June 17, 2013

The Devil Made Us Do It: A Fire Run

Fire apparatus heading back to the station.
Because M. and I were back from the laundromat and it was time to do yard and garden work, I was outdoors and heard the emergency siren blow.

A small, dry thunderstorm had passed by thirty minutes earlier, with a couple of loud thunderclaps. Now there was a report of smoke a mile south of town — in other words, pretty close to this house!

I got into my Nomex fire clothes while M. walked around with binoculars outdoors. As I tossed my pack and radio into the truck, she came walking back up the driveway, shrugging her shoulders.

More on the radio from Dispatch: the smoke was near a neighbor's little ranch. I drove there. No smoke.

The brush truck caught up to me—it had left the station about six minutes after the siren, which would be hopelessly slow in a big city but is not too bad for a spread-out rural volunteer department. The pumper was on its way. At least on a Sunday afternoon there were volunteers available—twelve or thirteen turned out right away.

And we drove around: the brush truck up the canyon, some more volunteers up one national forest road, me solo up another Forest Service road, two more guys separately out away from the foothills to get a broader view. Some 23 miles later, I had seen nothing, and neither had anyone else.

We all rendezvoused at the now-closed country store where the pumper was staged. Our assistant chief mentioned that someone had told him of seeing "dust devils" or whirlwinds up on a ridge that burned last October, raising swirls of ash.

We looked at each other. Whirlwinds! That must have been it!

All this driving, looking, and sniffing plus putting away the engines took about ninety minutes, making it almost dinner time. M. was working at the kitchen counter.

"Are we having Fire House Chile?" I asked.

"How about False Alarm Fettuccine?" she replied.

We ate it on the veranda with green salad and red wine. I kept watching out across the valley, but I saw no smoke.

So far.


The Suburban Bushwacker said...

England is so small that we can still pool from a much larger set, and have a full time service.
It must be both scary and amazingly cohesive for the community to have to be pat of a locally pooled resource when that resource is as critical as a fire department.

How much training do you do a year, and how is the money raised to pay for all the gear and upkeep?


Chas S. Clifton said...

SBW: I am told that about two-thirds of the firefighters in the United States are volunteers. Not in the big cities and larger suburbs, of course, but in outer suburbs, small towns, and rural areas. We do not have an ambulance service here, relying on one from a town 14 miles away, which is staffed by . . . volunteers that fire department.

I think the two-thirds figure is for structural firefighters. But in areas like ours, volunteers fight more wildland and grass fires than we do structure fires.

How to we pay for it? We are not a taxing district (some volunteer departments are), so we do the usual:

1. Small grants from county government, when they have the $$$.

2. Personal donations from the community during an annual appeal.

3. Occasional grants from state government and private foundations.

4. An annual garage sales (a/k/a jumble sale), but that is a lot of work for $2,000 or so.

5. Reimbursement from the federal government when our equipment is used on a national forest after the first 24 hours of the incident.

6. Particularly in the West, some vol. departments make good money hiring out equipment and federally qualified crew on big fires. We, however, do not have enough apparatus and volunteers to do that without jeopardizing our home area. (Maybe someday.)

Chas S. Clifton said...

SBW: As to the training, it used to be fairly haphazard, but in the last few years we have put a few guys through the state's Firefighter I training. Mostly we are trying to get more of us qualified at the basic level for wildland firefighting (the federal "red card," as it is called, although the card is no longer red).

We have a couple of qualified emergency medical technicians, although we do not run an ambulance, and we are planning more first-aid training too.

During fire season, we will train monthly or sometimes weekly, depending, on our own equipment.