On The Job - Massachusetts: SWI Fires Ignite Across The State

The month of April is usually prime wildfire season in Massachusetts. April 8, 1999, started off with abundant sunshine, low relative humidity and a strong westerly wind that gusted to nearly 50 mph throughout the day and into the night. The woodlands were tinder dry from the past winter's freeze drying effects on vegetation.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Connecticut Air National Guard Chinook helicopters equipped with a large "Bambi Bucket" used for making water drops. This was the first time that large Chinook choppers were used for wildfire suppression in Massachusetts.

This was a "class 5" fire danger rated day and the National Weather Service had posted a "Red Flag Warning" for the state. The scenario was set for what would become a very busy and tragic day for the state's structural and wildland firefighting agencies.

It was late morning when the first of many wildland and structural wildland interzone (SWI) fires began to burn across Massachusetts from east to west and north to south. Massachusetts Bureau of Forest Fire Control (MBFFC) fire lookout tower observers were spotting and announcing numerous "smokes." Many of the smokes were rapidly increasing in size and "turning dark" in color, an indicator of moderate to extreme wildfire behavior. SWI fires threatened numerous structures and several sustained varying degrees of damage. Three firefighters were injured fighting a wildfire in Salisbury, north of Boston.

The usually fire-active southeastern region of Massachusetts recorded very few small fires for the day. In western Massachusetts, however, the situation became critical.

Wildfire In Russell

Nestled in the picturesque hills of the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts is the tiny quiet town of Russell with a population of about 2,000 residents. A railroad line, owned and maintained by Conrail, runs through the heavily wooded hills and valleys of Russell and neighboring towns.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Photo taken from a helicopter shows a Connecticut Air National Guard Chinook helicopter in operation during the final stages of mop-up in the 1,200-acre SWI fire in Russell.

The Russell Volunteer Fire Department's station is a small, two-bay building attached to the town library. Fire Chief Richard Dame is a 30-year veteran firefighter and has been chief for 15 years. His second in command was his close friend and colleague, Deputy Fire Chief John Murphy.

At about 12:30 P.M., a wildfire began along the rail road right of way that runs along side of Tekoa Mountain in Russell. The fire spread upward through the dry woodlands at a high rate of speed due to the near gale-force winds. A fire tower observer spotted the rapidly expanding column of smoke and notified local fire services. The fire traveled into Montgomery and Westfield, and fire storm conditions pushed the blaze towards numerous structures on Tekoa Mountain and along Pitcher Road. An evacuation was ordered and structural protection/defensible mode was in put into operation.

The fire grew to about 1,200 acres. It was fought by 300 firefighters from 32 fire departments and MBFFC wildland firefighters. Massachusetts Chief Forest Fire Warden Mike Tirrell and his staff were joined by State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan. The state Department of Emergency Management (DEM) director of Forests and Parks, Todd Frederick, also responded. They coordinated firefighting with the local fire chiefs. By the morning of April 9, the fire was contained with no loss of structures.

Through the coordinated efforts of Tirrell, Coan and the Army Air National Guards of Massachusetts and Connecticut, fire suppression was also provided by the use of helicopters using "Bambi Buckets" for aerial water drops. For the first time in Massachusetts firefighting history, two Chinook helicopters were flown in from Connecticut and utilized 1,000- and 2,000-gallon buckets for water drops. The entire air operation was highly successful and this mission was completed without mishap.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Deputy Chief John Murphy of the Russell Volunteer Fire Department died in the line of duty.

Line-Of-Duty Death Occurs

Russell Deputy Chief Murphy was 61 years of age and a 30-year firefighting veteran of the department. He and Dame were appointed to the RVFD at the same time. He was hard at work during this fire fight to help save people, property and the environment from this huge SWI fire. He collapsed at the fire scene, apparently of a heart attack, and died in the line of duty. Two of his sons, William and Kevin, are fire captains and members of the RVFD.

Murphy was employed by the Town of Russell as an electrical lineman. According to Dame, "John was so dedicated to the fire department and to his work as a lineman. He never complained and always wore a smile, even when there was little to smile about. I remember one cold windy morning at about 2 A.M. John was hanging out of the bucket of his bucket truck securing electric lines so the town wouldn't lose its power. He was just smiling, doing his job. He wouldn't quit until he finished the task no matter what the weather conditions were like. He was cool under fire yet, he was a quiet man. John was going to retire, soon. He was my friend and we all will miss him."

Murphy was laid to rest on April 12.

Fire Investigation

Soon after the fire began, two investigators from the Massachusetts State Fire Marshal's Office conducted an exhaustive investigation into the cause and origin of this deadly fire. The investigators worked through the night and into the next day until their investigation was completed.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Russell Fire Chief Richard Dame, left, and Massachusetts State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan announce the official cause-and-origin report regarding the SWI fire in Russell.

The following are excepts from the fire marshal's official press release:

"State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan, Russell Fire Chief Richard Dame and Montgomery Fire Chief Frye announced the cause of the fire that took the life of Deputy Fire Chief John Murphy…It was determined that sparks from a rotary-powered hand saw used by Conrail workers to cut a piece of rail traveled 30-40 feet into and ignited dry brush.

"State Fire Marshal Coan said, 'I am calling for a summit meeting with Conrail officials and the fire chiefs in western Massachusetts who have rail lines in their jurisdiction. This incident was a senseless mishap that never should have happened.' Marshal Coan and the local fire chiefs question the actions of Conrail whose rail repair methods include the use of cutting tools that create sparks in conditions such as yesterday's (dry brush, high winds and spring fire season)."

It was reported that 19 wildfires were ignited by railroad workers in this area of western Massachusetts about a week before the major fire incident of April 8.

Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a district fire chief in the Boston Fire Department with extensive experience and training in wildland and SWI protection. Questions and comments may be sent to him via e-mail at dfcwins@idt.net