Montana Outdoors

March 14, 2008

Midnight fire response

Filed under: Montana, Outdoors, Rural fire department, Volunteerism — Tags: , — montucky @ 7:09 pm

At a quarter to midnight Monday when the first shrill alarm tones from my pager shattered the stillness of the night, I rolled out of bed and began pulling on my jeans. By the time I was reaching for my boots, the voice of 911 dispatch was requesting Rural Fire and area ambulance to respond to an explosion and fire in a residence some sixteen miles down river. It was thought that there were people still in the building, power lines were down and arcing, and a large LPG tank was in the flames.

On the way to the fire hall a quick glance at the Jeep’s speedometer showed 85mph, much too fast for the number of deer usually around the highway at night, but a necessary risk under the circumstances. Four minutes later when I arrived at the hall, the chief was already starting to roll in the lead truck. His quick instructions were to take E91, a pumper engine made for structure fires that carries 750 gallons of water, hundreds of yards of hose, and a crew of four who were already there and getting into their “turn-out” gear. Someone had already started my truck‚Äôs engine, the emergency lights and siren were on, the big door in front of it was open and I quickly got into my fire gear, swung up onto the seat, released the air brake and found first gear. We began to roll.

Twelve miles later the big truck topped a hill and as I spun the wheel to make a sharp left turn and began shifting up through the gears again, out of the black of the night the fire could be plainly seen four miles in the distance: it was obvious immediately that there would be nothing we could do to save the home. My four crew members knew it as well and fell silent, just looking and waiting for us to cover the remaining miles.

When we arrived at the scene, the chief’s truck was in position to the east of the blaze and I brought my engine to a stop above and across from the front of what had been a big log home, now a mass of flame. Then, by some careful maneuvering following a guide, I was able to turn the truck around and descend a fairly steep slope, putting the business side of my engine right next to the fire. Within minutes we had a 2 inch hose shooting water on the flames and cooling the LPG tank, but the home was far beyond saving. By the time my water tank was empty the water tender had arrived and we tied it into my pump system and poured another 3,000 gallons on the flames, keeping the LPG tank from exploding and keeping the fire from spreading any farther. We put 16 tons of water on a structure we were just too late to save. By 3 AM we had done all we could and retired from the scene.

It was a relief to find that the concern about residents still in the structure was unfounded. It had been occupied that night by only one elderly man. His dog woke him in time for him to escape unharmed: sadly however, the dog did not survive.

Episodes like this one, while very bitter to the palate at the time, do however bring a focus to bear on several things about living in a rural community, two of which are especially significant to me. Number one, of course, is that in the middle of that night over twenty people responded to the scene, all of whom, with the exception of one law enforcement officer were volunteers, and all of whom performed their duties with hard work and diligence and without a single word of complaint. I’m glad to know those men and women and I’m glad they live here!

And the second thing… There are lots of negative stories in the media about today’s young folks, but on Monday night over half of those volunteers who responded were under the age of 18. We have a fantastic crew of young men and young women who are mature, dedicated, trustworthy, and a pleasure to work around. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and their quiet courage is commendable. I think of them when I need a good shot of optimism in a world that at times seems to be spinning out of control.

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