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Fire on the Horn

By PATSY STODDARD
Editor


Fire crews dig out hot spots in the forest.

The area surrounding Joes Valley Reservoir became the command center for the fire on Horn Mountain, which began with a lightning strike on July 7. A miniature tent city sprang up practically overnight as firefighters from throughout the western states moved into the region.

The fire on Horn Mountain is estimated to have burned 1,022 acres and, according to the forest service, was contained as of July 12. Firefighters and equipment continued working on mop-up of hot spots and rehabilitating some of the fire line through the weekend and the Manti-La Sal National Forest was expected to resume management of the fire on Monday.

"We're glad that we were able to get this fire contained as quickly as we did and that no one was hurt in the effort," said Tom Suywn, incident commander.

As firefighters converged on the scene last week an initial attack team responded and eight smoke jumpers were sent into the area.

Kathy Jo Pollock is the chief fire information officer for the fire. Dick Birger is her assistant as a trainee fire information officer. There were two helicopters and approximately 271 firefighters on the fire. Dealing with a fire is a complicated procedure with many players all working on their piece of the puzzle. There are safety officers, operations officers, incident commanders, weather specialists, smoke jumpers, hot shots, caterers, supply specialists and firefighters, to name a few. There is also a finance section of a fire to determine the costs. The logistics crew sets up the camp. Suywn is in charge of the Horn fire.

Fire safety is of utmost importance on any fire. Each firefighter has safety training and safety meetings are held every day. Firefighters are taught if a fire comes back at them to head for a black area that has already been burned, because it can't burn again. As a last resort a firefighter would use his fire shelter, which is shaped like a small pup tent and made from fire retardant materials. The firefighters are shown how to deploy, setup and enter their shelter. They are also taught to wrap a dry bandana around their nose and mouth. A wet bandana can sear the lungs from the heat of the fire.

The fire is estimated to have covered 1,022 acres

Birger explained the fire, "We have three divisions up here, Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. Each division has its own commander. Firefighters can work up to 14 days at a time, then they have two days off and become available again. On an average they go out on four to five fires a year. This fire season started earlier than normal and with fire behavior not seen before. The fires have moved faster and have gone through the tops of the trees."

Pollock said, "When the first fire restrictions were issued the wilderness area of the high Uintahs was left out because things were really green up there and then a fire broke out on the north side and just went from tree top to tree top. That is unheard of for this time of year. That fire has burned 15,000 acres and was possibly started near a boy scout camp. The fire in Price Canyon was started by a passing train. It is shaping up to be a bad year. We are getting a handle on the fires and jumping on them fast. The fuels are really dry and the weather is dry; it's an interesting year.

"Fires will usually burn in a mosaic pattern, some areas will burn and other areas will be left untouched. This pattern aids in the regrowth of an area. Some older timber that is bug infested will burn and go quicker, but the healthy trees will usually survive. One of the fires that burned around April 18 near Panquitch already has foot high aspens growing on it. Lodge pole pines need heat to open up their seeds and start new trees growing. You like to see green areas because then the fire doesn't kill and sterilize an area.

"This fire camp is a relatively small camp for this year, we have between 350-360 people; with 271 firefighters. We have crews from Utah, Colorado, Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, Montana; they're from all over. Each firefighter goes through a 40 hour basic training on fire behavior and tactics and safety. Each year they take an eight hour refresher course to make sure everyone is up to date," said Pollock.

Birger said, "I work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services out of Las Vegas. I spent most of my career in the Midwest, where they have a lot of prairie grass that burns. I am just becoming familiar with the western type of fire. This Horn fire is burning lodge pole pine, fur and aspen trees; also a lot of sagebrush and grass. The heavy helicopter is dumping around 500 gallons of water on the fire per load. Two national guard planes have also been here and dumped retardant on the fire. This coats the green so it won't burn, but after the fire it has to be cleaned off the plants or else they will suffocate. The smaller helicopter is filling out of Joes Valley Reservoir and the larger one is getting its water from a tank. There are two engines, three water tenders and a bulldozer also on the fire.

"The hose lines are laid out from the engines and the firefighters attack the fire with water from those hoses. A fire is considered contained when a good secure line is built around the fire and the burning interior area is contained. The purpose of the fire line is to dig down and get below the vegetation so the fire cannot jump across the line, because it doesn't have any fuel to burn across the line. A line will usually be built that is one and half times as wide as the fuel is high.

"We have been using the marina area for the helicopter dispatch. It is fueled and maintained there. The helicopter crew comes as a module for the complete care of the helicopter. They usually call the helicopter crew, 'rotorheads.' The pilot only has so many hours that he can fly and then they have to shutdown for maintenance. We have had two heavy helicopters and one medium on this job. There are not enough helicopters to go around to all the fires. On this fire they are adding foam to the water to help in suppression.

"A Type II team has the logistical ability to bring in supplies. A Type I team is a bigger operation with more of everything; more experience and more time firefighting. On the initial attack of a fire, local crews will move in. If they don't get it the first day then an expanded attack is launched and they order up a team. The team comes in with organized support crews and a medical unit and all other things to go into the support of the firefighters. There is a lot of technology involved in firefighting, satellites and weather analysis, etc., but we still need people on the ground to build the line with hand tools.

A firefighter runs hose from the engine.

