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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Roed continued, "The company that owned the sky crane Erickson Air Crane Service in Oregon had the sky crane here and in the air by 9 A.M., accompanied by one of their own mechanics. Then, a DNR person stationed in Bemidji, Minnesota, who works with forestry air teams all the time, also arrived. He offered to be a liaison and assist in the air operations, and we took him up on that."

"Then, I had made contacts with WCCO Television out of Minneapolis, and WCCO's Dale Dobish volunteered to fly me over the area to assess the situation to further direct the sky crane. Needless to say, we made sure that we had the air space pretty well cleared at that time.

"Through the night, and into the early-morning hours, we did get a handle on the situation, conventionally, and no additional buildings were involved. We didn't anticipate anything else major happening, and the sky crane became more of an overhaul tool for us. They dropped a lot of water on the First Financial Center and the First National Bank Building, as well as everywhere else. They were able to fill their 2,000-gallon bucket between the two bridges that connect Grand Forks with East Grand Forks, Minnesota, right on the edge of downtown. We ran them for a couple of hours and then went back to conventional firefighting.

"While the sky crane was in operation, I went back up in the WCCO helicopter and used their thermal imaging camera to determine where best to put the water. It's a regular camera but when you flip a switch it goes to thermal imaging. With that, I could absolutely pinpoint any specific area or corner of any building that needed water. It worked like a champ.

"During their activities for us, however, a house fire broke out in East Grand Forks that the EGFFD couldn't get to at all. The roof was burning while the house was still submerged in deep water, so the sky crane pilot asked us if he could take care of it. So, as a 'good neighbor' gesture, they did go over to it and dumped their load on the roof. From what I understand, when they dumped their 2,000 gallons on the regular truss roof, it just flattened; broke the trusses; and just opened her up and filled it up.

"Once the sky crane had done its job, a National Guard helicopter came in with a small bucket and took over the overhaul operation. It worked for the rest of the day but, at that time, we figured we did have the situation under control. The water in the street, however, remained at the same level throughout the duration of our firefighting efforts, and didn't start to recede until some days later."

"You know, if you would have told me a month ago that I would be calling in helicopters to fight downtown building fires, I'd have looked at you like there was something wrong with you. It was just one thing that worked. Even at one point, our own EOC was issuing that the fire was burning out of control that morning when it wasn't; we had it under control at that point. We were confident it would hold because we had the helicopters as overhaul tools."

"If you think back about it, in the initial stages of our fire, we had our own people (firefighters) down there in chest waders, trying to find the fire hydrant so we could attempt a hookup. I mean, you're wearing chest waders up this high (just below the neck line) and the water is like two inches below the (top of the) chest waders...All you'd have to do is slip and your waders become full of water and down you go. We could have lost people and I'm so thankful that didn't happen. Weighing out with the cost of the sky crane was a pretty easy decision for me. It definitely helped us out there and kept our people out of places they just shouldn't have been in (after the conventional means of firefighting were abandoned). "

Once the fire was declared under control early Sunday afternoon, the concern intensified for people who might have not gotten out.

Stated Grand Forks Fire Marshal Roger "Max" Allard, "We have buildings that are owned by different owners; managed by different apartment management companies who collect rents from many different people; they usually know who is registered to be in any particular apartment. As any other apartment complexes, a lot of them contain college students for example, and they have two or three other students staying with them who aren't necessarily on any registry anywhere. There's no data base. Then, it gets even more difficult because, first, we flooded the area and (then) evacuated it because of the flood. People on the second and third floors may not necessarily have been inclined to leave at that point and we didn't know that. By this time, the water is four and five feet deep, so they aren't going to come out on their own.

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Photo by Northwest Region Fire/Rescue
Firefighter Mitch Steien suffered hypothermia while attempting a hydrant hookup in water that was up to his waist.

 


8_97_fireice9.jpg
Photo by Northwest Region Fire/Rescue
Fire Marshal Roger "Max" Allard: "We had people going to the four winds".