Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Fire Behavior: The Spring Creek Incident

Fire Behavior: The Spring Creek Incident
Objects in the mirror are closer then they appear.

It was getting on four in the afternoon and almost time to think about our return trip back to the compound after a day of forest patrol and campfire enforcement.  Doug had taken his time to instruct me in the proper usage of our belt weather kit, a relic from days without batteries but a reliable device. Doug was from another generation of fire hounds, he’d started his government career enlisted on a PT boat out of Laos and Vietnam and had “given them hell,” or so he recanted to me time and time again. Doug, a repetitive gnome from times past, deemed a plethora of knowledge to me in my first year on a wildland fire engine. I watched him as he dipped the business end of the thermometer into the water and began to spin the instrument on the string provided. It would end up giving us the wet and dry bulb temperatures within the area, with that we could figure out the relative humidity and would guesstimate the wind speed and direction. A good portion of forest fire fighting is knowledge of weather and topography.
It was a warm July day and the temperature was in the lower eighties with a wind coming out of the west at a pretty good clip.  Doug’s face was stuck in that middle stare he tended to get when his attention or mind would wander. Sort of like a casual deer stuck in oncoming headlights. I think it was mainly because Doug and I were tired and had nothing more to say to one another.

A tone-out rang over the mobile radio.
“Rockaway rural fire department. Please respond to reports of thick smoke coming from somewhere behind Lake Lytle. All ODF channels and resources in the area please respond, I will notify station ninety one.”Doug’s eyes widened a little more, his mouth dropped in utter disbelief and he stopped swinging the belt weather device. My training was all I knew and I was eager to taste my first fire, Doug on the other hand seemed to be contemplating the finer points of the situation. I had already darned my Nomex clothes and grabbed my web gear. We were about a half an hour up the Nehalem River when we got the call and it seemed my adrenaline wouldn’t let me take it completely easy on our way out.
We turned onto highway 101 just south of the small town of Garibaldi, we were instructed not to drive code-three as it is statistically more common to incite an accident than running with no lights and sirens. I was driving however and kept it a few miles an hour passed the limit, I blame it on my adrenaline. Rockaway Oregon. A small beach community situated just north of Tillamook along the rugged coastline of the northwestern part of the state. The fire call had put the smoke behind Lake Lytle. I had gone there when I was a kid to race remote control boats and hover crafts, my father would fish for Bass. I knew where to drive to, but we needed specifics, it was as if old man Doug had read my mind as he grasped the radio microphone and called into station ninety-one, the numerical designation for the Forestry headquarters in Tillamook, about ten miles south.
“Ninety one, ninety one fifty six, direct.” Doug was, is and always will be state ID number fifty six.
Jennifer, our dispatcher, replied back in her usual pleasant tone and gave us detailed directions to the access point of the incident. She also gave us a rough report on the situation.

“Fire is perceived to be moving up-slope with winds out of the northwest at fifteen to twenty miles per hour. It is moving in dense green slash and felled timber. There is an active operation at the bottom of the unit, the site foreman has agreed to meet you at the gate.” She said in what seemed like a few minutes. 
“Copy.” Doug simply replied.

I pulled our trusty ninety-one-thirteen engine down the rather benign looking residential street of Rockaway, heading toward the eastward coastal mountains and flanking the side of Lake Lytle, I could see the yellow gate up ahead indicating it was private land, the yellow meant it was owned by the Stimpson Timber Company. I stopped when I saw the rough looking logger striding out to meet us at the gate. Doug got out of the engine as soon as it was safe to do so, I could tell he was trying hard to contain his excitement, but I also think that he knew that this could be a scary situation. He’d seen his share of fires over land and knew that every one was different and held the capacity for imminent danger. This was Doug’s thirtieth year with the state and it was to be his last before retirement, this fire would surely be one of his last on an engine.

