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Posted May 23, 2008

FIRE SEASON

IN

EASTERN AND SOUTHEASTERN MASSACHUSETTS

 

 

by

 

Robert M. Winston, District Fire Chief

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cover Design by Troy Winston

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyrighted in U.S.A.

 

Printed

May 1985

February 1987

February 1989

May 1994

December 1997

 

 

Permission is granted to reprint this article only for educational purposes

and the enhancement of the fire services.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introducing the Author:  Robert M. Winston

 

Robert M. Winston has been a member of the Boston Fire Department since 1969 and he is currently a District Fire Chief.

 

He has expressed a great interest and concern for the SWI fire challenge.  The Boston Fire Department's first Brush Fire Unit was designed by Chief Winston while he was a Fire Captain at Engine Company 48, which is stationed in the heavily wooded section of Hyde Park (Boston).  This unit was put under his command in April 1985, and a second Brush Fire Unit was soon assigned to Engine Company 55 in the wooded section of West Roxbury (Boston) in 1986.  Chief Winston also introduced the easier to use and lighter weight forestry hose to the Boston Fire Department, making brush fire fighting less arduous.  He has 30 years of structural and wildland fire experience, is a former Eastern U.S. Director of N.F.P.A.'s Wildland Fire Management Section, is the I.A.F.C.'s SWI Fire Liaison, and is contributing editor for FireFighter's News and Firehouse magazines.

 

In addition, he is a past Eastern U.S. Director of the N.F.P.A.'s Wildland Fire Management Section, where he served for two 2-year terms; has traveled to western United States to observe and to learn more about Interzone; has worked with the National Fire Academy on an Interzone Protection Program; and has worked with the Massachusetts Fire Fighting Academy to develop an Interzone course to cross train Massachusetts fire fighters

 

Presentations and consulting on Structural/Wildland Interzone Firefighting are available by contacting District Fire Chief Robert M. Winston at (781) 834-9413.  The presentation consists of videos, handouts, slide presentation, tactics and strategies, safety and prevention.  A small fee from your training budget will cover time, expenses and materials.  You may write to him at this address:

 

DFC Robert M. Winston

456 Lincoln Street

Duxbury, MA 02332-3233

781-834-9413

Email: dfcwins@idt.net

Fax: 781-934-7049

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TERMINOLOGY

 

 

 

What is this STRUCTURAL-WILDLAND INTERZONE or SWI?

 

Some years ago a group of U.S. Forest Service people were meeting to discuss the structural-wildland fire problem.  They needed to come up with a term or label which would describe the problem.  So they coined the phrase of WILDLAND/URBAN INTERFACE.  The phrase became accepted in many areas of the country.  However, the term was shuffled around and people became confused as to its intended meaning.

 

It has been called:

           

            URBAN/WILDLAND INTERFACE

 

            STRUCTURAL URBAN/WILDLAND INTERFACE

 

            URBAN WILDFIRE INTERFACE

 

            URBAN/WILDLAND INTERFACE/INTERMIX

 

            STRUCTURAL/WILDLAND URBAN INTERFACE/INTERMIX

 

            URBAN INTERFACE/INTERMIX

 

            URWIN in the state of Utah

 

            SWUII like in hog calling

 

            SWI

 

            And finally, I have seen it as URBAN/WILDLIFE INTERFACE

 

Simply stated the STRUCTURAL-WILDLAND INTERZONE, or SWI for short, is where structures meet or are mixed with vegetation, be it grass, brush or trees forming a ZONE that will require fire suppression operations combining STRUCTURAL and WILDLAND tactics and strategies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FIRE SEASON IN EASTERN AND SOUTHEASTERN MASSACHUSETTS

 

Definition: SWI is an area where people and property mix with vegetation creating a fire zone where firefighting tactics and strategies become multifaceted in order to simultaneously combat wildland fires as well as structural fires.  During the last several years, we, within the various divisions of the fire services be it forestry or structural, have become familiar with this terminology.  For decades past, the fire services simply defined SWI as grass, brush, woods, forest, or vegetation fires.  The burgeoning, shifting, and highly mobile populations have rapidly encroached upon and built into that vegetation or wildland.  Their dwellings and other structures are usually built of readily combustible materials which can and often do ignite during wildland fires.  During the 1950's, 1960's, and 1970's it seemed that these large scale Interzone fires were occurring mostly in central and southern California.  We became familiar with names like Bel Air, Sycamore Canyon, the Angeles National Forest, and Big Sur.  Soon, other locations in the west, down south, in Canada and Alaska became synonymous with grass, brush, and forest fires. Then we began to see and read news accounts of large scale Interzone fires in Australia, France, Belgium, and China.  During 1988, vegetation fires were used as a terrorist tactic in Israel.  Areas in our western United States were devastated by massive fires the likes of which modern man has not before seen.

