This past Labor Day weekend is one of those weekends that I can add to the ever growing list of crazy events that have made up 2020 thus far. It also presented one of the most dangerous and unpredictable calls I have ever been on.
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For starters, it was, a typical 90-degree hot end of summer weekend here in the central eastern Rocky Mountains of Idaho: that is, until Monday afternoon. What started as a hot sunny day suddenly saw rain clouds roll in quickly. In the span of an hour or two, we saw temperatures drop more than 30 degrees, and the wind began to howl. A winter weather warning appeared on my phone, with snow forecast at our elevation. In addition to the unusually strong wind was the fact that it blew in exactly the opposite direction than we’ve ever seen it blow before in 4th of July Creek drainage. Before we knew it, the wind picked up to over 50 mph with gusts to 60 mph. In all of the years we’ve lived here, I’ve never seen wind over 35 to 40 mph max.
The call came in at about 4 pm that one of the up-drainage neighbors’ houses was on fire because of a down live power line. We responded from our home as the neighbor home is only about a mile up the creek from our ranch. That part of the creek is heavily forested with old growth Ponderosa pine, lodgepole pines, and fir. I was comfortable knowing that my department, the Forest Service, and the power company had all been dispatched. That is where all comfort ended.
I stopped at the address of the house that was reportedly on fire. No smoke or fire showing, and power lines seemed intact. I did a quick 360, and headed further up. What I saw blew my mind as there were uprooted trees and “widowmakers” (snapped trees that precariously hang up on limbs of other trees) everywhere. I found the site of the down line and fire farther up on the property. Fortunately, the earlier rains had wet the grass enough to where the fire had put itself out, and the down power line was “in the black.” One of the other neighbors met me on the road to tell me that we had other elderly and disabled neighbors trapped from fallen trees, and that we also had hunters that were trapped and stranded farther up on the road.
Knowing that help was on its way, I got out of my truck to have a better look around as a couple of other firefighters arrived. With the initial fire threat gone, I figured this would simply require a bunch of chain saws to free the stranded neighbors and hunters.
When we got out of the trucks, what we initially saw paled in comparison to what we heard. That got our attention. The wind came in wicked, sustained gusts. We could hear 50- to 70-foot-tall trees cracking and falling in the forest all around us, even though we couldn’t see them. I knew there were clearings throughout the area where I could safely stage apparatus and Forest Service trucks, but was it worth the risk trying to get them there? We decided to leave the Type 1 engine down below and bring a Type 6 4×4 rig up with saws.
We’re a small department, and it was a holiday. The turnout to the call was not fantastic. I didn’t want to put the older members who did respond in harm’s way unnecessarily. I needed tools and equipment from the structure engine but didn’t want to risk stranding the crew and the heavy engine on a mountain dirt road with no way or place to turn around. With no known injuries and no working fire, the personnel and apparatus risk didn’t seem worth it.
A couple of us were able to get to the trapped elderly neighbors, and cut the 3 trees from their bridge that prevented them from getting out. As we finished up there, we got another huge swirling gust that gave rise to another round of cracking, snapping, and falling trees. This time, we could see them coming down but had no idea which was the best direction to run in. All we could do was keep our backs to each other and watch as much of the surrounding area as we could for falling trees.
We were eventually able to hike up the road to cut the stranded hunters out as well. They too didn’t know whether it was safer to stay in their vehicles or be outside.
When all was said and done, the four of us also made it out safely, albeit visibly shaken. When the storm passed by the next morning, we were able to go back up the creek to reassess our decisions and survey the devastation. The best way to describe what we saw was that it looked like someone had taken a gigantic dozer, and mowed down a swathe of evergreens through the floor of the canyon. Thousands of pine trees were snapped off, or completely laid over, root balls and all. Many of these root balls are 15 to 20 feet tall.
I understand that rural departments across the country deal with hurricanes and tornadoes, and other such naturally occurring events that present similar types of situations. This event was a totally new and unexpected one for us. Quite frankly, it caught me flat footed, having to make critical risk assessments and decisions that I’ve questioned and requestioned ever since. It was an unexpected situation that couldn’t be trained for, however, it is now certainly a situation that we can be better prepared for. Saw training, field repair, and maintenance can be enhanced and beefed up as just an example. Dispatch protocols and standard operating procedures can be reviewed and updated, and additional equipment might need to be purchased. This was certainly a case of ever-evolving and dynamic scene size-up that can be used for training scenarios. In this case, the wind here didn’t blow, it sucked! Take a look around your area to see where you and your department might need to expect the unexpected. A lot of good things can come from it.
I hope this article finds all of you healthy and doing well!
CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.