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...


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Hummel's observation notes the fact that even though it may be farm fields that fire departments are dealing with, contemporary tillage practices that leave crop residue on the ground as opposed to overturned dirt like years past in combination with all of the crop ground turned to Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grasslands, has essentially converted agricultural settings to a vast wildfire oasis under the proper conditions. This is all occurring along with a trend towards people buying acreages and building homes in remote locations surrounded by croplands, wildlands and CRP ground. The dynamics of the situation provides the same sets of circumstances prevalent in the devastating wildland fires that occur in the western U.S.

Jean Eells, a former wildland urban interface coordinator for the Iowa DNR Fire Program, weighed in on the problem: "The fires this spring in western Iowa occurred under extreme conditions; truly, no one trains to fight wildfires with 50-mile-an-hour winds under extremely dry conditions."

Eells has much to say about issues relative to wildland firefighting, firefighter safety and the responsibilities of homeowners in potential wildland fire situations.

"Whenever I hear of a wildfire in Iowa, I first worry about the folks on the front lines responding to the fire call," Eells said. "I know the wildfire training across Iowa is very uneven, and some firefighters have little or no experience in reading and effectively fighting a wildfire safely. There are lots of general rules that could make wildland fire calls safer, even if there are more specific sets of rules that extensive training would provide. Even if each department has one or two veterans of grass firefighting, make sure all the new trainees learn at least not to rush at a head fire believing that water will save them in all cases."

Eells notes that wildland fire training is as extensive as structural training, but there some principles that will pay dividends to anyone confronting a fire that is devastating the landscape.

"Reading and anticipating fire movement on the landscape depends on paying attention to the winds and recognizing fuel loads in the path of the head fire," Eells said. "Knowing how and when to set a back fire can prevent deaths and equipment losses. Wildland firefighting is often done with no water, or very little water, usually not sprayed at the flames but used to wet down fuels ahead of a head fire. Some wildland fuels don't burn very well, and some are frighteningly hot and furious when they burn, learning the difference helps prevent panic."

Eells notes though, that the home-owner is the person who has the most control over what happens to their property in a wildfire situation. "They need information about how to adjust their property so it is less likely to be damaged under normal fire conditions," said Eells.

Eells recommends the website www.firewise.org for more information about wildland firefighting and property protection in wildland areas.

As is frequently the case with a large incident, communications proved to be a problem. The mix of UHF and VHF equipment used by fire departments in Pottawattamie County crippled radio communications between fire units and command officers, making it difficult to coordinate firefighting efforts. Pottawattamie County's single fire operations channel, meant to serve the county's 14 volunteer and one career fire department, was clogged with traffic.

The experience has caused the county to take a serious look at a new $12 million to $15 million 800-megahertz radio system.

There were only minor injuries suffered by two firefighters in the incident.

"For a fire of this magnitude and with the dynamics of it," Sowers said, "we were fortunate no one was seriously injured or killed."


Steve Meyer, EFO, a Firehouse contributing editor, has been a member of the Garrison, IA, Volunteer Fire Department 24 years, serving as chief since 1985. He is past-president of the Iowa Fire Chiefs Association. Meyer is a graduate of the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program, and is a contract instructor for leadership and administration with the NFA. In 1998, he was presented the State of Iowa Firefighter of the Year award.