Fire & Ice - Plus A Flood

Lawrence E. Phillips recounts the triple disasters that assailed a North Dakota city and challenged its firefighters.


Grand Forks Fire Department Chief Richard J. Aulich Suppression & administration staff: 64 people Three fire stations: Central (headquarters) engine, tower ladder, rescue, hazmat, battalion chief; Columbia Road engine; South engine Population: 52,000 Area: 20 square miles It was...


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The first firefighter suffering hypothermia was brought back to the Central Fire Station in the back of an Army Humvee.

"He was still wearing his hip waders and he didn't even want to move he was so cold," Cutshaw said. "At first, we started to move him but then we decided not to; just leave him where he's at and take him right to the hospital. Don't bother unloading him. The other two returned to the station riding in a sedan-style humvee with four doors. I guess we actually stripped both of them right out on the sidewalk. We just kind of grouped around them, stripped them and got a warm, dry blanket around them and sent them to the hospital. They were so wet that the quicker we got the cold, wet clothing off them, the better off they'd be. For the next few days actually, all three were just fatigued; extremely fatigued. They just couldn't believe the fatigue they were feeling."

Unchecked, the fire continued to spread to the west and southeast due to the prevailing winds. At about the time the city was shutting down the pumper in the water, crash/ fire/rescue (CFR) crews at Grand Forks International Airport/Mark Andrews Airport (GFIA), about six miles west of downtown Grand Forks, were monitoring the situation on their scanner.

The airport fire crews hadn't escaped the flood situations, either. Gary Baker, airport operations director, had been involved with GFIA's Oshkosh Snowplow with the blade removed by using it to haul sand and sandbags to low-lying Grand Forks areas during the previous two to three days. The CFR crews had been switching drivers off for the Oshkosh, and getting involved in the sandbagging operations as well in their off-duty time as volunteers. Some of the CFR crews even had their families staying with them (including a St. Bernard) in their living quarters, as they had come under the mandatory evacuation orders themselves.

Wayne Wetzel, CFR operations specialist, was on duty with Jerry Aase, CFR shift supervisor, and they started talking with each other, "game-planning," early on during the monitored Grand Forks downtown communications.

Wetzel said, "We have two pieces of equipment here at the airport that we felt would work in the present high-water situation. One was a 1990 Oshkosh 1,500-gpm crash truck and the other was a 1974 Oshkosh 1,500-gpm crash truck. The final decision, however, rested in a few major areas of concern. One of those concerns was the pump panel on both pieces; the panel on the older Oshkosh is actually higher than on the new one, so we could operate it in higher areas of water. Another concern was that the fuel tank on the new piece was lower than on the old one and the vented fuel cap on the new Oshkosh would let the water contaminate the fuel through the cap once it reached that level under the truck."

Another reason to take the older piece rested in the fact that it had been used for mutual aid to other departments before, and as a result, three pieces of 10-foot, five-inch hard suction hose had already been mounted on the roof for use in drafting operations in smaller, rural towns. This hose could be connected to the pump panel and dropped into the street so pumping operations using flood water could begin immediately after their arrival at the fire scene.

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Photo by Northwest Region Fire/Rescue
Grand Forks Engine 20 was loaded on a National Guard lowboy trailer.

The decision was made to take the older Oshkosh. "I called right to the Central Station and told the firefighter on duty that they could use us as a resource," Aase said. "I told him that we were ready to go and could respond ASAP. The firefighter contacted the battalion chief, who then raised the question if we could go through four feet of water with the rig. I told him, 'no problem.' He told us to respond to the Central Fire Station, pick up one of their captains and head for the fire.

"About halfway to the Central Station, we were told by radio that once we had picked up their captain, to report to the command post, which had been set up just outside of radio station KCNN. There we would pick up Battalion Chief Jerry Anderson, who wanted to be with us as they (the fire department) were in the process of coordinating an air drop of dry fire retardant on the downtown fire, and Jerry would brief us on that once we had him in our rig."