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Details about yesterdays big woods fires - it was a nice day for a walk in the woods

By Andrew Pollack on 04/20/2006 at 09:03 AM EDT

Nearly every fire crew in the state was busy yesterday and today looks to be the same. With the onset of spring we've got warm, dry weather and brisk winds but the ground cover hasn't yet gone through the "green up" process so things are tinder box dry. At 16:45 yesterday I heard the call go out on the radio for two nearly simultaneous fires. One of our crews was requested to help Portland and Falmouth deal with a brush fire off the "Falmouth Spur" of the Maine Turnpike that sounded like quite an event, while at the same time another crew was requested from our West station (3) to cover Gray's central station (2). Since half of our west station members were already busy dealing with the first fire, our Central station (4) crew of Engine 3 was sent to Gray instead. They called for additional manpower so I drove my own car from my home (5) up to Gray central station (2).

The woods fire in the 'nearby' town of New Gloucester was quite an event. Almost immediately on my arrival in Gray (2) their own Engine 3 was requested to report to the scene in New Gloucester (1). They had only two people -- a chief and a firefighter -- so I was assigned to go with them. I'd never worked closely with Gray crews so I wasn't sure quite what to expect. When we got on scene, there were crews from as far away as Pownal and Westbrook. I found out later that crews from all the way out in Cape Elizabeth and South Portland had been called in to cover our Cumberland station. Those towns aren't on the embedded map here, to find them use this Microsoft Live Map. South Portland and Cape Elizabeth are south of Cumberland. If you see a larger area marked "Cumberland" in red, that is Cumberland County, in which Cumberland is one town. Oddly, its not the county seat. That would be Portland.

Once on scene, I left my structural firefighting coat and bunker pants at the main command post and put my forestry jump suit on. This is a lightweight gnomex coverall in bright yellow which is much more comfortable for outdoor work. That plus my regular leather steel toed boots and black helmet are what I wear for this kind of work. Grabbing gloves, radio, flashlight, goggles, and RIT strap from my gear I was assigned with three others from Gray to jump on the back of a four wheeled "mule" and shuttled to the back side of the fire, on the upwind side. There, being the only officer of the group, I was given charge of those three other guys and sent in to deal with spot fires and permitter control on that upwind side.

At first, there were only a few hand tools left available -- and not the ideal ones -- and no "Indian tanks". An Indian tank is a 5 gallon water backpack with a hand pumped spray nozzle used for forestry work. Ideally, with that and a polaski tool (a sharp edged shovel & pick) you can clear a lot of ground. As I said, we had neither. We started out using our boots, one shovel, and an 8 pound flat headed axe. We were able to keep the spot fires down, but not make forward progress without water. The wind kept bringing back the embers in tree trunks and roots and fanning it back up to fire. After about 20 minutes, we met up with two other crews of four and because I was actually going to the trouble of providing direction and decisions, those groups quickly fell in with mine.

Now I had about a dozen people to manage and almost no radio communication back to command. That may have been because they were so busy back there, but also because the shared "state fire" frequency wasn't carrying over the hill very well. One of the guys with me had a local radio so he became my radio relay guy and before long I was able to have a 3/4" hand line brought down. At the end of 2000 feet of 3/4" line we didn't have much pressure -- though fortunately it was downhill from the source so that helped. Once we had water we made good progress. After about an hour we came to a tree that needed to come down. There was fire inside the trunk. I called for a chain saw and told my crew to sit and take a break. That tree was the most dangerous thing in the area, and we weren't going anywhere until it came down. I didn't want to move our crew upwind of that tree while it had the potential to turn our ground fire into a crown fire that would be coming up from behind us.

By dark, we had most of the spot fires down enough that they weren't flaring up any more, and we packed out all that line along with the water and snacks that had been sent down to us, and my three guys and I caught a ride back to the main area. Once there, we helped haul another thousand feet of line from other truck up out of the woods, and finally ended up at rehab where we had some terrific cold pizza, gatorade, and skittles for dinner courtesy of the Salvation Army. After that feast and a quick check by the EMT crews we were released from the scene and headed back to Gray's central station where we spent about another hour putting the trucks back into service with dry hose line and full water tanks. Finally, at about 22:00 I got back to my own Central station to clean and put away my own gear, and was home for a shower by around 23:00.

Today is dry, sunny, and windy again with the state fire marshal calling conditions "extreme". Conditions are a repeat of yesterday. We're not expecting any rain until Sunday.

Here's a link to that Microsoft Live Map where I've marked up the key locations. There's a static image of the map below.

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