Montana Outdoors

April 7, 2009

It has begun

Spring around here starts off not only the wildflower season, but another season as well; the wildfire season. This afternoon we responded to the first wildland fire of this year. We haven’t received our usual amount of spring rain and the woods are already very dry: it looks like it will be a long, long summer if we don’t get more rain!

Before the fire call came though I was able to find a few wildflowers. The Buttercups have been out for over a month and now just seem to cover the ground in places. Yellowbells have also been out for a while now and have become more numerous too. (They are a western wildflower and grow only in eleven western states.) Fritillaria pudica

Yellowbell, Goldcup, Fritillaria pudica

Yellowbell, Goldcup

Another tiny western flower, the Woodland Star, began to bloom only in the past few days.

Bulbous woodland-star, lithophragma glabrum

Woodland Star

Since I greatly prefer the wildflowers, I am hoping for a lot more rain!

May 2, 2008

I’m afraid it has begun

In a rural area something that is missing is infrastructure, some would say by definition. Others might say that the infrastructure isn’t exactly missing, but those who live there often are the infrastructure. I was reminded of that yesterday when a call came over my pager inviting those of us who belong to the Rural Fire Department to go to the scene of a brush fire that was trying to get up into the timber. A house was near but not immediately threatened. In an urban area a fire call is answered by a professional team of firefighters: in a rural area it is answered by those of us who volunteer.

Despite the cold temperatures of a lingering winter and the fact that this area received far more than normal snowfall during the winter, the lower valley areas are already very dry and I’m afraid (I sure hope I’m wrong!) that the fire season started yesterday.

Eight miles from town as we approached mile marker 67, the dispatcher’s location for the fire, we could see a column of smoke coming from a shelf area a few hundred feet above the highway and off to the right a half mile or so. The voice of our chief who was in the lead truck came over the radio informing us where to turn off to get into that area.

Thanks to some good thinking and planning by the senior staff in our department, we have in our arsenal three wildland fire engines (brush trucks) which are light trucks which carry 300 gallons of water, a pump system which injects foam, creating a water-foam mix that is incredibly efficient and room for extra hose and all our other gear. The 4X4 F350 that I drove today had all it could do with all six wheels spinning to climb a steep trail up the mountainside to get into the right position for delivering our foam to the head of the fire.

After three and a half hours with crews working from our brush trucks, a crew from the state DNRC and a crew from the USFS the fire was out and being mopped up. We used over 1500 gallons of water and foam, filling each truck twice from our 3000 gallon water tender also near the scene, got filthy and smelly and had a wonderful time. Sometimes it’s fun to be a part of the infrastructure!

As far as I was concerned, the best reward came just as we were wrapping everything up when about 20 Bighorn sheep strolled out into a small clearing a hundred yards away and stood looking at us as if to say “thanks for protecting our home”.

December 14, 2007

A sad little story

Filed under: Montana, Reflections, Rural fire department, Wildland fires — Tags: — montucky @ 3:12 pm

Half a dozen times lately I have written versions of this story and each time deleted them, thinking that it dwelled too much on negatives, but because I seem to have such a compulsion to tell the story, I finally decided I would.

Fourteen years ago I moved with my family back to Montana where I was born and raised. We settled into a rural area and made our home on the last remaining little piece of a ranch my grandparents started in about 1916. It’s nice to have roots.

In Montana, as I’m sure it is all over these United States, the small towns and surrounding rural areas can’t afford all of the infrastructure that the big cities can, one of those being a fire department. In its place we form “Rural or Volunteer Fire Departments” staffed and operated solely by volunteers. Grant money from various sources is usually available for equipment and there are always several viable sources for operating funds which, since there are no salaries involved, really don’t add up to all that much. These departments are surprisingly efficient.

Not long after we settled here, wanting to do my part in supporting the community, I inquired into the situation at the Rural Fire Department and was told that they had a full staff of 20 people, but would put my name on a long waiting list and perhaps in a few years there would be room for me in the department. The situation was the same with the town fire department in the small town not far from my home, and they required besides that their members live in town.

In subsequent years I pretty much forgot about Rural Fire, mostly because during all those years I had to work in places far from home and couldn’t be available to the department anyway. Once the time came when I was able to be at home again I didn’t think much about it until one day last fall there was a story in the local paper that said Rural Fire was in badly in need of volunteers. When I called the chief and asked if he could use an old gaffer who still had a couple good years left I was welcomed with open arms. We met at the fire hall, I was issued all my “turn-out” and wildland fire gear and a pager and became a volunteer fireman with the Rural Fire Department. I have to confess I don’t especially enjoy being called out to incidents at any time of the day or night to do things that are always strenuous and dirty and at the very best aren’t a whole lot of fun, but I also know that I wouldn’t sleep well at night if I knew that at any time someone may be desperately in need of help and no one would be there to answer their call.

Two weeks ago another story appeared in the local paper, this one about the town’s fire department. Interest has severely waned there and their supply of volunteers has dwindled away, the Chief resigned because of lack of cooperation and availability of people, and now there is no one left to respond to emergency fire calls in the town. Thirteen hundred people live inside that town’s city limits and yet not enough of them will volunteer to be able to operate a fire department. To my way of thinking, the most significant thing about that whole sad situation in that pathetic little town was the response of the residents and business owners who were interviewed for the story: their first concern was not that lives and property are in danger, but that now their insurance rates will triple!

What could possibly have changed so drastically in the last 10 to 15 years? Is this sort of thing prevailing in small towns and rural communities all over the country? I have a sense that it is. And to me, the most important question: if this type of total selfishness and apathy is really growing at what appears to be an exponential rate, who then will exert themselves to protect the natural world upon which our very species depends for its existence?

Across the world we are now focusing intently on greenhouse gasses, but I would suggest that global warming itself is nothing more than one more symptom of a malady that has settled into the hearts and minds and motivation of our people.

November 1, 2007

Not exactly what I wanted to see

Filed under: Forest fires, Montana, Nature, Outdoors, Photography, Photos, Pictures, Wildland fires — montucky @ 10:40 pm

For the first two hours of today’s hunt, I thoroughly enjoyed walking in the footprints of deer and elk and moose. The temperature was in the 40’s but the wind was strong and cold. For about three miles, I stayed below the ridge tops and hunted the semi-open hillsides where the game would be bedded down out of the wind, resting up for their night time feeding forays.

After making about half of a large circle, it was finally time to cross over the high country and complete the circle back to where the Jeep was parked. On the route I chose, three ridges converged at a peak, and upon reaching it, this is what was there; not exactly what I wanted to see!

Burning slash pile

While it looks like flat, open country in the photo, it is actually just a level area atop a high ridge: the terrain falls off sharply in all directions. This is state land and it was selectively logged during the summer. Apparently a slash pile (tree limbs, branches, smaller trees and brush) had been burned earlier, but it didn’t burn completely and some coals still smoldered deep within the pile. By the time I arrived, the wind had reached about 30 – 35 miles per hour, blowing from right to left in the photo and fanned the coals into a very hot fire. Beyond the clearing and down off the sides of the ridge there were multiple canyons filled with thickets and some old-growth timber; not the place where you would want a fire with that kind of wind! It made an abrupt end to the hunt!

Slash pile fire

After a hard hour’s hike cross-country to the Jeep and a half hour’s drive into the local DNRC to report and locate the fire on their maps, I returned home feeling pleased that I had chosen that particular area to hunt today and had discovered early what could have developed into a very serious problem.

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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