On the morning of April 29, 2003, the Pahrump, NV, Fire Department was dispatched to a reported grease fire in the kitchen of the Mountain View Casino on Pahrump Valley Boulevard. This fire would soon become the largest fire in the history of the city.
Pahrump is a bedroom community of 32,000 people, 45 minutes southwest of Las Vegas and seven miles east of the California state line. This community is an “island” surrounded by Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and mountainous terrain. The city has five casinos, a Super Wal-Mart store, light industry and several service organizations as its major employers. The closest mutual aid is the Crystal Volunteer Fire Department with two engines and a water tender 26 miles away. Next, is the Clark County Fire Department located 50 miles away.
The Pahrump Fire Department is a combination department with 34 career (working full and part time) and 26 volunteer firefighters. Pahrump is the only advanced life support (ALS) provider for a 400-square-mile area and provides mutual aid ALS to another 200 square miles. When the casino fire occurred, Pahrump’s older 60-foot Snorkel was out of service; therefore, the rescue company was acting as the truck company.
The Mountain View Casino was constructed in 1982 of steel truss and wood framing with a flat roof, and originally measured 24,900 square feet. The building was unoccupied in 1985 to 1986, being purchased by the present owners in 1987. In 1998 and 1999, two additions were made to the structure, increasing its size to 63,000 square feet. A 24-lane bowling alley, a 275-seat convention center, a video arcade and additional gaming area were included in the additions. Phase one of the additions was block construction while phase two was of lightweight steel and stucco construction, both with flat roofs.
At 4:01 A.M., the department was dispatched and responded with Engine 11, a 1,500-gpm pumper, Engine 5, a 1,250-gpm pumper and two medic units with seven firefighters under the command of Lieutenant David McClellan. A Nye County sheriff’s deputy arrived on scene at 4:04 and reported heavy smoke showing. Hearing this report, Fire Chief Scott Lewis, responding from home, immediately requested an “all-hands,” which initiated a full recall of all career and volunteer firefighters. Lewis arrived at 4:07 and saw heavy smoke coming from the roof of the casino at the southeast corner. During his “360” size-up, he learned that 30 people were still in the building.
Engine 11 laid a 700-foot five-inch supply line from a hydrant north of the building to the southwest casino entrance. Lewis and two firefighters entered the building through the southeast entrance, evacuated the occupants and proceeded to the kitchen with a 20-pound CO2 extinguisher. A grease fire was observed in a cooking vat and extinguished with the extinguisher. The kitchen’s fire protection system had not activated, but sprinklers in the kitchen area were activated and cascading through the ceiling.
After extinguishing the vat fire, Lewis and Firefighter Chris Van Leuven saw fire burning between the kitchen ceiling and the roof of the building. Lewis exited the building and established a command post on the east side of the building. Additional apparatus responding on the “all-hands” call included Heavy Rescue 15, Engine 3, a 1,250-gpm pumper, Squad 1, a mass casualty unit, and several additional medic units. With the exception of Engine 3 and Rescue 15, most units were placed into Level 1 staging adjacent to the command post.
A crew from Engine 11 advanced a 200-foot 1 3/4-inch attack line into the kitchen and attempted to extinguish the rapidly advancing fire in the ceiling. Another crew was pulling the surrounding ceilings in an effort to determine the extent of the fire spread.
Within the first several minutes after arrival, a large portion of the suspended ceiling collapsed, trapping the initial attack team in the kitchen. A rapid intervention team located at the command post was immediately dispatched into the building in an effort to locate, free and remove the trapped firefighters. The attack crew extricated themselves and found an alternate exit route, but had to abandon their hoseline, which had become buried by the ceiling. The rapid intervention team also experienced an additional ceiling collapse, but was able to safely exit the structure after learning of the attack team’s exit. Accountability of all interior firefighters was completed and operations were switched to a defensive mode. Conditions rapidly deteriorated with heavy fire at the roof and across the front of the building.
Rescue 15 established scene lighting at the front of the building. Engine 3 laid 1,000 feet of five-inch supply line from a hydrant on Calvada Boulevard to the southwest corner of the casino. This engine placed its deck gun into operation. Engine 5 laid 400 feet of five-inch supply line from a hydrant north of the building to the northwest side of the casino. Engine 5 connected two 200-foot 21?2-inch lines to the building’s sprinkler system and began deck gun operations. Due to strong winds, Brush 1, a 250-gpm utility pumper with a 750- gallon booster tank and two firefighters, was assigned to ember patrol in the residential area located northwest of the casino. No additional fires were ignited from the flying embers.
