Wildfires and the firefighters who fight them

18_wildfire_0305By Tirsea McNeal, I-O Reporter

Over a dozen fires sparked by high temperatures, severe drought conditions and strong winds have blanketed the western part of the U.S. including Washington, Montana, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and California, making this fire season one of the worst in history for area residents.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), nearly 43,000 fires burning 6.4 million acres have been reported across the West since January, and officials predict more wildfires will erupt due to continued dry heat and increased thunderstorms across the region.

Kevin Moritz has been Conrad’s volunteer fire chief for over 12 years, and a volunteer firefighter for over 27.

The Conrad Volunteer Fire Department consisting of 20 volunteers are ready in a matter of minutes for any emergency, either in town or rural.

Moritz said the main difference between a structural fire and wild land, or grass fire is in the equipment.  “Structural fires require heavier gear, a pumper truck and larger diameter hose.”

He also said, “For structure fires you have to be in full turn-out gear with a Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA)”

He added that only trained firefighters fight structural fires, where as in fighting grass or wild land fires, the farmers often help with their tractors and disks.

When fighting a grass or stubble fire, Moritz said “we can wear coveralls and goggles.  Stubble fires are fought with a brush truck, which consists of different equipment, different size hose, and grass fires don’t burn as hot as structural fires.  Structural fires burn a lot hotter due to a lot of different chemicals.  Smoke inhalation is more hazardous in structural fires.”

In Conrad we have one fire department for structural and rural wildland fires.

The same firefighters who scramble to a house fire are the same crew who jump on the truck headed out to a grass fire.

Moritz says, “In our volunteer department everyone has to be trained for both structural fires and wild land fires.  We also assist the ambulances with vehicle extrication, and all our firefighters have training for that as well.”

He said if the passenger or driver wears a seatbelt, it’s just a matter of being able to peel back the roof or cut off the door to get the victim to safety with the extrication tool.

Moritz said the worst fire he can remember was the train collision in 1991 down by Fowler. He said it was over Labor Day weekend and a head on collision due to miscommunication.  He said it caused three fatalities and it was the longest fire he had been on.

In Conrad, he remembers the Marbles Repair and Bains Plumbing fires, both totally destroying buildings and shops.

According to Moritz, we are in the hottest time for wildfires.  He said, “Approximately we fight 45 wildfires on average. The worst fire fighting season is the end of July and first of August during harvest time.”

He said if a person sees a fire to call 911 and report it, but also to remember to give them as much description and information as possible.

“We need to know where the fire is headed, are there structures in the path? Is a vehicle involved? What type of dangers or hazards do the firefighters need to know?”  He said once they head into a fire and it’s very smoky it helps if they have some of this information.

Structural fires have gone down in number since the smoke detector program was initiated in Conrad.

“Our smoke detector program has been truly a life saver.  We want to keep Conrad 100 percent covered with smoke detector use.” said Moritz.

For anyone interested in becoming a Conrad volunteer firefighter they have to be 21 or older due to liability.

They also have to be able to get their CDL and need to live or work in town, if possible. A firefighter can’t miss more than three meetings in a row.

The position requires a minimum of 30 hours of training per year and they are required to carry a pager in their group for one week out of five.

For more information, contact Kevin Moritz at 278-3804.