By Karla Pomeroy
Editor 

It's all about team work

Fighting large fires like the Terek Fire takes cooperation among multiple agencies

 

July 19, 2018



WORLAND — It’s all about team work when fire departments battle large wildland fires like the Terek Fire last week northwest of Worland and south of Manderson.

The fire was contained Friday at 42,267 acres.

Worland Fire Chief and Washakie County Fire Warden Chris Kocher said when a pager first goes off a firefighter never knows what they may be responding to — crash, structure fire or wildland fire. In the case of fire, fire departments never truly know what they will be fighting until they arrive on scene.

He said when arriving on scene the incident commander or fire chief will have to quickly identify how big the fire is and what type of resources are going to be needed.

The Terek Fire began July 8 with multiple lightning strikes and three fires eventually merged into the Terek Fire.

“In the case of July 8, we had agencies from Worland, Ten Sleep, BLM [Bureau of Land Management], Hyattville, Manderson, Basin, Burlington, Lovell, all responded initially with a unit. Within the first hour we had 19 different engines responding,” Kocher said.


He said when firefighters arrive at a fire, like they did the Terek Fire, they look at size, fuels, winds and the topography.

“Pretty much in short order when you have three to four different fires you are trying to attack and they are wind driven, you’re going to need more resources,” Kocher said.

For the Terek Fire it didn’t take long for Big Horn County to request additional crews on the north fire, or for Worland and Ten Sleep to call for additional resources on the southern fires.

With additional resources called out, they began coordination of the incident commanders. When the fires started to merge together, “everybody worked together to form one team.”

How does coordination on large fires work so well?

Kocher said that working on large fires starts with preseason planning. “One of the things not everybody sees is all the preseason planning that goes into making these types of responses successful — everything from the annual operating plan meetings, to coordination of radio frequencies between agencies, to making sure everybody has ability to communicate with each other; everybody has an understanding of the incident command system.”

He noted the incident command system doesn’t change depending on the size, it just means it may be more complex.

Kocher said each of the firefighting agencies under the Cody Interagency Dispatch Center, which includes Washakie, Hot Springs, Big Horn, Park and Fremont counties, as well as a small part of Sweetwater and Sheridan counties, were involved in the annual operating planning meeting.

But the planning doesn’t end with the agencies signing off on the annual operating plan, it continues throughout the year.

“As the fire season starts to heat up we have phone conferences every two weeks. As the season continues to heat up the meetings can move to weekly or daily,” he said.

Currently the meetings are every two weeks, Kocher said. He said last year with the fire season the meetings were weekly for a while and even for a short time they had daily meetings.

Kocher said the incident command system also helps an operation like fighting the Terek Fire run smooth. “The nice thing about incident command system is everyone has a role. Now it’s just a case of assembling the right people and accomplishing the tasks. Everyone working together makes it function.”

The Terek Fire was managed as a Type 3 fire (Type 1 being the largest).

Kocher said, “We make sure we are a team player with the interagency structure. No one agency has the ability to sustain or suppress a fire like that. It has to be a coordinated interagency effort.”

He added, “When you can have 90-100 engines coming from different agencies it doesn’t burden any one agency. It’s a very strong process.”

He explained that the local resources work with their own dispatch centers to call for mutual aid in neighboring communities but when they need additional resources they have to go through the Cody Interagency Dispatch Center (CIDC). As agencies put in requests for additional resources, the CIDC fills that with the closest force available. When they run out of regional crews they “broaden the net” and go to the Casper Interagency Dispatch Center and the Rocky Mountain. Rocky Mountain, he said, has a bigger network to find additional resources.

The Worland Fire Department realizes the need to return the favor in being neighborly and usually has an engine available to be called out by the CIDC.

He said they currently have an engine with four firefighters on assignment in California. They have also helped out this year on three separate fires in Colorado.

