Brother Doug’s fire story

This complements my story from the same day.

From brother Doug:

From: Doug Huffman

Sent:
Saturday, September 12, 2020 6:48 AM

Subject:
Fire

We have had a busy fire season in recent days.

On August 30, we had the, “White Tail” fire, which didn’t threaten our home, but I was involved in fighting it.  Things were just getting back to normal on Labor Day, September 7, when we had a major cold front come in with very windy conditions.  We had cut a sample of garbanzo beans and determined they were dry enough to cut, but we decided to shut down harvest for the rest of the day due to wind.  Combines often start fires and even though we usually keep our 1300 gallon water truck on hand to fight fire, a windy day isn’t a good time to have a fire.  We went home and I was doing a few chores around the house.  The wind started taking down trees and of course, some of those trees went down across power lines.  When our power went off about 2 PM, I told Julie the power lines may have started a fire when they went down.  I am with Evergreen Fire and so Julie retrieved my fire radio from the bedroom and kept it close.  She looked out the front window and realized the top had blown out of a tree and fallen on our Caterpillar D6C, which was hooked to a plow and parked out front to fight fire in the fields.  I took a chain saw and after assessing the damage, I started cutting the tree off the tractor and plow.  I was mostly done when Julie came out of the house with the fire radio and told me there was a fire on Clover Road, which branches off Cavendish Grade about 1/2 mile east of the Sunny Side Fire Department.  It isn’t in our district, but the folks at Sunny Side knew with the very dry conditions and high winds, they would be overwhelmed almost immediately and they were.  They called for mutual aid from all surrounding Fire Departments including Evergreen.

I drove to the Evergreen Fire Department and met with several other people.  We knew Clover Road was very close to the south side of our district and in fact is just down hill from us.  The wind was driving the fire westward across the slope, but fire goes up hill very rapidly, so we didn’t want to send all our resources to help Sunny Side when we knew the fire would be in our district very soon.  The strong wind was out of the east and would essentially drive the fire along the boundary between Evergreen and Sunny Side fire districts taking out houses in both districts.  We sent one 4000 gallon tender and a brush truck to assist Sunny Side and kept our remaining resources with the intention of staging at the intersection of South Road and Cavendish Highway to protect the homes in our own district.  While most of our fire fighters went directly to the intersection, I took engine 31 (a brush truck) and drove to the eastern end of South Road and then drove full length of South Road assessing the situation.  It was obvious from the smoke that our most immediate threat was near Meridian Road and Havlock Road.  We were also hearing on the radio that the Sunny Side fire station itself was endangered and nearly surrounded by flames.  We sent one more brush truck to assist Sunny Side and the rest of us (one brush truck, one pumper and one 4000 gallon tender with only three people total) headed east on South Road where we expected the threat to hit our district first.  At Lansings place, we met a husband and wife who had just evacuated their home on Havelock Road.  The husband wanted to show me their house,which they felt was in imminent danger.  We followed him to the top of Havelock Road (on the east side of the Lansing property), which is a one lane, very rough gravel road.  I really didn’t want to commit the 4000 gallon tender to that road just yet, so I instructed the tender driver to wait at the top of Havelock while the pumper and myself in the brush truck went down to scout out the situation.  We drove down to the intersection with Valley View Road, which goes east from Havelock.  We were very close to the fire by this point with smoke coming up just down the hill from us.  I instructed the pumper driver to turn around and prepare to leave.  The pumper is a slow and awkward vehicle and I was already concerned about having it down there.  I drove the brush truck out Valley View Road with the home owner where I believe we saw four homes.  Yes, they were in serious danger.  I thought about it and suspected we could probably save any one of those houses if we had the tender, the pumper, the brush truck and had our lines laid and were ready.  I knew we couldn’t save all of them.  The fire was coming at us hard.  it was about to cut off our only exit, which was Havelock. 
I have taken a few wildland fire fighting classes, but it has been several years ago.  They taught us a lot of safety rules and I was violating every safety rule I could think of just scouting this area. 
You are never supposed to get uphill from a wild land fire, yet our DISTRICT was uphill from the fire.  You are supposed to “have one foot in the black” at all times, meaning you are supposed to work at controlling the fire from the side that is already burned so you can retreat to the burned area for protection.  You are supposed to have a lookout posted who watches the big picture while those fighting the fire focus on the nearby issues.  You are suppose to have safety zones, like a large gravel parking lot, a dirt field or some other fire proof area you can retreat to when things go bad.  You are supposed to have communications with incident command at all times.  The incident commander for this fire was with Sunny Side fire and based on the radio traffic, he was completely overwhelmed as the fire was growing much
faster than could be dealt with.   Thus he didn’t even know we existed. 
We are supposed to maintain escape routes, but I knew our only escape route (Havelock) was rapidly being over taken by the fire.  I sized up the situation and made the only decision I could.  We needed to pull back.  Initially, I pulled back to the intersection of Valley View and Havelock where the smoke was getting thicker.  While I had been away, a homeowner from further down Havelock had come fleeing up the hill with his wife in the car.  The husband had burns on one side of his head. 
They had smashed the car into a tree that had fallen across the road. 
The car was gushing antifreeze, but still running.  They were already gone to safety by the time I got back to the intersection.  I was explaining my view of the situation to the pumper driver when the homeowner from Valley View drove by and left for safety.  He wanted us to stay and save his home, but he was leaving.  I decided to cautiously check down Havelock just in case there was a nearby house, surrounded by a large gravel area or large green grass area that might be defendable. 

