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From left to right: 341st Civil Engineer Squadron fire department Staff Sgts. David Rogan, Robert Lysholm and Juan Hernandez hike through rough terrain on a steep hill to get to the perimeter of the fire. Several Malmstrom firemen responded to a wild land fire alongside local fire departments, following a Mutual Aid request on July 22. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)
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MAFB fire department answers call for help

Posted 8/2/2012   Updated 8/2/2012 Email story   Print story


by Airman 1st Class Cortney Paxton
341st Missile Wing Public Affairs

8/2/2012 - MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. -- Malmstrom Air Force Base showed its support of surrounding communities this past weekend as several base firemen responded to a Mutual Aid Request on July 22.

The base's Fire Emergency Services Flight has a Mutual Aid Agreement with 42 local fire departments, which recognizes and outlines cases where support from each other would be needed as well as financial reimbursement when required.

The fire in Calvert, Mont., located near Stockett, Mont., is assumed to have started Saturday, July 21, from a lightning strike that ignited a dry patch of land, but allegedly started spreading after winds picked it up on Sunday. After receiving the initial call at 1:14 p.m. Sunday afternoon, an eight-person fire crew was out the door within 60 seconds and on scene in 34 minutes.

"When the Mutual Aid call came in, every firefighter in the department raised their hand and volunteered to respond," said Senior Master Sgt. David Clifford, 341st Civil Engineer Squadron fire chief. "The local Sand Coulee and Black Eagle volunteer fire departments also responded along with firefighting assets from the State of Montana [Department of Natural Resources and Conservation], and U.S. Forestry Service. This also included a helicopter to conduct water drops."

The fire continued through Sunday and into late Monday afternoon where the on-scene incident commander declared the fire as 100 percent contained. Each day, on-scene responders continued hard manual labor until the job was finished.

"We pulled 900 feet of fire hose from the Black Eagle Fire Department's [equipment] up the 60 percent grade hillside to put out most of the fire," said Joseph Keller, 341st CES fire department senior crew chief. "We also dug a 1 to 1.5-foot-wide fire line (dug ground to bare dirt) around the left flank of the fire that first day; roughly 1,000 feet of line."

Keller was one of the eight-person team who responded Sunday afternoon. He served as the Incident Safety Officer and Field Boss and the other seven members acted as operational firefighters who helped extinguish the fire and build a fire break, or containment line. The fire break was built around the perimeter of the fire by cutting down trees and digging or scraping the ground of all vegetation or other combustible materials.

But the physical labor was only part of the fire fight.

"The fire was not accessible by our current fire vehicle fleet because of the condition of the dirt roads and all of the rocks," Clifford said. "Malmstrom firefighters had to park their emergency vehicles and hike to the Incident Command Post and staging area, then utilize the off base volunteer fire department vehicles to fight the fire. Also, the fire became a subsurface sire, sometimes called a duff fire. This is where all of the dead vegetation (pine needles, etc.) that dies and falls to the ground over the years piles up and mixes with the dirt. The fire will literally burn on the surface and underground, advancing slowly but unpredictably because you're unsure where it will resurface (hence digging a fire break like a moat). The fire can burn underground until it hits a tree and then all of a sudden a tree behind you is on fire."

"The terrain was extremely steep and rough," Keller added. "It's always a challenge when you have to carry forestry hose and tools (axes, Pulaski and McCloud's) up that steep of a hill to where you will start your attack from. If you need other tools or equipment, they are not readily available due to the location of the apparatus. Teamwork, hard work, man hours and leadership are what made the operation successful."

Following the containment of the fire, only 10 acres were estimated to be burned and only wild land terrain was lost; no life or property damage occurred. According to Clifford, this was the 11th wildfire Malmstrom personnel have responded to so far this year but he feels it's only the beginning.

"Unless we get a significant amount of rain or until the first snow falls, there will be more wild land fires in the county, state and nation as we have seen on the news already this year," he said. "Everyone out there must understand how dry it is and that the slightest spark could start a major wild land fire. Please don't throw your cigarette butts out the window, be careful when camping, and watch the wind speeds and directions, which cause the spread of fire, but most importantly, know the local and state fire burn restrictions."

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