Wildfire season – County Fire explains operation, offers suggestions

Wildfire season – County Fire explains operation, offers suggestions

02 April 2013

published by www.casperjournal.com

USA — When there’s a wildfire and somebody dials 911, heart rates might increase for some, but Natrona County Fire District Chief Kevin Finn simply starts asking questions: Is it a wild land fire? Are there structures? Are the structures close to the fire? How fast is the fire moving?

Finn said his response to the report of a fire is to ask questions so that he, as the leader in his organization, can make sure the right equipment is responding to any call.

“Normally with wild land fire, it’s going to be a brush truck, probably two brush trucks,” Finn said. “So I want to know if there are structures close and if they’re threatened, because then we’ll need [different equipment], we’ll need a structure fire truck,” he said.

If it looks like a big fire, Finn would send a tender, a truck that carries enough additional water to refill the brush trucks. “So that’s probably more what I’m thinking,” he said. “Do we have enough people with the right fire trucks responding? That’s it.”

The Friday before the Sheep Herder Hill Fire that ravaged Casper Mountain last August, Finn’s department helped extinguish a smaller wild land fire that started within a few hundred feet of where the big one started. Finn said his initial response was the same both days: “Are we sending the right equipment?”

The reality was that Finn assumed the Sheep Herder Hill Fire would be a large, fast-moving fire, because it was very warm that afternoon and a 40-plus-mile-per-hour wind was blowing. “So I was expecting a large fire. And that’s what we found when we got there.”

But Finn said the decision-making process is always the same. “It’s not just me. It’s anybody that does this, be it the Casper, Mills, Evansville, Bar Nunn or any fire department leader,” he said.

Finn said firefighters responding to any call are trained professionals that know what to do in any given situation. Finn’s job is to be certain they have the right equipment on site when they need it.

That isn’t always easy in a department with six firefighters in two stations on duty at any given time in an area as large and wide-spread as Natrona County.

Working together

“If I’ve depleted my department …,” Finn said, “and the Sheep Herder Hill fire is a great example, our initial response was two brush trucks, so four firefighters went up. That only left me two more [firefighters]. As soon as I got on site and saw what was happening, I called back to the station said ‘Send the tender’ [extra water truck].” Finn was out of resources.

Fortunately there’s a lot of emergency department overlap. There are many fire departments in Natrona County, each responsible for a specific area. Finn said all the departments in Natrona and surrounding counties have mutual aid contracts. These include city, county, state and federal agencies. Many departments might respond to an emergency, but the event will eventually be identified as belonging to a single jurisdiction.

“We don’t care whose fire it is,” Finn said. “We all hit it with everything we can, as hard as we can, and get the fire put out. And then we’ll worry about whose it is.”

Various departments help each other up to 12 hours, but after that expenses must be reimbursed by the terms of the mutual aid agreement.

Like most fire departments, the NCFD responds to any emergency. When it’s snowing, it may be vehicle accidents or house fires. When it’s dry, it’s more likely wild land fire. And fire departments are nearly always first responders for emergency medical assistance.

“When the snow comes in, single vehicle rollovers seem to take up a lot of our time,” Finn said. But with the modern designs of newer vehicles and more people wearing seatbelts, Finn has noticed fewer injuries today than in the past. “But then you get thrown a curveball sometimes and there’s more injuries than you know what to do with.” As first responders, Finn’s department is responsible for extrication at vehicle accidents and so keeps a tool known as the “jaws of life” at both of the county fire stations.

On a recent day Finn, watching precipitation approaching the Casper area on weather radar, was talking about how the snow is a double-edged sword. They’re prepared for auto accidents icy roads may cause, and while the county needs moisture to green up this spring, the same moisture will cause wild land grass to grow.

“Now last year we didn’t have a green up to speak of at all and there was enough carryover grass from previous lush years that we still had huge problems because with no green up, essentially no rain or moisture to speak of in the spring, we were into the wild land [fire] season by June 1st,” he said.