I drove the brush truck a couple hundred feet further down Havelock until I could see fire.  There was no place to turn around, nothing we could defend.  I backed all the way back up the hill to the intersection where the pumper driver was getting nervous.  I radioed the tender driver and told him we were pulling out.  I took the lead and told the pumper driver if things got bad, to abandon the pumper and get in with me.  The brush truck is faster and more agile than the pumper.  I would rather make a run for things in the brush truck than any of our other equipment.  We drove up out of Havelock with no problems.  We were abandoning all the aforementioned homes and they would all later burn. 
I have never had to make that judgment call as a fire fighter before. 
(Deciding to abandon undamaged homes and allowing them to burn)

We went back to South Road and drove a little further east and successfully defended a home directly south of Meridian Road.  At some point I turned the Evergreen brush truck over to another fire fighter who had shown up.  He took me over to the Sullivan place where our (Huffman Brothers) 1300 gallon water truck was parked.  I took that back to keep an eye on the home south of Meridian Road and I sent the rest of the fire fighters to the next two homes west of that including the Sevastianova residence and the Dennis Weaver residence.  In addition to blowing west, the fire kept coming uphill to the north into my brother Gary’s property on what we call the Sullivan Place (which was once the Frederiksen place).  It came north onto that property and then the strong east wind drove it westwards towards the residence South of Meridian Road.  I got on the radio and called the guys I had just sent away and one of them came back to help, along with another Evergreen fire fighter who had shown up later.  At one point I did a, “pump and roll” with our water truck, which means I was spraying water out a fire nozzle on the driver’s side while driving.  This way, one person can cover a lot of ground on a field fire and get a lot of fire put out.  We stopped it on that occasion and then saved a small building south of Gary’s property which was threatened.  The outhouse and all the miscellaneous things around the little building burned, but we saved the main building ( a tiny vacation cabin).  The other fire fighters again left and went westward to engage various threats while I stayed alone and monitored the situation south of Meridian Road.  The fire was creeping up the canyon on Gary’s property and it eventually jumped a fire break (a neighbor had used a disk to put a fire break around Gary’s field).  Once the field was on fire, I drove out the driveway to South Road and turned our water truck around to get the fire nozzle on the east side facing the fire.  The wind was driving the fire across the field and gaining momentum.  My plan was to do a pump and roll on the driveway and stop it from crossing the driveway.  Meanwhile two other fire fighters showed up.  One was the guy with the brush truck.  The other was an Evergreen Fire fighter with a 3000 gallon tender.  They both drove around me and went in to directly deal with the fire.  We didn’t have time to discuss our plans.  The guy with the tender drove into Gary’s field and started trying to put the fire out doing a pump and roll maneuver.  It wasn’t working well.  He didn’t have a well defined line where he was trying to stop it.  He was just sort of randomly chasing the fire around in the field spraying water and things weren’t going well.  I waited until the fire was nearly at the driveway and started my maneuver.  I was driving along about 5 or 6 mph spraying water out my left side wetting everything down on that side of the driveway.  By the time I got to the really heavy part of the fire, the smoke reduced my visibility to almost zero.  I had my windows rolled up and was struggling to see where I was going.  I was afraid I might go off the edge of the driveway and there are some places with a pretty bad bank where I might get stuck or possibly even roll the truck.  Just as I was getting out of the thickest smoke so I could see something, I suddenly saw the grill of a huge truck right at the end of my hood.  The guy with the 3000 gallon tender (Jim Kramer) had decided his pump and roll maneuver in the field  wasn’t working, so he drove through a bared wire fence to get on the driveway and was attempting to do a pump and roll on the driveway like I was doing, only he was coming from the other direction.  We almost had a head on collision in the heavy smoke.  I hit the brakes, slammed the truck in reverse and started backing out.  This was even more difficult trying to get back through all that heavy smoke without running off the driveway, but it gave everything a second coat of water because I was still pumping.  Jim Kramer continued out with his tender, also pumping and so we kept the fire from jumping the driveway and the house south of Meridian Road was ultimately saved.