The logger led us up the road, for some reason I was expecting it to be a ways up but as soon as we rounded the first corner and came to the fresh clear cut timber I could actually see the fire itself. This was my first forest fire, I had only excitement coursing through my veins. We drove up the access road into the timber unit, Doug was finagling his gear in the passenger seat as we approached the flat topped landing at the end of a spur road nearby. At this point we were above where the fire was burning, and since it was active in an ongoing logging operation there were numerous piles of green slash bundled all around the vehicles, piles of fuel the size of two story houses, and the fire was edging closer to our location.

We got out of the engine and quickly put on our assigned fire pack and safety gear, I grabbed a hazel hoe, my favorite hand tool, and walked over to Doug who was standing at the edge of the landing observing the fire.
“Brian, I want you to go down there and try to find the source of the fire.” He said excitedly. “Don’t forget the digital camera!” He shouted.

Fire investigation and cause accountability are a huge part of the forest fire process, in this situation with it being an active logging operation on private forest land meant that every detail of this fire needed to be documented, hence the digital camera. I felt like I was repelling down a cliff face, I practically jogged down the steep grade taking care not to catch my boot in the crux of a tree limb as this would not have been the best time to break or sprain an ankle, it would have compounded the situation. My task, it seemed, was simple. I had to go down and establish the origin of the fire, take photos and note any oddities. Near the location where I felt the fire began I found a small clearing with a long-bar Husqvarna and a fuel can sitting neatly nearby. I took a few photos and glanced up to the top of the landing, realizing at that time I had no battery life left within my handset radio that was strapped to my chest. I could see Doug standing there with a couple of Rockaway rural volunteers and my boss Kevin Hill.

Kevin had been working with wildland fire for over fifteen years, he’d started his time as an inmate crew coordinator working for the South Fork Prison with a crew of ten inmates. It was very common to work side by side with prisoners on a forest fire, Kevin, at the age of nineteen was in charge of the crew, and thus acquired his unique personality therein.

I could see Kevin and Doug both motioning me to come back to the top of the landing, Kevin had a tendency to be abrasive toward everyone and it was not my goal in life to get him angry. It was obvious he came from a dysfunctional family because he always had something to prove, especially against his subordinates.

When I returned to the top of the landing it seemed the fire had gained serious traction upon the mountain’s side. It was less than thirty feet from the giant slash piles at the top, it was this point in which I remember seeing a real look of concern on Kevin and Doug’s faces. There were numerous structure fire engines on the landing with us, we were the only forestry rig though. There were rules and methods the structure hounds knew nothing about when it came to forest fire fighting, in this case the most important was to park your resource vehicles in a position for easy egress. They had parked and chalked the wheels facing inward, a standard structure engine tender is not exactly easy to turn around on a forest landing. I could see Kevin calmly walking toward me as I stood by the engine trying to find another battery pack for my chest radio.
"Get that fucking thing out of here!"

I look behind me and I see this!

His icy blue gaze met me and I could see something different in his expression. 
“Brian, I want you to get this fucking engine out of here, go and meet up with the five hundred at the other spur intersection.” He sort of shouted but I think it wasn’t necessarily directed at me in a negative fashion. He was serious, a standard type-six engine like 91-13 cost the state taxpayer around seventy thousand dollars each. Plus he absolutely needed me as a resource. Doug decided to stay back and aide Kevin. I fired up the diesel truck and went to go rendezvous with our larger 500 gallon engine, 91-12.
My two friends, Randy Bowman and Nick Reinecker were assigned that day to 91-12. They had been way up the Trask River drainage when the fire call came out, I was surprised to see them in Rockway so quickly, to this day I’m unsure of the break-neck  speeds that were required for them to be there when they were. Regardless they were there and ready to aide with five hundred additional gallons of water. I, for some reason, thought this would be of great use to us.
I pulled up to the side of 91-12 and addressed Nick and Randy. They too had the look of amazement upon their faces. I looked out of my passenger side window to see the very landing I had just been upon. The fire was beginning to lick the edge of the piles. The structure engines were leaving and I could see Kevin’s pickup in the rear of the caravan. To allow them all an exit we pulled 91-13 and 91-12 up the spur road to get out of the way. One of the big red fire engines turned up the spur and chalked their wheels, the crew got out and began unfurling their hose. I’m not sure why they stopped right there, they inadvertently blocked my engine in on the spur road with no exit, something that made me immediately uncomfortable, they were smack dab in between our two forestry rigs and they seemed to be quite content in setting up shop right there.
I was about to go address their commander in charge and ask her to move their engine but something else caught my attention. The giant green pile of fuel was ablaze… and it was sending hundreds of thousands of burning embers aloft all over the freshly cut timber unit. In our training this was what was known as a ‘watch-out situation.’ We quickly realized that our three engines were right in the middle of a proverbial tinderbox and burning debris was falling down like hot snow all over us.
It was game time. As if every piece of burning material was intentionally trying to cause it’s own spot fire, the wind was now a constant twenty miles an hour and our humidity percentage was dropping. This is a recipe for disaster. The fire had gone from less than an acre to something with the potential to grow a hundred times that size in less than ten minutes. Fire, any fire, is cause for pandemonium, even amongst trained professionals.

