Montana Outdoors

September 18, 2007

Rapid response

The evening was slightly cooler than the day had been and clouds covered the sky to the southwest, the direction from which weather always approaches. From the TV the sportscaster’s voices droned on, peaked with excitement at a nice play and then leveled off going into a commercial: the game was reasonably interesting but not what might be thought of as exciting. Through the south windows came a bright flash, then another. Lightning; hopefully, just “heat” lightning (the local term for cloud-to-cloud) strikes. Ten more minutes, then the unmistakable booms of thunder were heard and the tall pines near the front of the house began to bow before the wind. The cat slunk, low-to-the-floor, into the nearest bedroom to seek sanctuary under the bed from the clamor of the storm. We were being hammered!

A slight press on the “check” button of the pager yielded the high-pitched “beep” that meant that it was OK, and attention shifted back to the game, for however long it would last before power went out as it so often did during these brief but violent storms.

Only minutes passed before the pager began emitting its initial burst of loud shrieking tones followed by the usual burst of static and then the voice of dispatch: “Rural Fire, Rural Fire, please respond to a lightning strike and fire at 11 Sunset Drive and also at 9 Sunset Drive”. The message was repeated again before the Jeep was fired up and pointed toward the fire hall four miles away and several more times before arrival there.

The doors of two bays of the fire hall were already open as the Jeep slid to a stop in the parking area in front of the building, and one of the brush trucks was outside; the engine of the one behind it was just turning over. A quick dash into the hall, a few seconds to slide into the waiting boots, pull up the bulky trousers, grab the heavy coat and helmet, then a run to the waiting truck. Hardly more than five minutes now since the first burst from the pager.

As I climbed into the cab of the second truck I could see that the driver was our Chief. I had only met and talked with him a few times, but he seemed to know his business and was a very dedicated firefighter. He had eight years of experience with rural fire departments in a couple of different states. This was my first fire response and tonight I would get to know him much better!

The first truck was headed to the scene which turned out to be about five miles to the north, and our truck was less than a minute behind. The flashes of red, blue, yellow and white that reflected from the trees and hillsides as we passed were a little distracting, and the sound of the siren seemed to come from far away as its echoes came back to us, but it was really right overhead, just a couple of feet away.

There was a short adrenalin rush, caused by the interest in a new situation, but it was suddenly amplified by additional information from dispatch. “Occupants of the structure at 11 Sunset Drive require assistance in getting out of the building”; not good news (I wonder exactly what that means, but will find out in a couple more minutes.) Dispatch again: “The wind is moving the fire to the North and it’s about to enter the timber”. The adrenalin level increased considerably more: that was not good news either!

Another mile and another burst from dispatch: “The occupants of 11 Sunset Drive no longer require assistance: that has been taken care of”. That was good news! Must have been done by law enforcement. The fire was now in sight and the first glance showed that it consisted of a circle of flame three to seven feet high and about fifty yards in diameter. The structures were about one hundred yards north of the county road, and the wind was moving the fire directly toward them.

As we entered the gravel drive, we could see that the flames extended completely across the yard in front of the main house and had swept past it on the east side, burning grass and brush and down trees and heading toward the timber. The first truck pulled up and stopped in front and to the east of the house, which put it behind the fire and in a position to attack the flames threatening the front and side of the structure. There was a driveway around to the west side, and the Chief swung our truck around that way, proceeding around the structure and continuing on until we were directly in front of the fire, between it and the timber where we plowed to a stop. Immediately I knew that the Chief was OK. It took confidence and nerve in equal proportions to commit to that position. This was a guy I could get along with! A no-nonsense leader.

Before the truck came to a complete stop we were out and at the back (the business end) of the truck. The Chief started the pump motor, grabbed the hose nozzle, released the detent on the hose reel and headed toward the flames, yelling for me to activate the remaining controls of the pump and feed him hose. It was a beautiful thing to see fifty feet of flame-killing foam pouring out of the nozzle, completely snuffing the leading wall of flames as he swept it across the fire front. Twenty minutes into the attack and the progress of the forward wall of the fire was stopped. The other unit had also successfully stopped the flames at the front of the structure, and at the same time saved an RV which had flames right up against one side when we arrived.

Another hour and a half of pouring foam and water on the fire, sometimes from within its perimeter, interrupted by a second brief response to a call for a power line down situation a few miles away, then an hour of “mop up” in the dark and the incident came to a successful conclusion.

There were no injuries, nothing of value lost, no damage to equipment, and some valuable experience obtained by this new member of Rural Fire. Rapid response and a fast and aggressive attack had saved two homes and perhaps a million dollars worth of timber.

Note: I know this is a little different than my usual posts, but it does describe a little bit of another facet of the world outside the cities. I hope it provides a little insight into what it can sometimes be like in the interesting world of emergency response.

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