Initially it was too windy for air support, but before the day was over, we had a helicopter dropping water and a four engine aircraft dropping fire retardant.  Julie had alerted Gary in regards to the fire.  Gary finished removing the tree top from the D6C and plowed fire breaks around the fields by our houses.  Julie packed the car with clothing, important papers and more and was prepared to evacuate.  I was mostly ignoring my cell phone, but a couple days later I was checking my voicemails and found a message from the Clearwater County Sheriff’s office at 4:36 PM the day of the fire, ordering us to evacuate.  Our land line was down by that point, so they called my cell phone, but they didn’t have Julie’s cell phone number, thus Julie didn’t get the message.  We had farmers from several miles away show up and plow fire breaks around all the fields adjacent to South Road.  Gary and I went back to the Sullivan place that night and stayed out until about 10:30 PM spraying water around the edges of the fire with our water truck.  By that time, we had help from all over northern Idaho, including Lewiston, Clarkston, Troy and Clearwater Paper (located in Lewiston).  Clearwater Potlatch Timber Protective Association was there in force along with a whole lot of professional fire fighters I didn’t identify.

When Julie and I went to bed, there was fire was about 500 yards directly south of our house.  It was held in check by a fire break in a field, South Road and a lot of fire fighters.  I went upstairs and went to bed.  No power, no water and no shower.  Julie was frightened and slept on the couch in the living room where she could sit up and look at the fire across the road to assure herself it wasn’t getting any closer.  Most of the devastation was on Cavendish Highway and Sunny Side Bench Road.  The fire eventually crept up to and touched the road bank on the south side of South Road about 1.2 miles east of our house.  It covered over 1600 acres, consumed 13 homes and is the largest fire in this community in my life time.  I believe there were only two homes destroyed in our district.  Most of the homes on Havelock were actually in Sunny Side’s district.  The power came back on after 47 hours.  The phone came back on after four days.

LmtFire0

LmtFire1

6 thoughts on “Brother Doug’s fire story

  1. Glad he had the sense to cut and run when it was required. Too many folks in many areas get “target fixation” and overstay their welcome in critical situations. I know it’s something our local HazMat team stresses in their training.

    Property loss sucks, but it sounds like no lives lost thankfully.

    Kudos to your brother an all of the others that rush toward the fire. And to all the folks that pitch in when it’s needed without waiting for “someone” to tell them it’s OK.

  2. Very glad Doug, Gary and their families came through ok. Sorry to hear about the homes of the others in their area. The entire Huffman family is amazing . Another example of their family’s selfless contributions to the leadership and support of the Canvendish/Orofino area community.

  3. Given the speed with which grass and brush fires spread, and when driven by wind, even faster, obviously structures should be built with non-combustible materials.

    That said, allowing the fire close to structures still constitutes failure; what’s considered the minimum safe “fire break” distance around a house or barn?

  4. Kudos to your brother from a fellow firefighter. His description of the chaos is spot on. We had a similar situation here just last week. It went from a small fire and one department to “bring every department in the county and bring all of your engines, structure and wildland” in about 15 minutes. Burned 700 acres in about two hours. Incident Command was essentially non-existent and the radio channels were so busy that it was nearly impossible to communicate. The good thing was that the individual units and departments knew their jobs and did them where they were. My crew spent 4 hours with a couple of other crews protecting a group of four houses over a ten acre area – every where we looked there was fire – a garage, a porch, a woodpile next to a house (big no-no!), roofing stacked on a trailer, barns, etc. We were busy even with three pumpers, a couple Type 6 wildland trucks and three tenders bringing us water.

    To Alien’s question about distance – a clear area of 30′ around structures is a good start – but most structures that ignite occur because of wind blown embers – keeping gutters clean of debris and the base of walls free of burnable materials helps a lot to prevent embers from being able to gain a foothold.

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