Communication Vital as Fires Swirl

By Alison Gene Smith, The Times-News, Twin Falls, Idaho
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

July 18--RICHFIELD -- The smell of burned sage brush still wafted down U.S. 26/93 Thursday where the charred remains of a heavy brush truck sat, still stuck in the sand, high-centered on a rock pile.

The truck belonged to the Richfield Fire Protection District.

Two firefighters responded Wednesday to the 27-acre blaze six miles from Richfield.

An erratic wind change turned the fire back toward them and the 35 mph wind gusts began to whip around, said former fire chief Mike Swainston.

The two men sprayed water on the four- and five-foot flames until they ran out of water. At that point, they had to give up the truck and think about their safety.

"They did everything they could," Swainston said.

The fire was started when a truck lost its tire and its bare rim scrapped along the asphalt, flinging sparks into the nearby brush, said Kelsey Dehoney, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman.

Each summer, BLM fire fighters and small, rural, often all-volunteer fire departments work together to fight wildland fires. While each department has different protocol, leaders and training, they often must come together and work as one. Communication is key, said Chris Simonson, fire management officer for the BLM Twin Falls District.

Rural fire departments that work with the BLM have radios dialed into SIRCOMM and BLM radios, said Dietrich Fire Chief Lyle Towne.

The incident command personnel lets them know which frequencies their radios need to be on so everyone can communicate together, regardless of which department they're from.

Weather changes, like wind direction or a thunderstorm can change fires drastically. Red flag weather warnings of hot, dry conditions can mean dangerous days for firefighters. Local agencies are made aware of the red flag conditions by SIRCOMM, Towne said.

On each fire scene, the volunteer firefighters communicate with the BLM incident commanders to find out about changes in weather, he said.

Wednesday's fire, six miles west of Richfield, was initially reported as a private land fire, Simonson said, The BLM was called in to assist. They ended up arriving first, followed by Shoshone's rural fire department and then Richfield.

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Together, the departments made a plan and set out to fight the fire, he said.

"It's critical that you're establishing if it's a unified command, BLM jurisdiction, and who's working for who," he said. "You have to establish communication with the incident commander so everyone knows what the plan is."

Wednesday, the departments tied in together just as they typically do, Simonson said.

"That's how it should work," he said.

While Simonson said the frequent wind changes are typical for the region, Swainston said to him, this year feels more intense. The 2014 fire season is dryer than average, meaning fires can burn hotter, Simonson said.

Any kind of significant weather event that the National Weather Service has forecast is passed on to the BLM dispatch office, he said. The next job is to pass the information on to make sure everyone on the fire gets the message.

The BLM also takes data from weather at the fire scene and sends it back for the NWS to analyze.

"The Weather Service can hone in on localized factors that might influence the fire," Simonson said.

That means better information for firefighers on the ground.

Thursday afternoon, Swainston and his wife Luann, the fire department's secretary, were preparing to meet with an insurance adjuster and assessing their next steps for replacing the lost truck and gear. The brush truck was valued at around $300,000, Swainston said.

Along with the heavy brush truck, the department lost everything that was inside it, including more than $300 in diesel fuel. On a $16,000 annual budget, that hurts, Luann Swainston said.

While the department has about 12 volunteers, most work out of town and aren't available during the day. Just two firefighters were in town Wednesday when the call went out.

While just two firefighters from Richfield went out to Wednesday's fire, Swainston said, he prefers to have three, to be safer.

"No one ever goes out alone," he said.

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(c)2014 The Times-News (Twin Falls, Idaho)

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