When the Rockaway rural volunteers saw what was happening a look of panic struck their faces, this was no house fire. In just a few seconds we had about twenty active spot fires burning around us. Randy, Nick, myself and the structure hounds worked feverishly to drench what we could see, not knowing at the time that it was a frivolous attempt at controlling a runaway freight train.
The time came when we all realized we were in a position of real danger and the prospect of a timely exit raged through our minds. 91-12 had already packed up and was heading down the mainline road. I had tried to find another way out by following the spur but to no avail, I saw more spot fires flaring up behind me in the rearview mirror. There was still large equipment left from the timber operation, in my particular area it was a D-7 bulldozer, a rather large example of physical engineering. The operator was trying to get it to a safe location before the fire consumed the whole mountain side and there was till a multi-ton structure fire engine sitting in the middle of the only exit road. Not only that but it was situated between two steep cut banks on either side, leaving very little room to get a vehicle by. At some point I met up with that engine’s commander and gave her a ride back to her engine, it was then in which I told her to get that thing out of the road so we could get down, she didn’t offer any resistance to the idea, she was excited too.
I dropped her off near the backside of her engine, she looked to the road and told me to go ahead and try to get by. Against my better judgment I tried, it was at that time that the Dozer operator decided to go against all logic and try and drive it on the cut bank around our two engines. Why he didn’t wait the five seconds for me to get clear I’m unsure.  Regardless at one point I was between a structure fire engine and a D-7 bulldozer. What made the matter more terrifying was the fact that the cut bank was at such a grade that the huge dozer began to tip and ride on one of it’s treads, performing one of the most fantastic and unnerving balancing acts I think I have ever seen. I gunned the gas pedal and got the hell out of there.


Just down the road I met up with everyone else, by that time we had all of our available resources there set up outside of the burn area along the mainline road. Wheels chalked and panel doors open, people were going every direction. I got out of the engine and went to go find Doug. He told me to go find Kevin and ask for orders. I was instructed to take as much hose as I could carry and head up the newly formed fire trail to construct the progressive hose lay, a process in which a number of lengths of hose are joined together in what is called a trunk line with fifty foot lateral hoses branching out every two hundred feet. This particular hose lay was going uphill right through the slash unit, with active flames flanking our left side, the same fires that I had previously tried in vain to extinguish just a few minutes earlier.
At the top I met up with Randy and Nick along with my long time friend and associate, Ed Wallmark. He’d been in the fire protection program for around ten years and was most certainly my immediate supervisor for the time being. We were instructed to assemble the hose lay and to begin to wet down the surrounding area to try and stymie the flame front. Eddy stood atop a massive deck of processed logs, ready to be brought by truck to the mill, it was a great position for area command as it was higher up but not enough to be out of the action.

I proceeded toward an area where I could see the front moving toward, hose in hand and geared to the teeth with protective and heavy equipment, I walked into what seemed like the gates of hell itself.

