Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Barn Fires…

There’s nothing else quite like a barn fire.

Barns are big; they’re in mostly rural areas without a good water supply and filled with flammable materials. One other problem, the residents can’t notify anyone, so, most often it’s a passer-by, or the farmer as he wakes up who notices the fire first. Often, long after it started, and has plenty of time to get really working…

Once they get rolling, it takes a lot of people, and a lot of water, to bring that fire back under control, and eventually extinguish it.

There are essentially three priorities when you roll up on a barn fire. First, determine if there are any people in the barn. Second, determine what animals, if any, might be in the barn. Third, find a way to get enough water, on the fire, fast enough to get it extinguished.

The first two, just about any department in the country can accomplish.

The third however, is the forte` of my friend Jack Cottet. For all the years I’ve known Jack he’s been all about “Rural Water Supply”. I worked a couple seminars on the subject with Jack back in the mid 80’s that I’ve mentioned here in the past. I knew, at the time, what we (well he, I was simply helping) were doing was pretty revolutionary and beyond what the normal ‘thinking’ of the day was.

However, until very recently, I had no idea “how” groundbreaking this work of Jack’s was, and still is.

If you read the piece Jack sent me, and I posted here, you can hear in his words, that he’s a humble man, preferring to let his actions speak the loudest.

It turns out, that my friend and fellow firefighter, along with another fellow John Heintz, are about the top two guys, on the planet, when it comes to rural water supply. Australia, yeah, that’s right, the country, flew Jack there, all expenses paid to teach their fire departments about establishing, and maintaining an adequate water supply when fighting fires away from hydrants.

Think about that for a moment… best in the world… at what they do… and for the most part, they’ve both done most of their work as volunteers. Yes they had regular jobs, that were ‘fire related’, but no one was paying them to develop and expand on the ways of rural water supply… It was, for the most part, a labor of love (or possibly obsession).

I knew that Jack was good, and that our department and many of the surrounding departments were much better off because he was in the mix… but I had no idea, how good he really is.

You see when I got involved in the VFD, I naturally gravitated to those folks who knew what they were doing and were always on the ‘front line’, as it’s in my nature to want to be in the ‘thick of it’. So hanging out with the likes of Cottet, Flint, Heinz and Campbell was not an option for me, I was drawn to their knowledge and love for the fight, like a moth to a flame.

So, for the entire time I was involved, the ways we used to bring water to these rural fires, was just, to me, the way it was done. We were always looking for faster ways to fill, and dump the tankers, utilize multiple ‘ponds’, equalize water levels between ponds, all of that. But I’d never really experienced the way other departments did it.

More to the point, the ways others didn’t do it. We almost always had water, in more than adequate supply, to fight the fires. It turns out that one of the biggest challenges rural departments face, after getting enough trained people to the scene, is adequate water supply.

I remember several fires where we had multiple pumpers, moving a total of four, or five, thousand gallons a minute, for several hours as we’d fight one of these barn fires. I don’t remember one time having to pull back, take a break, and wait for water to arrive. Think for a minute, about the logistics of loading, hauling and unloading water, from a few miles away, at a 1,000 gallons or so a load, such that you have enough on hand every minute to support the effort.

I didn’t think much about it back then as I had no idea what a real problem this was for some other departments. I did however continue to work on improving what Jack and John were doing with guys like Larry Flint when we were given the opportunity.

As I think about these days, I’m amazed at how lucky I was, we were, to have folks like this. Guys who, in addition to working all week to provide for their families, gave of themselves, gave up the precious free time we all covet, to not only improve things in their own departments, but those of surrounding communities as well.

I will always be grateful for having had the opportunity to learn, work and grow with men like this.


Nina said...

I have enjoyed reading your fire fighting stories. My paternal grandfather was a firefighter and later a fire chief. He had a radio at home and we heard a lot of radio transmission about fires. My grandmother would listen to them while he was at the fire. Still to this day I marvel at what it must be like to fight a fire.

Firehawk said...


I can imagine how difficult it would be to maintain a supply of water out in the rural areas. It would take a pretty amazing level of local knowledge to be able to put the trucks in places where they could reliably draft water to bring to the scene.

Another good story, bro. Keep 'em coming.

Bill said...

Nanina - Thanks, I enjoy writing them. They're all good memories!

Firehawk - Thanks bro, I appreciate that. It does work well, when it's done right, and these two guys kept pushing the envelope and making it better.

Beth said...

Bill, I remember in western NY when they would burn old barns in a controlled setting. Those suckers never seemed controlled. The wood is SO seasoned!

Bill said...

Beth - We also had quite a few 'controlled burns'. What that usually means is that the FD goes in and set's a fire, then the interior crews flank, and contain it, while the trainees make entry, and knock it down.

The process is repeated doing search and rescue etc, until just before the structure becomes unsafe.

The fire is reset and the department then contains the fire, allowing it to consume the building.

It serves two purposes, the training, and the building owner saves the cost of demolition.

Those old structures are definitely tinder boxes.