Wildland Fire Sweeps Iowa Countryside

Sept. 1, 2005
Steve Meyer details the events that took place when, at the edge of winter, the Carson Fire Department was confronted with one of the most unforgiving wildfires in recent memory.

Hundreds of acres blazed at one time. Extreme winds driving fire fueled by dry vegetation at a pace that leaped flames over roads and caused it to consume homes, buildings and bridges in a matter of seconds. Nearly 20 fire departments and hundreds of firefighters converged on the blaze, attempting to tame a racing inferno that fire officials were worried would spread into neighboring counties, as it continued to destroy everything in its way.

Was this California, Oregon or Utah in the heat of the summer?

No, this was Iowa, on Sunday, March 6, 2005, at the edge of winter when the Carson Fire Department confronted one of the most unforgiving wildfires in recent memory, if not the history, of the state. The fire put Pottawattamie County firefighters to the test and taught lessons to be heeded by all who may think they will never confront such a fire.

The fire started from a controlled burn of a tree conducted by a resident of rural Carson 10 days prior. Fanned by 45-mph winds on an unseasonably warm day of 73 degrees, hidden embers smoldering in the ashes rekindled and ignited a nearby field. Lack of moisture and a period of hot, dry winds had converted fields of grass and crop residue in the area into tinderboxes. By the time the fire was subdued, it had consumed 4,000 acres of farmland, destroyed four homes and numerous other structures, and caused an estimated $5 million in damage.

The fire was first reported as a field fire. Carson Fire Captain Paul Gehrman was in the area of the fire, approximately four miles from the Carson fire station. He went directly to the scene. Seeing the fire quickly advancing across fields and CRP ground he immediately called for mutual aid from the Macedonia and Oakland fire departments. His call was the first in a succession of calls for help that brought 63 pieces of fire equipment, 200 firefighters, and 21 farmers with tractors and tillage equipment to the racing conflagration.

Carson Fire Chief Jeff Sowers responded from the city.

"It looked like a tornado with all the smoke going up in the air and the way it was moving," Sowers said of his first view of the fire. "I could never have fathomed that a fire could get that big that quick."

The Carson Fire Department, protecting a population of 668, has 19 volunteer firefighters plus one full-time rescue captain. It operates two tankers, one engine, one grass rig, two utility units and one ambulance. The department responds to about 90 fire and EMS alarms each year.

By the time Carson firefighters got to the fire, one home was already totally involved. Firefighters quickly realized that their biggest objective would not be controlling structural fires ignited in the fire's path, but trying to get control efforts ahead of the fire in order to cut off its spread and save other property that was in its path.

Even when firefighters did get ahead of the flames, they faced more problems.

"The fire was moving so fast and it was blowing so bad that you couldn't get close to it," Sowers said. "The wind was blowing water from the nozzles so that you couldn't shoot a straight stream onto the fire. You would be one place one minute where it was safe and the next minute there would be fire all around you. The fire was starting fires ahead of itself."

Sowers was incident commander throughout the fire. He explained that the command structure underneath of him basically consisted of the officer in charge of a particular truck taking charge of those who were there with the officer.

"We had so many departments coming in from so many areas," Sowers said. "We needed the help out there now, right away. We could have taken the time to sort people and trucks into task forces like they do in L.A. County, but we needed the people in the field right now. Everyone was pleased with the way the command structure worked. No one has ever fought a fire this big around here. You couldn't fight this like a normal house fire."

Council Bluffs Fire Chief Alan Byers assisted Sowers with command of the fire.

"Jeff was just getting hammered with radio requests at the command post," Byers said. "I helped him with resource deployment. I think this got everyone in the county to realize how important ICS, radio communications and mutual aid agreements are."

Byers responded on his own to the fire. When he saw its magnitude, he requested two engine companies from Council Bluffs to help. The companies and Byers arrived at a farm site to find the house and buildings totally involved.

"There was nothing we could do so we met up with other units in the area and moved on, trying to set up a protective area," Byers said.

Byers, a 30-year veteran of the fire service who is from the only career fire department in the area, said he had never seen a fire of this magnitude.

"I've never seen a fire move that fast," he said. "We were coming up to places where people lived and helping them throw their valuables into a pickup while we tried to save their buildings."

At one point, Byers thought the fire would become a multi-county incident, and worried that it would spread to neighboring Shelby County. The Iowa State Highway patrol and local law enforcement officials were racing ahead of the advancing fire, warning residents of the encroaching flames.

The Pottawattamie County Emergency Management Agency came into play in the incident. "I thought I was back in Vietnam," said Pottawattamie County Emergency Management Coordinator Terry Hummel. Like Byers, Hummel was concerned that the fire could spread beyond Pottawattamie County's border and notified the Iowa State Department of Homeland Security Emergency Management about the situation.

