July 21, 2009

Feeling the heat

The aroma of sage and smoke filled the air at the Central Oregon Wildfire School July 11 as structural firefighters from departments around the state and beyond gathered on the Crooked River National Grassland northeast of Redmond to learn the basics of wildland firefighting.

Trying to get hundreds of firefighters and 40 to 50 pieces of fire apparatus from different agencies to respond and be organized enough to be effective as a wildfire threatens homes requires practice, said Redmond Fire and Rescue Division Chief Dick Knorr, “otherwise it’s a Chinese fire drill; it’s a mess.”

As far back as the early 1980s local firefighters saw the need for better coordination among structural and wildland fire agencies. In that decade a major wildfire raced south from the Lake Park Estates area northeast of town toward East Highway 126. Many agencies came together to fight the flames, but the coordination and communication were lacking, Knorr said. “We didn’t used to have a relationship with wildland agencies; no model of how we should work together.”

“When you have a quick moving fire, when houses are threatened, when evacuations are needed, it all goes smoother if you’ve built relationships, if you’ve at least met people from other agencies,” he said. “It makes a huge difference in how effective you’re gonna be.”

The first school, in 1997, grew out of a “conglomeration of firefighters talking” at a Northwest fire seminar, explained Redmond Fire and Rescue fire training coordinator Bob Sjolund, who worked for Jefferson County fire at the time. A Jefferson County assistant chief returned and talked about the discussion. Sjolund and another firefighter decided to make it happen, and enlisted the support of local wildland agencies – Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Oregon Department of Forestry.When it came time to name the result, Central Oregon Wildfire School popped up and by coincidence that spelled "COWS," Sjolund said.

While structural and wildland firefighters have much in common, they also have differences, based on what they learn to protect.They use different types of equipment, and firefighting strategy is different, Knorr explained. A structure fire usually is in a contained area, while a wildland fire can spread rapidly.

In structure fires, the aim is to get a lot of water on the fire as soon as possible, while managers of wildland fires have to determine how to catch up to the fire, he said.But the basics of hoses and using water are pretty much the same, “except there is a lot less water to work with in the wild. You learn to use it sparingly or when you can’t get water, dig hand lines,” he said.

In addition city firefighters need to learn to recognize hazards in forest lands, which are different than those encountered in structure firefighting. Structural firefighters, like those in city or rural fire departments, aren’t used to fighting wildfires, but if a wildfire threatens a community, such as Black Butte Ranch, the governor’s office can invoke the state’s conflagration act and send those firefighters to help protect homes and businesses in other parts of the state.

When the call comes, engines and crews from around the state need to be able to work together immediately. That’s the aim of COWS.The effects have been dramatic, he said, as the biennial school has given wildfire training to many structural firefighters.The difference between how experienced and inexperienced firefighters react is huge, Knorr said. “If there’s a major event everyone is talking the same language, using the same type of equipment, the same incident management system. It works like a well oiled machine.”

The school begins on a Friday when participating firefighters respond with their engines just as they would to a conflagration. They check in at assembly point (in this case COCC Redmond), drive to the deployment area to check in and learn how to complete all of the required paperwork. After classroom sessions, the engines convoy to the wildfire site, get a fire camp meal and camp overnight to be ready for live fire training on Saturday.

“You can talk all you want (in the classroom), but until you feel the heat, you don’t really understand what’s going on,” Knorr said. At the live fire sessions, the engines and crews team up with crews and apparatus from other departments to make their way through the skill stations – structural protection, cutting hand lines (both with helicopter air operations), mobile attack, and progressive hose lay.

In the progressive hose lay, teams of firefighters string hoses together as they move along burning rows of juniper that had been cut and allowed to dry for a couple of years. The firefighters head down the fire line, the leader with the nozzle, the others follow behind holding the hose. As the hose length begins to run out, shouts of “30 feet, 20 feet, 10 feet” ring out. Instructors shout reminders to watch for spot fires and to keep the hose from tangling. As they near the end of the hose, a clamp hose shuts off the water flow, the nozzle is removed, a new 100-foot hose that’s been carried coiled on a firefighter’s back is attached, the hose is unclamped and everyone moves forward. After the line of firefighters reaches the end of the row and knocked down the flames, a second crew follows behind to do mop-up and make sure the fire is out.

At the mobile attack area engine crews practice maneuvering their engines through heavy brush and trees while other firefighters walk in front and behind with the attached hoses putting water on the fire. The exercise also gives more experienced firefighters the opportunity to practice coordinating the movements of five engines at a time.

At the structure protection area, Redmond Fire and Rescue Firefighter/Paramedic Sean Hagen showed firefighters how to quickly pick up a hose in accordion loops, starting with the nozzle draped to the front over a shoulder. Once the hose is picked up, firefighters can lay it down even faster, ending up with the nozzle in hand ready to shoot water, a valuable skill when called to protect structures threatened by wildfire.The hose work was followed by practice using those skills to surround and protect a structure.Hagen likened their objective to that of a goalie: to push the fire away, not actively pursue it.

Nearby, crews learned to dig hand lines to help contain a fire. COWS attracted approximately 60 trainees from 17 fire departments and another 30 or so instructors. In addition to Sjolund and Knorr being among the command level organizers, four Redmond fire fighters – Hagen, Josh Clark, Steve Fiero and Dan Drayton – were instructors, and two engines and six firefighters took part in the training.Each firefighter gets a task book. As each demonstrates competency, the skill is signed off and eventually the firefighter can use the completed book and other documentation to get certifications.

Rob Crye has spent one year as paid firefighter at Redmond Fire and Rescue and two years as volunteer.This was his first time at COWS, though he has been involved in responding to a few conflagrations. “But when you’re responding you don’t get to practice,” he said. “COWS is an opportunity to fine-tune skills.”

-- story and photos by Trish Pinkerton

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