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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"This also became a personal frustration of mine. This particular media helicopter was very difficult to work with, and there were other aircraft in there. There was even military aircraft, people were coming in from all directions, and they were on various frequencies. Normally, the forestry people have a very, very controlled airspace when they do these sort of things and they aborted the mission at that time. They called it off and turned the drop plane back.

"That one media helicopter, I believe, chose to ignore the radio orders from the commander for them to leave the area so the operation could continue. The remainder of the media helicopters were playing the game. They were talking to us, they were staying back; whatever it was that we wanted. But it was just that one that really messed it up."

Roed continued, "After the second drop planes had been turned around, the pilot in the helicopter that I had been in asked if he could fill his small water bucket and try and hit a small fire that he could see starting on the roof of the Empire Theater, and I told him to 'go for it.' At that point, I had everybody out of there, anyway, so he did start working his small bucket and he did successfully extinguish the fire on the roof of the Theater. He also hit a few other hot spots where it appeared the fire was progressing down the block at that point. But I told him to take care of the Empire Theater first, as that's on a whole, separate block that had not been affected by the fire yet, except for the theater itself.

"After that, darkness caused him to quit because they can't fly (operations) after dark. They had a specific time when they had to be back on the ground at Ada, Minnesota, so they worked as long as they could with their bucket and headed back for Ada.

8_97_fireice7.jpg
Photo courtsey of Grand Forks Fire Department.
A sign at the Central Fire Station reflected the attitude of the Grand Forks firefighters.

"Once the forestry chopper was out of our area, I took a DNR (Department of Natural Resources) person with me and we headed for the control tower at the airport. We talked to the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) people about this 'other' problem (the media helicopter that refused to cooperate); it was pretty 'plain' talk up there and we clarified just who was supposed to be in charge and what clearing air space meant. The airport tower knew exactly who it was, as we had gotten their tail numbers. They (the tower personnel) would now go through their channels and corrective action would be taken."

In Fargo, Harold Twitero, Fargo Fire Department master mechanic, was watching the Grand Forks story unfold at the West Side Training & Maintenance Facility, which is also its active Station 4. It was approximately 6:15 P.M. and he had been on duty that Saturday since 7:30 A.M. as Fargo had some of the same flooding problems as did Grand Forks. At the time, Twitero was working on the department's Zodiac rescue boat, and he heard the problem Grand Forks was having in reaching the fire with heavy master streams.

Twitero got the idea to load the Grand Forks pumpers on high, off-the-ground National Guard flatbed trailers. He called the Grand Forks Fire Department, told the dispatcher who he was and stated, "I don't want to stick my nose in your business but if the National Guard has some high flatbed trailers you can use, you might consider loading your pumpers onto those trailers and then get some payloaders to pull them into the fire scene area." Once there, he suggested, there would be no worry about the water getting up into the diesels of the pumpers while they are drafting.

The idea worked. Engines 20 and 30 were be loaded onto trailers (at different times) and pulled into the fire area. With both engines drafting off the trailers from the floodwaters immediately beneath them and into deck guns, the fire department started doing what conventional firefighting it could, considering the conditions.

One firefighter sustained injuries as a result of using the trailers. Engine 30 Pump Operator Cary Foy fell through an opening at the tractor end of the trailer (the pumper was loaded so that its front faced the rear of the trailer) as it was dark and no streetlights were working at their location. The National Guard had moved some of the center trailer boards to the outside swing-out arms mounted on the trailer to make the trailer wider.