surrounded by forest or grassland. The Strike Team is trained to respond anywhere in Denver Water’s system.
Over the past 15 years, several large fires have burned on or near Denver Water dams, reservoirs and property, including the Hayman, Lime Gulch, Lower North Fork and Springer fires.
“It’s just a matter of time before we get hit again,” Gordon said. “It’s not just about protecting the dams. We live up here in the community, and so do our families.”
Wildland fire training
To establish the Strike Team, members took firefighting and leadership training this past winter in Colorado Springs, Colo., to learn about fire safety, fuels and the weather’s impact on fire behavior. The training prepared them to work with local and federal officials during emergencies, and use heavy equipment, such as bulldozers and graders, to build fire lines around key facilities.
Many dams are located in remote canyons with only one road as an escape route. The fire training also taught them what to do if they become trapped. “Wildfire, it’s no joke and has to be taken seriously,” Gordon said.
Dedication and duty
While the caretakers left the training equipped with firefighting gear and knowledge of basic firefighting tactics, the primary goal was to receive the federal government’s Incident Qualification Card, better known as a “Red Card.” The cards are critical during emergencies and allow caretakers access inside an evacuation zone where only firefighters are allowed.
“Our dams and reservoirs are extremely critical infrastructure that need to be manned 24/7 to ensure reliable water supply to our customers,” Stuerke said. “That’s why we put together this team. We now have the training and credentials to get into an incident perimeter and operate Denver Water’s facilities under extreme conditions.”
Part of the ongoing Red Card certification process is an annual physically demanding exercise called the Work Capacity Test or Pack Test. It’s a 3-mile hike carrying 45 pounds — and must be completed in 45 minutes. The team took the test in Waterton Canyon this past April.
“It’s an arduous test, the pace is intense,” said Stuerke. “Going through this training shows the dedication of the guys on this team. We’re committed to making sure we can get water to the people, even in an emergency.”
With wildfire season upon them, Stuerke said the Strike Team is ready. “Every guy is proud to be on this team,” said Stuerke. “They have duty, respect and integrity instilled in them, and that’s all part of working at Denver Water.