"We use school buses to transport crews to the line and some commercial buses. Some crews like the hot shots have their own vehicles. They travel from fire to fire in a crew buggy. These crew buggies carry 10 people and their equipment and can go right to the line. Hot shots are Type I teams and they have the most experience. It's kind of like the military special forces and there is somewhat of a rivalry between the hot shots and the smoke jumpers.

"Each fire is evaluated and its priority is determined. One of the reasons this fire was suppressed was because of the communications towers in the area and the protection of deer, elk and cattle range. One of the first things done was to build a protective line around the communications center. Eight smoke jumpers parachuted into the area as close to the fire as possible. They have hand tools and chain saws and start scratching a line to try to contain the fire to the area. Each fire is different and it's tricky to know what's going on. These are the first firefighters to the fire and other crews are delivered by land. There is a division of labor on a fire. Type III firefighters have less experience and are used in a different way.

"The division supervisor will look at the resources and determined how best to use the resources at hand. This fire is on the forest and the forest supervisor has contracted Tom Suywn and his team to manage the fire for them because it exceeds the local forest service's ability to deal with the fire. Each year money is set aside by Congress to fight federal fires. Money is borrowed from other programs for immediate costs and when all costs for the year are known Congress supplements.

"We took over the management of the Horn fire at 6 p.m. on July 8. Normally a lightning caused fire is a light fire. But, we are seeing fire intensity increase which could be a result of suppressing fire for so long and changing fuel types, changing habitat and a long term drought. A quick fix is not going to happen it is going to take some time, it is a complex situation.

"At night a fire will usually lay down. The temperature drops and the humidity rises at night. It's extremely dangerous to have crews out at night. We keep firefighter safety at the top of the circumstances. Firefighting is a dangerous and dirty job. As of July 9 this fire had consumed 1,022 acres," said Birger.

The weather specialist on the job said he gets most of his weather information from the weather service. It is his job to determine fire behavior and try to figure out what the fire is going to do. He analyzes wind shifts and tries to determine what the fire is going to do by looking at the weather, fuel type, slope of the fire and wind speed. He said, "There's not a lot of fuel on the ground up here, the cows have nibbled it down and there is a lot of dead vegetation. A lot of dead trees will put the fire up into the canopy. This fire season is shaping up to be compared to the year of the huge California fires. We are seeing the fires head into the aspen which is unusual, things are dryer than they have been for a long time."

Ben Sorensen from the Logan Hot Shots said, "This is my second season with the Logan Hot Shots and I work constructing fire lines and putting in fuel breaks. It's fun and you make good friends. It's hard work, but hard work builds character."

Not all firefighters are men, about 25 percent of the firefighters are now women. To be a firefighter you must pass the pack test, which is to carry a 45 pound pack for three miles in less than 45 minutes. You must be in good physical condition and have energy to meet these rigid standards. It is grueling work building fire lines and dragging fire hoses up and down rugged terrain. The firefighters have to receive at least 3,000 calories each day in their meals. The government sets specifications for proteins, carbohydrates, etc. to keep the firefighters in good condition.

Camp crewmembers support the fire fighting crews.

Bill Swann, division supervisor said, "We bring the engines in as far as they can go and then the water is transported to the line by hose. Ninety-five percent of the fires are contained by the initial attack. It's the 5 percent that get away, the large extended fires that we are called in on. We are on a preparedness level of five which means fire danger is high. Crews will sometimes have to extend the time they can be out with proper approval. They will stay out and go where needed as long as they can do it safely."

Scott Bushman of the Logan Hot Shots said they are having a normal year. They work all summer on the fires and spend the winters teaching, planning, doing paperwork and preparing for the fire season. He has five staff members and all the other firefighters are permanent part-time workers who have three or four months of rest in the winter before the next fire season begins. Firefighters are called in during the early spring for training." He said, "This is an easy fire, we just came from Springville where the slope was 90 percent and it was rough going. I also recently returned from Russia where I spent some time training Russian firefighters. They have one-fourth of all the trees in the world over there, and it is a huge area without a lot of roads. It is gorgeous over there."

Swann said, "A good chunk of this fire is contained, but there is still some on the steep side that is not. We will do mop up and rehabilitation of the area. We will cover up the trails and in a year it will be hard to tell that we were here. We are just now starting into the traditional fire season. I've been doing this for well over 20 years and I've never seen anything like this year. Colorado doesn't burn like that and we've got a long way to go. It is shaping up to be an exceptional season, but we're just going to take it one day at a time. This year, fires have gone from small to big really quick with no in-between stage."

Birger said, "In an emergency situation the local sheriff would order an evacuation. There was an incident command system that went back to New York to ground zero and handled logistics for them. They helped order in medical supplies and kept the workers fed and watered. They worked getting crews into the area to work. It's amazing what these teams can do. They have also worked on hurricanes and other disasters.

"We need to work to restore the role of fire to the ecosystem. It took a long time to get this way and it will take a long time getting back to where it is more manageable. We also need to change the perception of the public to recognize the role of fire. We can manage fire as a tool," said Birger.

Each night the team meets for a briefing where they discuss the status of the fire, fire safety and the plan of attack for the next day. As soon as the Horn fire is under control the team will move on to the next fire. "Fire is my life," said Swann.





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