Academy firefighters step up efforts to combat Black Forest blaze

An Air Force Academy firefighter cuts down a tree in an attempt to control the spread of the Black Forest Fire June 12, 2013. A total of 16 Academy personnel and five vehicles are assisting with fire efforts alongside firefighters from Peterson and Schriever Air Force bases, Fort Carson's 4th Infantry Division and the Colorado National Guard. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Christopher DeWitt)

An Air Force Academy firefighter cuts down a tree in an attempt to control the spread of the Black Forest Fire June 12, 2013. A total of 16 Academy personnel and five vehicles are assisting with fire efforts alongside firefighters from Peterson and Schriever Air Force bases, Fort Carson's 4th Infantry Division and the Colorado National Guard. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Christopher DeWitt)

Air Force Academy firefighters battle a hotspot in the Black Forest Fire June 12, 2013. A total of 16 personnel and five vehicles from the Academy have deployed to fight the fire, which has consumed more than 15,000 acres as of June 13. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Christopher DeWitt)

Air Force Academy firefighters battle a hotspot in the Black Forest Fire June 12, 2013. A total of 16 personnel and five vehicles from the Academy have deployed to fight the fire, which has consumed more than 15,000 acres as of June 13. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Christopher DeWitt)

An Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter dumps water onto a hotspot during the Black Forest Fire north of Colorado Springs, Colo., June 12, 2013. The Army and Colorado National Guard have deployed four helicopters, and the 52nd Engineer Battalion has deployed to cut lines in advance of the fire. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Christopher DeWitt)

An Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter dumps water onto a hotspot during the Black Forest Fire north of Colorado Springs, Colo., June 12, 2013. The Army and Colorado National Guard have deployed four helicopters, and the 52nd Engineer Battalion has deployed to cut lines in advance of the fire. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Christopher DeWitt)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Sixteen firefighters and five vehicles from the Air Force Academy Fire Department joined up with their counterparts from Peterson and Schriever Air Force bases, Fort Carson's 4th Infantry Division, the Colorado National Guard and local community agencies to battle a fire in Black Forest that has quickly surpassed the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire as the most destructive in the state's history.

As of Thursday, the fire had scorched more than 15,000 acres and destroyed 360 homes, with the status of an additional 79 homes unknown as of press time, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said.

A helicopter staging area at the Academy has supported two CH-47 Chinooks and two UH-60 Black Hawks since Wednesday. The helicopters provide a combined 314,000 gallons of water per day, according to a U.S. Northern Command press release.

The Academy has more firefighting resources ready to assist, said Master Sgt. Jeff Hackworth, an assistant fire chief here.

The Airman and Family Readiness Center has established an Emergency Family Assistance Control Center at Building 6248 to help families of Academy employees who have been affected by the fire. The EFACC, which is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, offers personnel from mental health, legal, finance and chaplain staff as well as military family life consultants to help families in need. Academy personnel can reach the EFACC by calling 333-3444, 333-3445 or 800-379-1455.

Other military firefighting support includes 10 firefighters and two vehicles from the 21st Space Wing at Peterson AFB, one vehicle and a contingent of personnel from Schriever AFB, two firefighters and a 5,000-gallon water tender from Buckley AFB and two Modular Airborne Firefighting System-equipped C-130 Hercules aircraft from the 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson AFB, according to the Northern Command release.

Local agencies learned lessons and built relationships during the Waldo Canyon Fire that have helped them in the fight against the Black Forest Fire, said Army Lt. Col. Mitch Utterback, the Colorado National Guard liaison officer to the incident management team.

"I almost want to say, 'Here we are again,'" Utterback said.

The 52nd Engineer Battalion, which dug lines to block the Waldo Canyon Fire from encroaching onto the Air Force Academy in 2012, is creating defensive lines for the Black Forest Fire. National Guardsmen have also augmented law enforcement efforts in the evacuated areas, Utterback said.

"There's somebody in a uniform with a Humvee watching your neighborhood along with police to make sure the right people are getting into your neighborhood and the wrong people aren't," he said.

While Maketa was not prepared to consider any part of the Black Forest Fire contained, he did outline some bright spots.

"It was good news to know that the eastern side was not consuming a lot of our resources," he said. "We were able to get some barriers in place and back burns to reduce some of the existing fuels. I thought that was a success."

Firefighters also kept the fire from moving north into Elbert County and held it out of more populated areas along the southwest front, Maketa said.

"I think those are a lot of victories," he added, "and they didn't happen by accident."

Updates will be posted to the Academy's wildfire information page at www.usafa.af.mil/news/fire.asp.