Montana Outdoors

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”.

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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.

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