Cheney Free Press -

By JOHN McCALLUM
Editor 

Mobilizing for fighting and training

Local firefighters provide National Guard some on the job training at Jolly Mountain, Norse Peak blazes

 

October 12, 2017

Ken Johnson/Cheney Fire Department

Spokane County Fire District 3 Division Chief Dustin Flock, right, escorts a National Guard fire crew at the Jolly Mountain Fire northwest of Cle Elem earlier last month as part of state mobilization efforts to combat several Cascade Mountain blazes.

It's fairly typical for local fire department crews to be asked to be a part of state efforts in fighting wildland fires in the region during the summer months.

For Cheney Fire Department battalion chief Ken Johnson and Spokane County Fire District 3's Dustin Flock and Travis Devine, this summer's mobility provided something new - a chance to train some Washington national guardsmen on the nuances of firefighting while also combating two of the larger fires in the state.

Gov. Jay Inslee's Sept. 2 emergency declaration allowed state agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources to call on other resources to combat regional fires, including the National Guard. The Guard eventually activated 239 members, sending them to help firefighters on three fires in the Cascade Mountains: Jolly Mountain six miles northwest of Cle Elum, Norse Peak near Naches and Uno Peak on the east shores of Lake Chelan.

Johnson said Cheney and Fire District 3 received a call from state agencies on Sept. 5, not only asking for help but also specifically people who had the capability of training others. He, Flock and Devine were subsequently sent to the Jolly Mountain Fire, and met with their assigned national guardsmen on Sept. 7.

"We had 40 guys between two hand crews," Johnson said. "They were from all over the state. The captain was from Spokane and then I had several people in the unit from the West Side.

Johnson served as one crew boss, with Flock and Devine acting as squad bosses for two, 10-man squads.

The Jolly Mountain Fire was caused by lighting strikes on Aug. 11, as was Norse Peak. As of Sept. 29, it had encompassed 36,808 acres of timber and grass with "minimal-creeping," according to the National Fire Service's InciWeb incident information system. It was at approximately 50 percent containment.

Flock, who is a division chief handling fire prevention at District 3's Cheney headquarters, said when they go out on state mobilization, they usually go as a small strike team of department firefighters and several pieces of apparatus. At Jolly Mountain, it was a larger team using large, military transport vehicles.

"It was completely different for us, we typically don't do a lot of that," Flock said. "This wildland hand crew is a completely different animal.

Based out of the Cle Elum fire camp, Johnson's crew was eventually deployed over 10 miles of fire line, sometimes covering areas 2–3 times during mop up. It was hot, sweaty, dusty and often smoky work, using axes, shovels, Pulaskis and other pieces of hand gear for 12-16 hours each day.

Department crews with their own apparatus usually have their own water sources when deployed on state mobilization. Flock said in this case, they were often hauling water by hand, sometimes uphill.

When there was a stream nearby, Flock said they put Mark 3 pumps into the creek bed to pump water to hand lines laid down along the containment line. Both he and Johnson said during mop up duties, the crew flaked (rolled up) over six miles of 1.5-inch hose.

A couple of days, the squads were dispatched to do a "burn out," what layman term a back burn. In a burn out, a "dozer line" is first cleared around the fire, exposing as much earth as possible.

Johnson said a hose line is then set up around the dozer line, followed by the burnout line and another crew behind it to control the burn. It's something generally done when the fire is located on higher ground.

"This (burn out) pulls the air, and hopefully the fire, back uphill," he said. "You can only do it if weather conditions are favorable, otherwise you risk the fire taking off in different directions. That's why fighting fire with fire is pretty technical and you need to have the resources to pull that off."

Devine, who serves as captain of District 3's station 34 in Marshal, said it was a good experience for the guardsmen, particularly working on a burn out.

"Only a handful had done this before, and that was just in mop up," he added. "The majority had never been that close to a fire."

Johnson's crew spent 10 days on Jolly Mountain, after which they were pulled out and sent south to Norse Peak where they teamed with another crew of 40 guardsmen. According to InciWeb, Norse Peak was actually 13 fires started Aug. 11 that eventually burned together into several large fires burning in steep, rocky terrain, making access difficult.

As of Sept. 29, the fire had burned 55,909 acres, with most of the fuel load timber, short grass and heavy logging slash that was "generally creeping and smoldering" with "some slow surface spread in heavy fuels under heavy canopy."

Johnson said the crew performed the same duties as at Jolly Mountain, but the steeper terrain and thick forest made firefighting a bit more treacherous. In one instance, a tree fell during mop up, missing a crew boss's pickup by about 10 feet.

"We decided to pull out, it was too dangerous," Johnson said.

After four days on Norse Peak, the Cheney detachment's crews had reached their allotted 14-day deployment, requiring being taken off the line for rest. About that time, the weather turned, enabling fire managers to downsize their crews - sending Johnson, Flock, Devine and their National Guard charges home.

All three Cheney-area men said their time on the fire line with the Guard was well spent. They said it was great to see how the guardsmen came to embrace the concept of firefighting.

"It was an awesome experience and I really hope it is something we can continue," Flock said.

Ken Johnson

Ken Johnson, Dustin Flock and Travis Devine pose with members of their 20-man National Guard hand-line crew.

"It was definitely good to work with new people under different circumstances," Devine added. "It opened my eyes up to different leadership techniques and employing new ways of training."

Johnson said it was amazing the recognition he received when he wore his Cheney Fire Department shirt - which includes Eastern Washington University's logo on the back as part of the design.

"I don't know how many people came up and said, 'I went to Eastern, hey it's great what you guys are doing (here)."

For Johnson, that positive experience carried over to his son's recent Cheney High football game where he saw one of the guardsmen he worked with in the crowd with the visitors. It was a chance to get even further acquainted.

"It's people in our community," Johnson said. "I got to go and lead him."

John McCallum can be reached at jmac@cheneyfreepress.com.

 

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