USA — First came the car crash – two people ejected after a rollover on Highway 200.
Then came the car fire – a vehicle engulfed in flames.
And then all hell broke loose.
“The vehicle fire has spread into the tall grass,” a call echoed over emergency radios throughout the county. “The fire is spreading in a northeast direction.”
Whipped by winds gusting at 24 mph, the fire quickly spread in 94-degree heat, threatening a stand of tiny trees and forcing the evacuation of a bunch of little plastic orange Army guys.
Already, the accident had injured two of the Army guys, who were quickly whisked away by a Hot Wheels ambulance back to Missoula. One had an injured plastic head; the other, a broken plastic femur.
This is how disaster unfolds at one-eightieth scale.
At full scale, of course, this horrific wreck-turned-wildland fire could never fit in a sandbox. But this was just a drill.
So the Missoula County Fire Protection Association had to secure a small fleet of Hot Wheels emergency vehicles, five gallons of sand, two dozen tiny fake plastic trees, yards of colored shoestring, a handful of cotton and, of course, the orange Army guys to simulate a disaster of miniature proportions.
On Wednesday morning, dozens of emergency responders from the multiple agencies that make up the MCFPA played out this disaster as a training exercise, honing their radio and communication skills to prepare for the real deal.
“That’s what’s nice about this form of training,” said Cindy Super, a fire prevention coordinator and supervisor of the training session held at the Clearwater unit of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. “It’s pretty portable.”
More than two dozen real-world emergency workers from the DNRC, and municipal, county and state agencies barked out orders and information as the disaster unfolded.
“Right now, there are no structures threatened,” said Steve Beck of the DNRC helitack crew, as he peered down at the Google Earth-modeled sandbox terrain from the helicopter that existed only in his head. “My suggestion is to get a bucket on it and try to stop it at the top of the ridge.”
Good suggestion. But the fire spread anyway, as the orange shoestring continued to broaden in circumference and plumes of thick cotton rose from the plastic trees.
It was a fake world, but the broadcast was live and real. And so police scanner geeks began to call the DNRC almost immediately Thursday morning, a few of them puzzled that they weren’t seeing any wreck or fire near mile marker 28 of Highway 200, near Clearwater Junction.
For their part, the ambulance, medical, fire and law enforcement employees did their best to remind the listening public that this was a training exercise.
“The simulated fire is really heating up!”
“Medic 5 is on the scene of the simulation.”
“9-1-1, verify, CareFlight is en route to the simulation.”
But you can’t really blame the police scanner crowd. What they were hearing sounded quite real, and quite catastrophic.
That’s the point, said Super, who said such training exercises happen about once a year.
“This is a full agency response,” she said. “We’re trying to get people working together and talking on the radio.”
Communication, of course, is of the utmost importance when disaster strikes. The flow of information – who says what, and when, and to whom – can save or cost lives and property.
Wednesday’s exercise was an intermediate step between a simulation on paper and a full-scale one played out on the highway with real vehicles, said Super.
“We use it as a steppingstone to a full-scale simulation,” she said. “This is sort of in-between that and doing it on paper. And obviously, it’s a lot cheaper.”
The participants’ experience level ran the gamut from novice to seasoned, and Super’s goal is to test them in a simulation that is not too easy, but not insurmountable.
“We try to make it something they can handle realistically,” she said. “If you make it too hard, they give up and walk away. If it’s too easy, there is no training.”
In the end, thanks to the work of two dozen men and women, the fire was finally extinguished, all structures saved, and Highway 200 reopened to eastbound and westbound Hot Wheels.
And how about our two injured little plastic orange Army guys?
“They did all right,” said Rebecca Wallack, a real-life paramedic who drove a Hot Wheels ambulance to the scene. “We got them out before the whole thing blew up, and got them to St. Pat’s.”