October 02, 2012

False Alarm Forest Fire

Imagine yellowish-white dust, lots of it, rising in a column above the forest
Today was sort of like a bad dream.

Maybe not a bad dream, but more like one of those "stuck in a loop, can't do anything" dreams.

(This is a bad dream.)

I was working on an editing job when the phone rings, and it's a friend whose home was threatened in July by another forest fire.

She was seeing smoke, a big column. Her neighbors were seeing smoke.

I called the sheriff's office, but the dispatcher had no reports and no reports of controlled burns either.

So I took a radio and binoculars and drove about three miles to where I could see the area in question. No smoke was visible. I called the dispatcher again, on the radio this time.

"FIre," he said. Nearby Town's department was en route, staging on County Road Such-and-such, and requesting assistance.

I asked him to activate the fire siren and dashed home, asked M. to call our friend back, put on my Nomex clothes, grabbed my fire pack, stuck the magnetic red light on the Jeep, and headed back to the fire house.

No one was there. 

Two issues were in play.

1. It's policy that no fire truck rolls out of the house without at least two firefighters on board. This is a good policy. Even the little brush truck requires one person to watch the pump and/or drive while one or more firefighters advance a hose line.

2. For those (like me) who cannot hear the siren up the canyon, we rely on a telephone-tree system to notify firefighters. I checked with couple of the lead callers. They said that X, Y, and Z were at work. L and M were not answering their phones. E and F were moving cattle and not in cell-phone range. D was putting up hay two counties away. G was at a meeting up in the county seat. And so on.

Meanwhile, Nearby Town's brush truck went tearing up the road past the fire house, followed by a Bureau of Land Management brush truck. They waved to me as I stood in the open bay. I felt sort of useless. Then came Nearby Town's bigger wildland engine, driven by the chief himself.

I waved him down (and briefly considered asking for a ride). They had abandoned the idea of staging on the first road and were now headed up this one. Off they went. I kept feeling useless.

I waited. Various communications and non-communications ensued. The dispatcher said that County Seat's fire department had been "toned out," i.e., notified of a fire, and did I want them to come or should they stand down?

Cautiously, I suggested that they stand down. If I was wrong, that could be bad. I'm not the chief or anything. And where was he? (Answer, probably off working thirty miles away.) Such are the joys of accidental leadership.

Then here came Nearby Town's two engines, down the road, lights and sirens going, turning onto the state highway — what was that all about? 

Finally two of our guys arrived. Better late than never, I started the brush truck and off we went. The dispatcher said that Nearby Town had a structure fire in progress, which explained the rapid departure of their apparatus.

We started up into what I previously called Something Creek Estates, one of my least-favorite areas in terms of wildland-interface fire potential.

Up and up we went, pausing at times to look at tire tracks in the dirt, trying to trace the traffic patterns.

There was some chatter on the federal radio frequency: something about "up on the ridge" and "tell Pueblo" and "false alarm."

Then we saw the green BLM engine coming down. We pulled alongside. Its crew of healthy young firefighters was beaming. One guy with chin whiskers looked right out of Two Years Before the Mast. What fine specimens of wildland firefighters!

Yes, the driver said, that had been them on the radio. It was a false alarm. A water well-drilling rig at a home site up on a ridge had kicked up a tall column of dust. Just look at the photo above and visualize lighter-colored dust — lots more of it.

Nearby residents who had experienced a lightning storm four nights before had imagined the worst.

Twenty minutes later I was back at the firehouse filling out the incident report. You always have to do the paperwork.

I had just enough time to come home, change clothes, and take Shelby the dog to her appointment at the vet for an abscessed insect sting or whatever it was.  There went the day.

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