Firehouse News: A Day of Brush Fires
By Tom Loach
I was minding my own business when it started. A slight scratchy throat and dry cough set off an early warning. The following morning that scratchy throat was a miserable sore throat combined with a low-grade fever and general body misery.
Then the beeper went off, squawking out one department’s tone after another, followed by an announcement that it would be a red flag day. That meant a busy day for firefighters and I was in no shape to help. A red flag day means there’s a combination of low humidity and high winds, the perfect conditions for brush fires. What usually starts the ball rolling is when high winds topple a tree onto a power line. Sparks follow and we’re off to the races.
It didn’t take long before the pager announced the first of what would be many brush fires that would be fought that day, February 19. Brush fires can be viewed as a nuisance to put out, but the fact is we have lost homes to brush fires and on a red flag day the potential for damage rises exponentially with the force of the wind. Red flag days put a tremendous strain on the entire fire service and especially on the Emergency Communication Center, whose staff would have to coordinate the response of multiple fire departments along with assets from the state forestry service and police. The only saving grace, if there was any, was that it was Saturday and there would be more volunteer firefighters available.
Furthermore, the fact it’s a red flag day doesn’t mean that other emergency calls take a holiday. A red flag day means every department will be busy, so looking for help from a neighboring fire department will be a problem. It would be a day of nonstop action, moving from one fire to the next until the winds subsided and we could get ahead of the curve.
Listening to the pager was very frustrating and made me feel worse. For Crozet, our first call was a brush fire in Sugar Hollow, which I knew could be a problem because of the many steep slopes in that area. For firefighters, steep slopes mean rapidly moving fires that require both firefighting skills and mountain goat agility. Unlike most fires, where we pull up in a big fire truck, pull out some hose, put the wet stuff on the red stuff and go home, brush fires can be in locations where the big fire truck and all that hose is useless. If we’re lucky, we can get a brush truck close enough to stretch our smaller forestry hose lines and reach the fire. But if not, we hump the boonies and cut fire lines to stop the spread of the fire.
Another difference in fighting brush fires is the type of clothing we wear. Fighting a house fire, we wear our heavy bunker gear, designed to protect us from the heat, along with air packs attached to face masks that keep fresh air flowing. When it comes to brush fires, lighter is better. Until recently, fighting a brush fire was a come-as-you’re-dressed affair, but thanks to a government grant and your generous donations, we purchased a number of Nomex jump suits and forestry helmets with eye protection. But even with the best firefighting equipment, if the wind changes your way, you can expect to get a face full of smoke and hot embers. If the wind is strong enough and you’re in the wrong place, it can come down to a foot race to get out of the way of the fire. And finally, at least for me and no matter how hard I try to prevent it, fighting a brush fire of any size usually means one final insult, which takes the form of breaking out with a rash several days after the fire because I was exposed to poison ivy or whatever plant can cause skin irritation.
On second thought, maybe being sick that day was not such a terrible thing.