Montana Outdoors

October 13, 2008

So much depends on the wind

Yesterday afternoon our local Rural Fire Department responded to a wildland fire. A whole bunch of fire departments just outside of L.A. responded to fires too. By dark, we had ours contained, while in southern California, homes were burning. We had a gentle breeze; they had Santa Anna winds with gusts up to 65 mph. What a difference the wind makes!

It was a great feeling last night, returning to the hall knowing that we had responded quickly, worked hard, cooperated well with other responding departments, and brought the fire under control with no loss of life or structures. There was also a feeling of gratefulness that the wind was not an issue in this case.

Until now I have not been able to take photos of a fire scene because there are so many more urgent things to do, but today when we returned to recover pieces of equipment and the situation was no longer urgent, I was able to take a few photos of the area to take home for my wife to see and to post here. (Some wives like to see where their husbands work: some really don’t!)

This fire began in a cattail swamp near the top of a small mountain a dozen miles from town. There were about a dozen homes in the immediate area. In the first photo, one home can be seen in the background, not far from the scene of the fire. I’m sure that was one anxious family!

Fire scene at "the swamp"

Wildland fire at "the swamp"

Fire scene at "the swamp"

You will have to take my word for it, the hill behind this scene was a lot steeper than the lens thinks it is!

Fire scene at "the swamp"

We were able to stop the advance of the fire before it entered the forest at this spot.

Fire scene at "the swamp"

The tracks of a brush truck going right through the fire to secure the far end.

Fire scene at "the swamp"

One of the keys to rapid response and success in fighting wildland fires has been the invention and production of “brush trucks”. They enable departments to attack new fires very quickly and efficiently. They are very maneuverable and have lots of capabilities.

The next photos are of the one I usually have the privilege to drive. It has been in many places where trucks just aren’t supposed to go and I’m getting very fond of it! The basic truck is a reinforced 4 wheel drive 1 ton pickup (this one has the big 7.4 liter Power Stroke diesel engine).

Rural Fire "brush truck"

The tall red tank with the “stack” on top is a 300 gallon water tank. To the right of it is a reel containing 150 feet of pressure hose. After the truck is brought to a stop and shifted into “park”, in about a minute this hose can be putting a solid stream of water (or foam) on a fire.

Rural Fire "brush truck"

At the very rear of the truck is the key to the whole operation, a versatile pump system that can draw from the on-board water tank, a pond set up on the scene, a river or creek, or another truck with a water supply. It can supply a water source to hundreds of yards of hoses and multiple nozzles.

Rural Fire "brush truck"

Once again, last night our brush trucks proved their worth… and in this case the wind was in our favor!

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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.

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.

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