Opening the valve on the nozzle and drenching the area around me, I actually felt like I was making a difference. In hind sight it was a beautifully surreal experience. In the background was the town of Rockaway and an un obstructed view of the Pacific Ocean with the late summer afternoon sun reflecting off the surface of the sea and super heated wafts of air blowing me in the face. Just then the wind picked up and flared the fire into the fuel patch I was spraying, completely nullifying any water efforts I was making. The wind fanned the flames and before I knew it I was being licked by the orange and yellow monster. I felt an immense pull from the hose I was holding and I was thrust backward onto my backside on the ground. I looked behind me and saw Eddy with the hose in his hand, he had pulled me away from the fire right in time as I had to run to get out of there. The hose began to singe and burn, collateral damage.

Nick, Randy and myself all decided to generally stick together since we were no longer in our engines and this fire was a first for all of us. Eddy was alright with that and gave us orders to hold that spur road, which we did for the time being.  Around seven in the evening we received our dinner, the local Kentucky Fried Chicken had taken pity upon us and prepared a feast for everyone on the fire. I used to work for that same restaurant and had told myself I’d never eat it again, but I can safely say it was one of the most satisfying meals I’d ever eaten. Fueled by exhaustion I even chewed the bones down to the marrow. We were committed to the fire, we would be there all night, and we knew it.

'To boldly go...'

By one in the morning the active flame front had subsided and left a thirty five acre mountain side in ruinous smolders. Since they hadn’t had the time to truck the timber to the mill there was active flame and hot spots burning red and white all throughout the night. It was then in which we could actually gain a foothold on the incident. Trip after trip to the water tender, we were dumping thousands and thousands of gallons onto the blaze. The timber deck where Ed had set up command hours earlier was burning so hot you could have melted steel within it. Imagine twenty full grown trees bound together and burning in the center. At one point Randy and I put on as much gear as we could just to see how close to that burning deck we could actually get. I think about thirty feet was the extent of it as the blowing heat and embers proved too much to handle. We threw sticks in it to watch the effect, if they were small enough they would literally burst into flame before even landing in the fire. It was hot. You could even feel the heat through the vehicle as you would drive by it throughout the entire night.
At four in the morning tiredness and fatigue set in but little had changed. The fire had been so severe that it actually created an additional three acre incident two miles away, a testament to dangerous fire behavior.
Finally around seven in the morning we heard from Kevin with instructions to meet him at the bottom of the hill for breakfast. Subway had forked up biscuits and gravy for the crew, quite appreciated after a night like that. At that point Kevin told us to get ready to go back to the compound and rest as the day crew was en route.
A few years later I had asked Kevin about that fire, in my latter years on a fire engine I had never seen fire behavior like that and had gained some perspective from that fire. I think even Kevin at the time was concerned. That was the biggest fire the Tillamook District had in the prior sixty years, and it was my first.
People back at the office were to tell me in the beginning hour of the incident one could hear a pin drop in the giant building, they described it through the radio reports from Kevin. The fire had gone from an acre or so to twenty five acres in ten minutes. At the time I thought it was a normal fire for the area.  I remember getting back to the compound around eight in the morning that day, gearing down and getting the engine ready for the day crew. I was tired and ready to go home.
I ended up falling asleep in my own bed around noon and waking up around four that afternoon, Kevin had told us as soon as we woke to check back in at the compound. I got into my trusty red Toyota and went back to work.

As I pulled into headquarters I saw 91-12 on the tarmac with Randy and Nick in full fire gear. I wasn’t expecting to go back to Rockaway, Kevin told us we would be on Initial Attack that day so we had to be around the office.

I walked up to the window and saw Nick sitting in the driver’s seat. Before I had a chance to ask him what was going on, he looked at me and told me to get geared up. We had another incident forty five minutes south, a seven acre fire just outside of the small town of Beaver. I had three and a half hours of sleep after my first fire ever, my second was to begin immediately.