Overall, Kocher said, “All the entities involved worked well. They did a tremendous job. I’m proud of the community support and the way they came together. Whether it’s an ice jam flood or fire, it’s always pretty impressive to watch community come together. I’m thankful for that.”

TEREK FIRE RESPONSE

Worland Volunteer Fire Department sent six engines and one command unit to fight the Terek Fire initially, with other crews dealing with additional fire calls.

Those called out on the Terek Fire, with local dispatch showing Worland and Ten Sleep departments dispatched about 10:30 p.m. spent a long time on the fire.

Kocher said there was explosive growth in the fire from Sunday morning, July 8 to Monday morning, July 9. “We had a couple of days with very high heat and there was no humidity recovery Sunday night. We still had a very, very active fire at 3 to 4 a.m.,” he said. By about 5 a.m. the fire had burned in excess of 20,000 acres. There was another big fire push between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Monday.

Kocher said the most common tactic in fighting a fire like the Terek Fire is the anchor and flank tactic. You identify the heel of the fire, create a good anchor point and work your way around it by a wet line or scratching.

He said they knew when fighting the fire there was a lot of fencing infrastructure, power poles and oil field equipment to be concerned about. As the fire moved there were structures in its path so they made sure there were resources in place, both ground and air, to protect the structures and “values at risk.”

Kocher said in the Big Horn Basin they understand the importance for ranchers and farmers to graze. “That’s a value at risk and we’ll due as much as we can to protect that,” he said.

LONG HOURS

The initial attack for many firefighters proved to be a long attack.

“A lot of the folks were there until Monday night, 18-20 hours,” Kocher said. Some firefighters had to get swapped out earlier due to work commitments.

Working on a fire for 18 to 20 hours is unusual for area firefighters, Kocher said. “We seldom have calls requiring us to be out there 18 to 20 hours. That’s one of the things as firefighters and as people, we have to look at our folks and see who is able to do that and who isn’t able. Their job might prevent them from doing that.”

He added, “One of the greatest attributes of the fire service is the ability to be flexible and adapt to changing situations.”

During long stays on a fire, Kocher said sometimes crews will be switched out to different positions to provide the best use of everyone.

The 18 to 20 hours on site is “longer than we prefer it to be.” He said there were some crews that bedded down near the fire to catch a few hours of sleep before continuing to fight the blaze and be able to relieve people later.

“You have to look at the longevity of the incident and say OK we need to bed down a certain amount of the crew as we are getting additional resources,” Kocher said.

By Monday evening, July 10, crews from outside of the area were arriving, which allowed the firefighters from the initial attack crews to get some well deserved rest and be ready to come back to continue fighting the Terek Fire or be available for other calls.

For Worland’s volunteer fire department, Kocher said the majority of his department spent time working the Terek Fire either directly or in supporting roles. A few were unable due to conflicts or other commitments.

From Tuesday, July 10 on, Worland Volunteer Fire Department had a tender and type 6 engine assigned to the fire with the rest of the crews set up for initial attack elsewhere, or regular response.

In contrast to an 18-20-hour shift on a fire that took five days to contain, Ten Sleep, Worland and BLM crews quickly responded to the Enduro Fire Tuesday night, July 17, just south of the Terek Fire location.

“We were able to get on it quickly again. In this case Mother Nature gave us a little bit of a helping hand. We got a little bit of moisture to slow it down, then crews were able to get around it and secure the lines in a few short hours.

THE FIRE SEASON

Kocher said it is hard to predict what type of fire season this year will turn out to be.

“It could be a long season. There is a lot of fuel. There’s still a lot of moisture in the higher elevations so that fire season could be later than normal,” Kocher said.

He added that there has been a lot of dry lightning with storms this year. “When you have lightning or wind-driven events, you can’t control necessarily how it’s going to react. Everybody should be vigilant. When you see smoke, especially toward the badlands or mountains, we need folks calling that in so we have the opportunity to get on it while it is small.”

 
 

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