Thursday, November 08, 2007

Firefighting 2007 -- Reprise

Thinking the wildland fire season was over, we parked our engines and washed up our nomex clothing.

Then, last week, some brave and foolish souls were wending their way down Fairview Canyon, a half-ton truck hauling 2 tons of coal. They almost made it down.

Half-mile from the point where the grade flattens out, there is one last steep hairpin curve carved into the side of the canyon. There the brakes failed.

The truck and trailer rammed into a nice flat landing spot on the canyon wall, and just pancaked into a successful stop. Almost miraculous -- none of the passengers were seriously injured. They exited the vehicle, which was standing on its tailgate glued hard against the rock wall, balanced atop trailer and load of coal.

Just as everyone cleared the dangerous area, the gasoline tank in the truck caught fire and the vehicle was engulfed in a ball of fire. The flames quickly spread up the steep slope, through a grove of small cottonwood trees, and continued running up the ridge through scattered oak brush and pinyon/juniper.

By the time we were called in, the fire had spread up the canyon and along the ridge more than a quarter mile. The terrain was near-vertical, so it was not easily approachable. There wasn't much for us to do but stand and watch it burn.

Several firefighting groups attempted to draw out a hose lay up the hill, but the terrain was far too steep and rugged. We suppressed the flames burning close to the road and went home for the night. The fire continued to develop higher up the east side of the canyon.

The next day our group was assigned to stand by at the highway while ground teams started working a fire-break perimeter around the fire. A helicopter with a 250-gallon drop bucket arrived early in the afternoon, and started carrying water drops to selected hot spots, while the ground crews worked on establishing containment lines.

The fire continued to burn and spread higher until Monday, when the two containment lines met at the top of the canyon and tied into an existing road.

We got to assist the helicopter operations on Monday, by replenishing the water supply in the pond he was dipping from. One of the property owners on the side of the hill in north Fairview was nice enough to give us access to his small pond. His name is Wing.

To try and balance out the water we were taking, we brought our 5000 gallon water tender up to put water back into the pond at the Wing ranch. The helicopter was staging right above us. Eventually the helicopter bucket dropped about 30000 gallons of water on the fire, and it was finally snuffed out.

Not a very big fire, as wildland fires go. But it had every potential to threaten signficant damage, far above the 25 acres of scrub oak and juniper it burned. Across the ridge less than a mile away was the city of Fairview. I am certain that many of the residents of Fairview watched those flames atop the ridge on Saturday night with some apprehension. And I hope they breathed a sigh of relief when the smoke plume so near by finally dwindled and disappeared.


A news article from Deseret News:

Wildfires burning in central Utah
Published: November 9, 2007
A pair of wildfires burning in central Utah serve as another reminder that the fire season is not over.

Wildland firefighters were called out to do battle against a 285-acre blaze in remote Millard County earlier this week. A helicopter also was dispatched to contain a 24-acre blaze that ignited on Nov. 3 in steep terrain in Sanpete County's Fairview Canyon.

"Fire season is not over," Karen Feary, a spokeswoman for the Richfield Interagency Fire Center, said Thursday. "We haven't got any rain or snow. We've got cured vegetation out there."

The 24-acre Coal Fire was caused by a vehicle with hot brakes, and it burned in oak brush in terrain so steep, firefighters had to call in a helicopter to help extinguish it. The fire was finally contained on Monday afternoon.

On Tuesday, the Lakeview Fire started in Millard County west of Black Rock. The fire swelled to 285 acres before it was contained, Feary said.

The Lakeview Fire is believed to be human-caused. Investigators have been dispatched to the scene, but authorities said there is nothing to indicate what started the fire.

"It's under investigation," Feary said. "It is believed to be human-caused. We have no lightning."

The absence of any weather is a big concern for firefighters. Despite the cooler temperatures, cheatgrass and other fuels remain dry and ripe to burn.

"Fire danger has increased, and there is a shortage of fire suppression personnel," said Tom Suwyn, a fire management officer.

Firefighters are urging people to be careful in wildland areas, particularly through hunting season.

"We've got cooler days, which mitigates fire activity, but it could still take off," Feary said. "We still have campfires that have escaped on us."

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