Archive for the ‘firefighting’ Category
Reconnecting on Facebook with old friends from Lincoln Parish Fire Department inspired me to write down one of the memories I have of the place. It’s a tale fraught with adventure and danger, sure to keep you riveted to your seat and/or make you decide you’ve had enough internet for the day. It’s the story of That Time I Was Alone at a Friggin’ Structure Fire.
A mid-December afternoon in 1998. I’m at the apartment in Ewok Village thinking of good reasons to skip work at KLPI. Rank has its privileges after all, and it’s far too nice a day to wa – *BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP* – a house fire! And it’s near Station 13, which happens to be the station I’m a Captain at. To the Ranger!
Driving down the backroads of Lincoln Parish is no small challenge. Doing it really, really fast in a light pickup is practically suicidal. But it can be done, and so it has to be. Heading west I see a dark column of smoke through breaks in the trees. I know it’s going to be a working fire, and I know that volunteer turnout can be light in the early afternoons given that many people have something called a “job”. I pick up my hilarious-in-retrospect mid-1990’s cell phone and call Danny (our chief Neill was out of town that week) to let him know that this isn’t a false alarm and we’ll need lots of help. I guess I should have been more explicit in my intentions because he never did get on the radio.
Station 13 is a block past the street that the fire is on. I look to the right as I speed through the intersection and it looks like the road ends in a huge cloud of black smoke. This is going to be a good one. I screech to a stop in the parking lot and kill the engine, making sure to leave it in gear. No need for a repeat of that embarrassing incident at Station 3 a few months earlier.
We gotta go. It’s been almost 10 minutes since the page went out. Punch in the combination to the station door… hit the garage door button… hop in the truck. It starts right up… wow, and I don’t even have to wait for the air brake tanks to fill! With a belch of diesel smoke and an obnoxious blow of the air horn Tanker 13 is finally enroute. I get on the radio to let everyone know that this is a working fire and we’ll need lots of help. Department policy says that I should get out and shut the garage door before leaving, but don’t they know there’s a fire right around the damned corner?! I tear out of the driveway without giving it a second thought, heading back the way I came. Of course it would have been helpful to give a second thought about my turnout gear, which is currently sitting in the back of my pickup back at the station. Damn.
12 minutes now. As I turn onto the street I had passed just a few minutes ago the smoke looks even thicker than before. Climbing up a small hill I can finally see the source and it’s definitely a house, single story and fully involved. Neighbors up and down the block are standing near the street looking at the fire, turning to look at me as they hear the siren approaching. I reach for the radio to call on-scene just as I catch sight of the power lines laying across the street about 200 feet in front of me. Now I can’t tell you what the exact stopping distance is for a 1992 Mack tanker-pumper carrying 3,000 gallons of water and travelling at 40mph, but I can tell you that I needed a new pair of pants after that panic stop. And a new shirt, and new everything else – the abrupt stop sloshed the water in the tank, causing an inland tidal wave of at least 50 gallons to shoot forth from the overflow stack and into the window of the cab. What, you didn’t think I needed new pants because… aw, sick!
Water.. everywhere.. No time to ponder the embarrassment though – this thing is really cooking! I tell all incoming trucks to come in from the north to avoid the power lines, then engage the pump and hop out. Usually there’s someone already pulling hose off the truck by this point, so it’s right about now that I first notice I’m the only firefighter there. Seriously, seriously weak. I pull the front crosslay line and run it a few hundred feet out, then run back to the truck and do the same with the rear crosslay. As I’m trotting back to the truck already out of breath, I notice a big fat propane tank a few feet from the rear side of the house. Oh crap. Back at the panel I charge the first line, quickly run the RPMs up to a ballpark range for 100psi, run back out to the nozzle, and open it up on the tank. I feel a slight twinge of guilt for spraying the tank instead of the burning house, but I’m only one person and the house won’t be there if the tank goes. I’m standing about 100 feet away but without gear my skin feels like it’s sizzling. The bath I took in the truck is helping with the heat but not for long. Thankfully I look back at the truck and see someone else gearing up. A few seconds later I hand off the hose and head back to the pump panel to stand under a water leak.
From there on out it pretty much becomes a standard incident. No one killed, no one hurt. The house is a total loss, an unfortunately common occurrence for volunteer departments in rural areas. As I recall it started in a faulty electrical outlet and spread into the attic unnoticed due to the lack of smoke detectors in the house. As an added bonus, in keeping with the tradition of getting in trouble at major fires I was eventually “spoken to” about leaving the station door open.
So that’s the story of the time I did the work of an entire engine company by myself. At the time it was just another crazy incident, but it’s really stood out in my mind over the years as an example of why I sometimes miss that unpredictable life. Hope you enjoyed it!
A quote from a guy caught up in the fires currently raging across southern California:
The house three doors down had burned overnight, and Mr. Weinstock climbed onto his roof with a garden hose. “I’ve lived here 20 years,” he said, “and I am not going anywhere.”
This is how residents die. It’s also how firefighters die. As the article points out, people staying behind to protect their houses force the fire department to divert resources to rescue operations. It forces firefighters into dangerous situations that they would rather avoid.
And it’s all for nothing.
A cheap 1/2″ garden hose flows about 9 gallons per minute. Upgrade to the common 5/8″ and you get 17 gpm. Go all-out and get 23 gpm from 3/4″. Let’s contrast that with hoses used in the fire service. 1 1/2″ and 1 3/4″ are the most common sizes for fast attack lines. They flow roughly 150gpm and 200gpm respectively, depending on the length of the run, relative elevation, and a few other factors. At large fires they also break out the deuce-and-a-half, which flows 250+ gpm. A single engine with its pump in volume mode can easily supply over 2000gpm to multiple lines, again depending on several factors.
2000 gpm from one truck. 23 gpm from one house. Trust the experts when they tell you to leave. “But what if embers fall on my roof? A garden hose could put them out, but only if I’m there to do it!” If a fire is close enough to drop embers on your roof, the odds are you’re only delaying the inevitable – and doing so at the expense of the people who are there trying to help you and your neighbors.
If you live in an area prone to wildfires, the two best things you can do to protect yourself and your property are to keep vegetation trimmed back as far away from the house as possible, and to get out when you’re asked to.