Wildland Fire Sweeps Iowa Countryside

Steve Meyer details the events that took place when, at the edge of winter, the Carson Fire Department was confronted with one of the most unforgiving wildfires in recent memory.


Hundreds of acres blazed at one time. Extreme winds driving fire fueled by dry vegetation at a pace that leaped flames over roads and caused it to consume homes, buildings and bridges in a matter of seconds. Nearly 20 fire departments and hundreds of firefighters converged on the blaze, attempting...


To access the remainder of this piece of premium content, you must be registered with Firehouse. Already have an account? Login

Register in seconds by connecting with your preferred Social Network.

OR

Complete the registration form.

Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required

Hundreds of acres blazed at one time. Extreme winds driving fire fueled by dry vegetation at a pace that leaped flames over roads and caused it to consume homes, buildings and bridges in a matter of seconds. Nearly 20 fire departments and hundreds of firefighters converged on the blaze, attempting to tame a racing inferno that fire officials were worried would spread into neighboring counties, as it continued to destroy everything in its way.

Was this California, Oregon or Utah in the heat of the summer?

No, this was Iowa, on Sunday, March 6, 2005, at the edge of winter when the Carson Fire Department confronted one of the most unforgiving wildfires in recent memory, if not the history, of the state. The fire put Pottawattamie County firefighters to the test and taught lessons to be heeded by all who may think they will never confront such a fire.

The fire started from a controlled burn of a tree conducted by a resident of rural Carson 10 days prior. Fanned by 45-mph winds on an unseasonably warm day of 73 degrees, hidden embers smoldering in the ashes rekindled and ignited a nearby field. Lack of moisture and a period of hot, dry winds had converted fields of grass and crop residue in the area into tinderboxes. By the time the fire was subdued, it had consumed 4,000 acres of farmland, destroyed four homes and numerous other structures, and caused an estimated $5 million in damage.

The fire was first reported as a field fire. Carson Fire Captain Paul Gehrman was in the area of the fire, approximately four miles from the Carson fire station. He went directly to the scene. Seeing the fire quickly advancing across fields and CRP ground he immediately called for mutual aid from the Macedonia and Oakland fire departments. His call was the first in a succession of calls for help that brought 63 pieces of fire equipment, 200 firefighters, and 21 farmers with tractors and tillage equipment to the racing conflagration.

Carson Fire Chief Jeff Sowers responded from the city.

"It looked like a tornado with all the smoke going up in the air and the way it was moving," Sowers said of his first view of the fire. "I could never have fathomed that a fire could get that big that quick."

The Carson Fire Department, protecting a population of 668, has 19 volunteer firefighters plus one full-time rescue captain. It operates two tankers, one engine, one grass rig, two utility units and one ambulance. The department responds to about 90 fire and EMS alarms each year.

By the time Carson firefighters got to the fire, one home was already totally involved. Firefighters quickly realized that their biggest objective would not be controlling structural fires ignited in the fire's path, but trying to get control efforts ahead of the fire in order to cut off its spread and save other property that was in its path.

Even when firefighters did get ahead of the flames, they faced more problems.

"The fire was moving so fast and it was blowing so bad that you couldn't get close to it," Sowers said. "The wind was blowing water from the nozzles so that you couldn't shoot a straight stream onto the fire. You would be one place one minute where it was safe and the next minute there would be fire all around you. The fire was starting fires ahead of itself."

Sowers was incident commander throughout the fire. He explained that the command structure underneath of him basically consisted of the officer in charge of a particular truck taking charge of those who were there with the officer.

"We had so many departments coming in from so many areas," Sowers said. "We needed the help out there now, right away. We could have taken the time to sort people and trucks into task forces like they do in L.A. County, but we needed the people in the field right now. Everyone was pleased with the way the command structure worked. No one has ever fought a fire this big around here. You couldn't fight this like a normal house fire."

This content continues onto the next page...