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

Council Bluffs Fire Chief Alan Byers assisted Sowers with command of the fire.

"Jeff was just getting hammered with radio requests at the command post," Byers said. "I helped him with resource deployment. I think this got everyone in the county to realize how important ICS, radio communications and mutual aid agreements are."

Byers responded on his own to the fire. When he saw its magnitude, he requested two engine companies from Council Bluffs to help. The companies and Byers arrived at a farm site to find the house and buildings totally involved.

"There was nothing we could do so we met up with other units in the area and moved on, trying to set up a protective area," Byers said.

Byers, a 30-year veteran of the fire service who is from the only career fire department in the area, said he had never seen a fire of this magnitude.

"I've never seen a fire move that fast," he said. "We were coming up to places where people lived and helping them throw their valuables into a pickup while we tried to save their buildings."

At one point, Byers thought the fire would become a multi-county incident, and worried that it would spread to neighboring Shelby County. The Iowa State Highway patrol and local law enforcement officials were racing ahead of the advancing fire, warning residents of the encroaching flames.

The Pottawattamie County Emergency Management Agency came into play in the incident. "I thought I was back in Vietnam," said Pottawattamie County Emergency Management Coordinator Terry Hummel. Like Byers, Hummel was concerned that the fire could spread beyond Pottawattamie County's border and notified the Iowa State Department of Homeland Security Emergency Management about the situation.

Ultimately, bringing the fire to bay would require more than "putting the wet stuff on the red stuff." Area farmers who heard of the menacing fire by word of mouth hitched tractors to field tillage equipment and started turning up the sod in fields ahead of the fire. Just disking up a narrow band of dirt was insufficient as the fire had already proven it could jump across roads, a distance of 50 feet or more. The farmers were forced to blacken entire fields a mile ahead of the fire in order to curtail the flames, according to Sowers.

Sowers, Byers and other officials associated with the incident credit the actions of the farmers as being critical to containing the blaze. Another element in gaining control of the fire was air reconnaissance. Assistant Chief Jeff Theulan of the Treynor Fire Department is in charge of the Omaha Police Department's helicopter unit. Late in the afternoon, Theulan was able to get the helicopter into the air over the fire where he witnessed a scene he described as jumping into D-Day. From the air Theulan could see a broader picture of the incident than could be seen from the ground. With the helicopter's infrared camera equipment, Theulan could see through the smoke and find hot spots and the most rapidly advancing fingers of the fire. The surveillance information he provided to the command post was critical in helping to make resource deployment decisions. Within a half hour of the helicopter going into the air, control was gained of the fire.

"This was, without a doubt, a genuine wildland fire," Theulan observed.

In the wake of the first-of-a-kind fire for the area, a formal critique occurred along with no small amount of informal critiquing. Sowers' observation that the fire could not be critiqued like a normal house fire strikes at the heart of the issue on this fire. The Carson Fire Department is similar to other fire departments throughout the Midwest that do fight grass and field or wildland fires, but nothing of this magnitude. Due to historical fire experiences, training and tactical efforts tend to be centered more towards structural firefighting, not wildland fires, something that requires a different mindset, tactics and strategy.

"This was a wake-up call. The face of agriculture is changing, there's a lot more material on the fields now than there used to be," Hummel said.