In fact, there was a mid-June fire in Dempsey Acres in 2012 and two homes were lost. “That’s very early, but we were extremely dry. And predictions for this year aren’t sounding too good either. It’s liable to be another busy year,” the fire chief said.

Finn said his department won’t do anything different to prepare for a wet or dry year. “We’ll follow the same principles we used last year and almost got away with,” he said. “We just hit every wild land fire with everything we can and try to get it knocked down absolutely as fast as we can. It worked pretty well for us last year until that Sheep Herder Hill fire. We hit that with everything we had and it just laughed at us and kept on going.”

Finn’s main concern is multiple fires at the same time where his resources are spread thin; and the wind, which can drive a fire.

What’s a homeowner to do?

There are a few things rural land and mountain cabin owners can do to improve the chances of their property surviving a wild land fire season. “The most important thing they can do is cut the grass around their homes, their barns, their garages,” Finn said. “Just keep it cut down. And that gives us a little bit of a buffer, a chance to get in there and do something to protect their property.”

Fire will still travel across a mowed field, but it won’t travel as fast. Finn said this gives firefighters a chance defend a structure.

“That’s the best step [mowing] that homeowners can take to protect their property, to give us that buffer zone. But it’s still not a guarantee that bad things won’t happen,” he said.

If possible, watered lawns around a home are a good idea. “We refer to that as a green belt,” Finn said. “If landowners can keep things green around their property, that’s the best protection.”

Finn said cleaning debris and moving wood piles away from structures is also a very good idea. “When firewood is stored up against their house, barn or garage, debris tends to collect at the base, leaves build up and collect, which are just perfect spots for embers to blow into and start a small, smoldering fire and pretty soon, the house is on fire.”

The same used to be true of roofs when wood shakes were popular. But Finn said that isn’t very common today as more rural properties have asphalt or often times steel roofs. “Steel roofs are very effective in deterring fire,” he said, “and insurance companies really like to see those.”

Finn also suggests that homeowners keep the space under their deck clean and free of debris. “It’s usually something that precipitates the beginning of the fire near the structure, say … a bush. Evergreen bushes, even though they’re green, have a lot a resin in them and they burn really well. And that’s usually what takes a structure out … something along those lines,” Finn said.

Lightning causes most of the wild land fires in Natrona County, followed closely by man-caused fires. “And that might even be a tossup,” Finn said.

Finding cause

Often the cause of a fire can be determined. Finn said most of the time someone is standing right there (at a fire) who knows something, saw a flash of lightning or is an eyewitness to an event. “We rely heavily on eyewitnesses,” he said. But he said fire inspectors are very good at determining cause and origin of a fire.

“It’s interesting,” the chief said, “that as big as that Sheep Herder Hill fire was — and that thing was a monster at over 15,000 acres — we had a pretty good idea of where it started.”

Firefighters knew where, but not what started the fire. Natrona County Fire Inspector Dave Baker was out of town on an investigational review that week. So Finn requested the federal firefighting team investigate the fire. By the time the federal investigator arrived on the scene, Baker was back on the job. They decided to let both inspectors undertake separate investigations and see what they found out. The inspectors independently came within three feet of each other for the point of origin. “I was pretty impressed with that,” Finn said.

The two fire inspectors then put their heads together to try to determine the cause. According to Baker, they were unable to rule out discarded smoking material or an intentional start (arson) as the cause of the fire. Because of this, the cause of the fire continues to be listed as undetermined.

But the investigators did comb the area where they thought the fire started with a large magnet and pulled slivers of a ferrous metal, about the size of a pencil point, out of the ashes at the point of origin of that fire. The slivers weren’t weathered but rather were bright and shiny. “So from that they’re fairly certain that the fire was started by the muffler of an ATV or some type of four-wheel [vehicle] or motorcycle,” Finn said.

The inspectors suppose the cause was possibly a backfire because these pieces of metal likely came from the muffler of a machine. “So that’s how they kind of determined that that fire was started … they believe it was an [human caused] accident.” The chief said later there were actually reports of ATVs in that area.

Asked if there was anything he would like to add, Finn said with a straight face, “If you need us, call 911.”

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