Ultimately, bringing the fire to bay would require more than "putting the wet stuff on the red stuff." Area farmers who heard of the menacing fire by word of mouth hitched tractors to field tillage equipment and started turning up the sod in fields ahead of the fire. Just disking up a narrow band of dirt was insufficient as the fire had already proven it could jump across roads, a distance of 50 feet or more. The farmers were forced to blacken entire fields a mile ahead of the fire in order to curtail the flames, according to Sowers.

Sowers, Byers and other officials associated with the incident credit the actions of the farmers as being critical to containing the blaze. Another element in gaining control of the fire was air reconnaissance. Assistant Chief Jeff Theulan of the Treynor Fire Department is in charge of the Omaha Police Department's helicopter unit. Late in the afternoon, Theulan was able to get the helicopter into the air over the fire where he witnessed a scene he described as jumping into D-Day. From the air Theulan could see a broader picture of the incident than could be seen from the ground. With the helicopter's infrared camera equipment, Theulan could see through the smoke and find hot spots and the most rapidly advancing fingers of the fire. The surveillance information he provided to the command post was critical in helping to make resource deployment decisions. Within a half hour of the helicopter going into the air, control was gained of the fire.

"This was, without a doubt, a genuine wildland fire," Theulan observed.

In the wake of the first-of-a-kind fire for the area, a formal critique occurred along with no small amount of informal critiquing. Sowers' observation that the fire could not be critiqued like a normal house fire strikes at the heart of the issue on this fire. The Carson Fire Department is similar to other fire departments throughout the Midwest that do fight grass and field or wildland fires, but nothing of this magnitude. Due to historical fire experiences, training and tactical efforts tend to be centered more towards structural firefighting, not wildland fires, something that requires a different mindset, tactics and strategy.

"This was a wake-up call. The face of agriculture is changing, there's a lot more material on the fields now than there used to be," Hummel said.

Hummel's observation notes the fact that even though it may be farm fields that fire departments are dealing with, contemporary tillage practices that leave crop residue on the ground as opposed to overturned dirt like years past in combination with all of the crop ground turned to Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grasslands, has essentially converted agricultural settings to a vast wildfire oasis under the proper conditions. This is all occurring along with a trend towards people buying acreages and building homes in remote locations surrounded by croplands, wildlands and CRP ground. The dynamics of the situation provides the same sets of circumstances prevalent in the devastating wildland fires that occur in the western U.S.

Jean Eells, a former wildland urban interface coordinator for the Iowa DNR Fire Program, weighed in on the problem: "The fires this spring in western Iowa occurred under extreme conditions; truly, no one trains to fight wildfires with 50-mile-an-hour winds under extremely dry conditions."

Eells has much to say about issues relative to wildland firefighting, firefighter safety and the responsibilities of homeowners in potential wildland fire situations.

"Whenever I hear of a wildfire in Iowa, I first worry about the folks on the front lines responding to the fire call," Eells said. "I know the wildfire training across Iowa is very uneven, and some firefighters have little or no experience in reading and effectively fighting a wildfire safely. There are lots of general rules that could make wildland fire calls safer, even if there are more specific sets of rules that extensive training would provide. Even if each department has one or two veterans of grass firefighting, make sure all the new trainees learn at least not to rush at a head fire believing that water will save them in all cases."

Eells notes that wildland fire training is as extensive as structural training, but there some principles that will pay dividends to anyone confronting a fire that is devastating the landscape.

"Reading and anticipating fire movement on the landscape depends on paying attention to the winds and recognizing fuel loads in the path of the head fire," Eells said. "Knowing how and when to set a back fire can prevent deaths and equipment losses. Wildland firefighting is often done with no water, or very little water, usually not sprayed at the flames but used to wet down fuels ahead of a head fire. Some wildland fuels don't burn very well, and some are frighteningly hot and furious when they burn, learning the difference helps prevent panic."

Eells notes though, that the home-owner is the person who has the most control over what happens to their property in a wildfire situation. "They need information about how to adjust their property so it is less likely to be damaged under normal fire conditions," said Eells.

Eells recommends the website www.firewise.org for more information about wildland firefighting and property protection in wildland areas.

As is frequently the case with a large incident, communications proved to be a problem. The mix of UHF and VHF equipment used by fire departments in Pottawattamie County crippled radio communications between fire units and command officers, making it difficult to coordinate firefighting efforts. Pottawattamie County's single fire operations channel, meant to serve the county's 14 volunteer and one career fire department, was clogged with traffic.

The experience has caused the county to take a serious look at a new $12 million to $15 million 800-megahertz radio system.

There were only minor injuries suffered by two firefighters in the incident.

"For a fire of this magnitude and with the dynamics of it," Sowers said, "we were fortunate no one was seriously injured or killed."

Steve Meyer, EFO, a Firehouse contributing editor, has been a member of the Garrison, IA, Volunteer Fire Department 24 years, serving as chief since 1985. He is past-president of the Iowa Fire Chiefs Association. Meyer is a graduate of the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program, and is a contract instructor for leadership and administration with the NFA. In 1998, he was presented the State of Iowa Firefighter of the Year award.

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