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Malmstrom joins Gibson Flats fire fight

Staff Sgt. James Willett, 341st Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter, uses an ax to prevent embers from re-sparking during the Gibson Flats fire Dec. 1, 2021 in Great Falls, Montana.

Staff Sgt. James Willett, 341st Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter, uses an ax to prevent embers from re-sparking during the Gibson Flats fire Dec. 1, 2021 in Great Falls, Montana. The Malmstrom Fire Department responded as part of a mutual aid agreement with Cascade County and worked with several other fire departments to extinguish the fire. (U.S. Air Force Courtesy photo)

MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. --

It only takes one spark to start a fire, but sometimes to put one out it takes the coordination and cooperation of more than 100 first responders from almost a dozen agencies.

The Gibson Flats fire, which ignited just outside Great Falls on Dec. 1, was one such event. The fire grew to about 120 acres and was the second response in a week for the Malmstrom Fire Department, the first being an off-base fire on Thanksgiving.

“High winds that gusted at 56 miles per hour and the abundant amount of dry fuels extended by the drought conditions that been plaguing central Montana resulted in a catastrophic combination,” said David Sidle, 341st Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter. “Many of the residents woke in the middle of the night and had only moments to evacuate out of the way of the fire storm that was flying down a small hillside to the back of the community.”

Tech. Sgt. Joseph Cappel, 341st CES firefighter, said that he got the call around 3 a.m., so he got out of bed and headed to the station to gear up and head out to Gibson Flats.

“We really didn’t know the extent of the fire at the time,” he said. “We mounted over the hill and I’m tellin’ ya’, it looked like a lake of fire.”

Cappel added that when he arrived, another firefighter already on scene told him if the fire jumped the street, it could go straight for the city and toward the hospital. 

Malmstrom sent six vehicles with 35 firefighters to fight alongside Great Falls Fire Rescue, the Montana Air National Guard, several local volunteer fire departments and other local emergency responders. Together, they extinguished the blaze in about 12 hours.

“Many of them came in on their day off sprinting into work and excited to contribute to the emergency response in our community,” said Lt. Col. Kirk Greene, 341st CES commander and Malmstrom fire marshal. 

With sustained wind speeds of more than 30 miles-per-hour and frequent gusts more than 50 miles-per-hour that morning, the wildland fire less than two miles from the edge of Great Falls had the potential to be even more devastating without that teamwork and coordination.

“In small communities such as Cascade County, a large response like this can only come from a strong volunteer base,” Sidle said.

With a 13,800 square-mile area of responsibility and the furthest launch facility being 152 miles away, the Malmstrom Fire Department relies on local partners just as much as the local partners rely on them. There are currently 48 memorandums of agreement on file with local agencies within the missile complex and this year the fire department has responded to 20 mutual aid calls, including the Gibson Flats fire.

“We do training with our local departments and integrate with them so it’s not a new experience when we meet up with them in the real world,” said Vern Hubka, 341st CES interim fire chief.

Malmstrom firefighters work in 48-hour rotations responding to calls or using time at the fire house to train so they are always ready.

“We train constantly,” Hubka said. “We have excellent instructors and leaders in our fire department who take the time to ensure that our young Airmen are best equipped as they can be for the real world events.”

For some of the new Airmen, this was their first experience fighting a fire.

Firefighting Airmen spent months going through basic military training and then technical school where they earned national certifications in structural firefighting, hazardous materials, medical response and airport firefighting. Upon completion of their training, Airmen are expected to be able to provide a range of fire and emergency services including search and rescue and respond to structure fires, wild fires, hazmat incidents, vehicle accidents and more.

“New Airmen fresh from the Department of Defense Fire Academy come ready for action,” Sidle said. “Once at their first duty station, firefighters continue their certification and training process honing their skills and learning advanced medical, rescue and hazmat skills.”

Airman 1st Class Logan Sims, 341st CES firefighter, who had only been in the Air Force for 11 months and had just completed his technical training in July, said that while he was new to the force, he was prepared for anything.

“When you have everything happening at once – wildland, structure, cars going off, it’s intimidating, but you’re ready for it” Sims said. “I wasn’t scared. I had full trust in everyone that I was with. They had my back as I had theirs.”

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