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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Once joined by Anderson, the CFR rig had just a short time to dump its 1,500-gallon tank through the front top turret before the aircraft was scheduled to arrive and drop its load on the fire. Anderson wanted to see whether the Oshkosh had enough power to get its water to the roof of the burning buildings and to now cool the huge pieces of burning debris that were starting to fly from the building's roofs that were igniting themselves due to the radiant heat and winds. "We pulled up right in front of the Securities Building, about 25 feet from the building," Aase said. "And we were also in about 3 1/2 feet of water in the street, as the water was already inside the doors of the building. We shot the whole 1,500 gallons and we had plenty of reach; we were getting on top of the roof with no problem; but Anderson told us that we were getting close to the time period that we were supposed to get out of the area for the air drop. The coordinator for the drop back at the Central Station wanted a clear, 10-block radius minimum so we wouldn't be bathed in the retardant. My understanding was the drop was to take place at 7:15 P.M.

"As we started to back out of the area, our horn went under water and started honking all the time we couldn't shut it off. I was on the top of the rig and saw that the plane was in the area, circling around by the Metropolitan Building and thought he was going to make a practice pass. Then, all of a sudden, when we got to the downtown intersection of Demeres and 5th, they dropped it. We were far enough away by that time, though, that the pilot's momentum Wayne could see it out through one of the hatches that it was just perfect. We were about a half a block away, still backing, and he released it right above us; but the momentum carried it exactly where he wanted it to go. It was pretty impressive."

The air drop was coordinated by Grand Forks Battalion Chief Bruce Roed, who has extensive experience with the Minnesota State Fire Program and had worked with these people before in many training sessions.

"When I saw all methods of conventional firefighting failing, it was my decision to contact the Northern Forestry Center," Roed said. "At about 5 P.M., I called Carson Berglund, who is the center's director…I told the dispatcher that I'm from North Dakota and I'm calling on behalf of the Grand Forks Fire Department. I have a very 'strange' request would it be possible to bring in an air drop to a downtown area?'…Within a few minutes, Berglund himself called me back."

Roed continued, "Berglund stated that they already had a helicopter in Ada, Minnesota, because of the flooding that was going on in that area. On Berglund's order, the helicopter was already on its way to Grand Forks as we were talking. The helicopter had a small bucket with it, also, with a capacity of approximately 150 gallons. The helicopter pilot acts as the drop plane's spotter, telling the plane's pilot where the drop would be most effective. In this case, he would tell the plane which building we're going after.

"The chopper arrived just before the drop plane, and they also had a smaller aircraft that flies very fast; it got here first and circled around. That stays up at approximately 10,000 feet or so and gets involved in the area air traffic control getting other air traffic out of the way so the tankers don't have that to worry about. Essentially, the person in charge of the entire air operation is flying that small plane and acts as the 'eye'; the helicopter is down low; then the drop plane(s) come in."

Roed went on to say, "I headed out to the airport. We decided that the helicopter would pick me up there and I could assist in determining the strategy with the chopper pilot from above. The first drop plane was on its way from Brainerd, as it was fully loaded and ready to go when I called."

"Once airborne, I could see that we had 12, maybe 13 buildings burning on their roofs at that time. That was caused by two types of flame spread…one was adjacent radiant heat from the building of origin the Security Building and it just followed in the natural direction right down the block to the west. Then, the flying debris and brands ignited the fires on the roofs of the buildings on the 4th Street block.

"Because of the high water in the street situation, we couldn't get to it conventionally; I felt that an air drop was the only way to go at this time. The first run by the first drop plane consisted of six or seven passes where he dropped chemicals. He dumped retardant on the site from different angles; it was pretty interesting just to see something you don't think of as being very accurate...an aircraft coming in and swooping down...it was very interesting to see him be able to hit the buildings like he did.

"After the initial drops were made (by the same aircraft), we had a second aircraft in the air, arriving from the Hibbing, Minnesota, Forestry Base, and his game plan was to follow up on what the first plane did. But the commander of the operation was trying frantically to talk with the other aircraft in the area because now we had several news teams, helicopters flying everywhere, and one particular one caused a lot of problems they got too close and wouldn't talk back to the operations commander; they wouldn't listen to him. So the commander called off the second strike drop because of that. He felt the operation was now out of his control and he turned the second drop plane back to Hibbing.