By Shane Klippenes
“Get down on that hoseline with Engine 1, and be my eyes and ears down there!” the battalion chief (BC) yelled above the roar of the wind and rapidly advancing fire. The boiling smoke and wind-driven fire that created extremely dangerous and uncomfortable working conditions for the crews also made it impossible for BC Jackson to track their progress and ensure their safety.
A mere 10 minutes into a wildland-urban interface (WUI) fire that would burn for hours, and it was already apparent that the apparatus, training, personnel, and freshly inked mutual-aid agreement with volunteer departments were going to be tried by fire.
For 130 years, Great Falls (MT) Fire Rescue (GFFR) has provided fire protection and responded to emergencies within its community. Initially responding only to structure fires with hose wagons and horses borrowed from the local livery stable, the service delivery model expanded over the years that followed its inception in 1886 to include EMS, hazardous materials, technical rescue, ice and water rescue, auto extrication, and wildland firefighting - everything you’d expect from a modern, full-service fire department.
GFFR runs nearly 8,000 emergency calls each year, serving a population of 62,000 spread out over 19 square miles of high-plains terrain that butts up to numerous mountain ranges and rural communities. Despite the fact that Great Falls hosts numerous small grass fires each summer (many attributable to robust, annual celebrations of our nation’s independence), GFFR has never owned a brush truck. Relying instead on long hoselays, ingenuity, and the hard work provided by engine companies and a single water tender has been its modus operandi for decades.
Spring 2015 changed things up by the signing of GFFR’s first mutual-aid agreement with the volunteer fire departments surrounding the city and comprising the bulk of fire protection in the sprawling county. Like any new contract comprising multiple agencies, there were some wrinkles to iron out, but by the time the busy summer season rolled around, GFFR was responding outside the city limits with regularity and had taken advantage of Cascade County Volunteer Fire Department (VFD) services on multiple occasions as well.
On July 26, 2016, GFFR was requested to send a staffed engine to assist several county volunteer departments that were fighting well-developed fire in crop lands adjacent to the city. Sparked by farm equipment during harvest, the fire was moving through varied terrain and encroaching on multiple structures north and west of Great Falls. Engine 1 responded, providing structure protection for a farmhouse and multiple outbuildings throughout the afternoon until cleared by the incident commander, who thought he had enough resources on scene and the fire laid down enough to release E1 back to its response area in the city.
Three hours later, however, fire behavior had changed dramatically because of afternoon heat and high winds that were gusting up to 60 miles per hour (mph) from the north. Fanned by the torrential winds, the fire exploded, consuming structures, brush, and crops, then rushing toward multiple subdivisions on the northern edge of Great Falls. The plume from property destruction by fire was visible for miles, blotting out the sun over the fireground while dropping ash, fire brands, and soot from one side of town to the other.
Faced with an event spiraling out of control, GFFR was called back to the scene along with a request for Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) aircraft and statewide mutual aid. While Cascade County VFD personnel were spread across the rapidly expanding 15,000-acre fire, GFFR struck a third alarm, leaving callback crews to cover fire calls throughout the city and placing all other available crews and apparatus on the northern outskirts to protect hundreds of homes bordering the fire.
Despite high winds, limited visibility, unpredictable flame lengths, and incredible heat, GFFR crews used Type 1 engines and the water tender to hold the line, stopping the fire within 10 feet of multiple neighborhoods. Although the hard work and resilience of GFFR and our mutual-aid partners resulted in not a single structure being burned within the city limits, many weaknesses were exposed in our response model, radio communications, apparatus menu, and training. The lessons learned from this incident incited change and have altered forever the way GFFR addresses WUI events.
Challenges and Lessons Learned
Communications: A potentially lethal threat, made apparent from the onset, was the inability to effectively communicate with other mutual-aid agencies on scene. Even though numerous statewide mutual-aid frequencies are shared by all agencies, no apparent “single-operations channel” had been established, and chaos on the communications side ensued.
This lack of a focused, unified command channel created a breeding ground for freelancing, as individual departments attacked the fire as best as they could, communicating among like units on their department’s tactical channels but without consistent connection to command or the other departments on scene.
This being the case, GFFR established its own command structure to provide clarity and accountability for its firefighters on scene and relied on face-to-face communication with mutual-aid agencies when necessary.
Although it worked out in the end, all responding agencies agreed that a single-command channel is a necessity when multiple departments are responding together, regardless of incident size. Working together over the past several months with a few more incidents under their belts has allowed all players to realize the need for a single tactical channel and work together to find a solution. Involving dispatch in this process and training together have gone a long way toward ensuring that the communication challenges and errors experienced at the Vineyard 2 Fire are not repeated on future events.
Apparatus: Like many fire departments of similar size, funding is a limiting factor at GFFR. Despite the obvious need for a Type 6 engine, competing priorities left GFFR a victim of its own success at fighting wildland fires the hard way, and a brush truck was never purchased.
With the absolute need for a mobile unit with pump-and-roll capabilities exposed by the Vineyard 2 Fire, Assistant Chief Ron Scott set out to fill it. With nearly 30 years on the job, Scott was a longtime proponent of purchasing appropriate apparatus and understood the need.
After his budget request for a brush truck was denied, Scott dug deeper into creative solutions and found one offered by the Montana DNRC. Through the County Cooperative Fire Protection Program, the DNRC Equipment Development Center develops various wildland firefighting apparatus (including Type 6 engines). This equipment is owned by the state but maintained and kept at the counties.
After finagling the money to purchase a Ford F-550 chassis, Scott partnered with the battalion chief in charge of apparatus (Jeremy Jones), the city shops, and the DNRC to build a brush truck from scratch. This brand-new piece of apparatus is frontline for wildland fires and other incidents within the city, rolls as requested by its mutual-aid partners, and is available for large-scale urban interface issues throughout the region.
Training: Any fire department worth its salt understands the importance of training and maintains a program dedicated to keeping its people sharp on their “bread and butter calls” and “high-risk, low-frequency events.” Regardless of how solid an individual department’s training programs are, if mutual-aid partners don’t spend significant time training together beforehand, issues are bound to arise at a large incident.
Being a fast-moving event involving several responding agencies, the stage was set for tactical failure at the Vineyard 2 Fire. Even though organized deployment of resources across the fireground could have been improved on, individual departments relied on their own training and experience to perform task level work effectively.
Post-incident recognition of the need to spend structured time training together to avoid frustration and keep crews operating safely at future events spurred change. Although more remains to be done, tabletops, face time, and boots on the ground drills open to all mutual-aid departments have been initiated and well received.
After the Fire
The Vineyard 2 Fire consumed more than 15,000 acres of grass, crops, and brush; threatened multiple structures; and required the evacuation of hundreds of people from three major subdivisions. This level of destruction placed it as the largest wildland fire in Montana at the time and exposed the strengths and weaknesses of GFFR’s communications, apparatus, and training while testing the resolve of the fledgling mutual-aid agreement.
While certainly not without flaw, the combined actions of GFFR and mutual-aid partners effectively protected its customers and millions of dollars in property. As they process and act on the lessons learned at this event, the combined forces realize that the Vineyard 2 Fire made history by changing the way a 130-year-old municipal fire department does business!
Shane Klippenes is the training officer at Great Falls (MT) Fire Rescue. He is a TEMS paramedic, outdoorsman, author, speaker, and all-season explorer of Montana’s wilder places. www.blackleafwriting.com / firstname.lastname@example.org / instagram @gffr35.