Within 15 minutes after arrival, stress cracks began to appear in the north and east walls of the building. Half of the north wall collapsed outward and the east wall collapsed into the fire. As the fire continued to overwhelm the sprinkler system, Lewis requested mutual aid from the Crystal Volunteer Fire Department and a task force from the Clark County Fire Department.
Twelve firefighters, four per apparatus, and two chiefs responded from Clark County. As the Clark County companies arrived, they were surprised to find two thirds of the casino still standing, despite high winds, heavy fire conditions and their response time of 11?2 hours for the engines and two hours for the truck company. Clark County Engine 26 laid a 300-foot five inch supply line from a hydrant north of the fire building to the northeast corner of the building. This engine placed its deluge monitor into operation. Clark County Ladder 11, a 105-foot rear-mount platform with a 1,500-gpm pump, was positioned at the southeast corner of the casino. Clark County and Pahrump Engine 3 crews advanced a five-inch supply line and a portable monitor 100 feet inside the main entrance of the casino to protect interior exposures and to stop the fire from spreading to the rest of the building. The water department was requested to boost the water pressure, but fire command was notified that the system was at capacity.
Pahrump Engine 3 was shut down and the five-inch supply line was used to supply Clark County Ladder 11. With a water supply established, the aerial master stream was placed into operation. Roof operations and interior attack operations were initiated from the southeast sector. The other Clark County engines and the Crystal engine were placed in the Level 1 staging area that had been established in the southeast corner of the parking lot.
Lewis declared the fire under control at 7:03 A.M. Mutual aid companies were released at 12:30 P.M. The last Pahrump unit left the scene at 6:15 P.M.
Firefighters using four engines and one aerial flowed approximately 5,000 gallons of water per minute at the height of the fire. No injuries were reported by the 50 career and volunteer firefighters at the scene. Two hundred feet of 13?4-inch hose and a nozzle were destroyed in the fire when the initial attack team had to evacuate the building. A 100-foot section of five-inch supply line was destroyed when a car drove over it.
During the incident, Pahrump and mutual aid companies responded to several other emergency medical calls and to two motor vehicle accidents with injuries. One medical emergency required the service of Pahrump-based medical helicopter Mercy Air 21.
Security of the facility was a major factor in the suppression and overhaul of this fire. Overhaul operations had to be minimized due to the large amount of money within the building. Safe and timely operations with strict accountability were necessary. A security fence was placed around the building, further limiting access for firefighters during the seven times they were recalled for flare-ups.
Several successes can be noted in this incident: no injuries or deaths, a successful evacuation of approximately 30 people while initiating fire suppression, use of a recently updated accountability system (with a designated person to assist command with accountability), the early standby of a rapid intervention team, use of a safety officer for firefighter accountability and safety throughout the incident, and the seamless cooperation among agencies. Areas identified for improvement include additional sector officers to minimize firefighter freelancing, the need for intercounty mutual aid radio frequencies, public education on early notification of fire and EMS emergencies, and more disciplined fireground communications.
The Nevada State Fire Marshal, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the Nye County Sheriff’s Department, the Nevada State Gaming Commission and local fire officials conducted an investigation into the origin and cause of the fire. After a three-day investigation, officials determined that there was a 15- to 20-minute delay in notifying the fire department and the fire was propane fueled with fuel escaping in the ceiling. It was not determined why the fire suppression failed to operate, allowing the grease fire to extend into the ceiling area and spread. Damage was estimated at $10 million.
At a town meeting, Fire Chief Lewis awarded the department’s Medal of Valor to the first-arriving crews: Lieutenant David McClellan, Firefighter/Paramedic Kristen Harelson, Firefighter/Paramedic Chris Van Leuven, Firefighter/EMT1 Steve Moody, Firefighter/ EMT Rodd Fernandes and Firefighter/EMT Eric Murphy for their extraordinary life safety and fire suppression efforts.
In addition, the Pahrump Valley Fire-Rescue Service received a Congressional Certificate of Recognition Award from Nevada Congressman Jim Gibbons and a Proclamation of Heroism from Nevada State Senator Mike McGinness and State Assemblyman Rod Sherer.
Jay K. Bradish/IFPA, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.