 

These huge fires are not anything new to the continents of our globe.  Fires have been sweeping and cleansing the world's vegetation for eons, thus allowing vigorous and healthy wildlands to flourish and support vast populations of diverse animal species.  It is only since modern man has come along that the delicate balance of the laws of God and nature has been disturbed.  Now man must try to protect himself and his property from the ravages of powerful wildfires.  We have all seen how feeble man and his machines can be in the face of massive wildfires.

 

The early settlers and colonists had to defend themselves from wildfires.  On October 8, 1871, a huge forest fire erupted near Peshtigo, Wisconsin, destroying Peshtigo and numerous other towns.  About 1500 people were killed and millions of dollars lost in property damages from this one fire that occurred during the same night as the Great Chicago Fire.  October 1947 saw huge forest fires destroy many buildings in the state of Maine.  Large forest fires have burned buildings in southern New Jersey's Pine Barren area and also throughout Staten Island in New York City.  Southeastern Massachusetts is another area that is vulnerable to fast moving SWI fires.

 

During the mid-1980's through the 1990's, extremely destructive SWI fires occurred in many areas of the United States of America and in many countries around the globe.  I am sure that we will not soon forget the Yellowstone Fires, the Paint Fire in Santa Barbara, the Oakland/Berkeley Hills Tunnel Fire, the firestorms of southern California in 1993, and the huge SWI fires in Australia in 1994.

 

 

page 1

 

 

THE FIRE SEASON BEGINS

 

Grass, brush and forest firefighting are unlike any other firefighting and are very dangerous.  The fire season begins about mid-March and ends when the woodlands "green-up" in late May.  The fire season begins again, but not as intensely, in the Fall when vegetation and leaves "brown-up".

 

In Plymouth and Barnstable Counties, which are in southeastern Massachusetts, and in eastern Massachusetts, grass, brush and forest fires can rapidly become a direct threat to people, property and wildlife.

 

Eastern and southeastern Massachusetts and southern California are 3,000 miles apart, but these two areas have something in common.  This similarity is fast moving, large-scale vegetation fires.  The U.S. Forest Service has listed these two geographical areas as having the fastest rate of flame spread, through vegetation, per acre, of any area in the continental United States.  However, there the similarities end.

 

There are a number of reasons why this vast land area is so dangerously fire prone.  Two of the prime factors are:  the type of vegetation and the type of soil.  The woodlands are predominately scrub oak, white pine, and pitch pine trees.  The latter tree has been dubbed the "gasoline pine tree" because of its extremely volatile nature when taking fire.  "Flash fuel" is another descriptive term used in the region.  The leaves of the scrub oak tree often remain attached to the tree through the winter months.  When the forest fire season begins, these dead, dry leaves contribute an easily ignitable fuel to any fire.

 

The forest floors are covered with a layer of dead, dry pine needles and oak leaves that are termed "forest duff".  Below this is a thin layer of topsoil.  Underneath these two elements is a thick layer of pure sand, which literally drains off any moisture from the forest duff and topsoil.  The forest floor becomes tinder dry within two or three days after a soaking rainfall.  During the early Spring, the trees lack most of their leaves, thus allowing direct sunlight on the forest duff.  This further dries out the duff and actually preheats it.  Preheating combustibles makes them burn easier and faster.

 

The Spring of the year is usually our forest fire season, with April and May the most active months.  It is at this period that the region experiences the warming west and southwesterly winds that seem to constantly blow at speeds of twenty to twenty-five MPH.  These winds, much like the West's Santa Ana Devil winds, aid in the drying out of the forests and if a fire should erupt, the winds push the blaze along with frightening speed.  The fire's speed is measured in feet per minute of flame spread, or acres per minute (APM).  Some of these fires have been estimated at consuming over 30 APM!  One cannot outrun this type of fire!

 

 

 

 

page 2

 

The seacoast towns have, in addition to the forest fire problem, the unique problem of large acreage marsh-grass fires.  This type of marsh-grass usually grows in very dense stands, reaching up to ten feet in height.  We call this type of grass elephant grass, bull-rushes, or saw-grass.  To put firefighters into this marsh-grass when it is burning, puts the firefighters at great risk.  These fires are very difficult to combat due to the spongy ground conditions and accessibility problems.  Often they become very large in size, entering woodlands or inhabited areas with a wide fire front.

 

 

FIRE TOWERS

 

The firefighting scenario often begins with smoke that is spotted from one of the many Massachusetts DEM fire towers that are strategically placed throughout the region.  These towers are metal structures that have many thick wooden stairs leading up to a 10 x 10 foot watch room.  This room is usually perched about ninety feet above ground level.  This is where the tower person spends many lonely days watching for smoke through his/her binoculars.  These individuals may well be one of the most important segments of the fire scenario.  The sooner they pinpoint the smoke, the greater the chance of early fire suppression and minimum loss of acreage.

 

 

HISTORY OF COUNTY PATROL AIRCRAFT

 

Both Plymouth and Barnstable Counties operate spotter aircraft.  The aircrafts are usually in the air on the dry, windy days during fire season.  These spotters are essential to successful forest firefighting and are the eyes for the fire ground commander.  Often the fires are burning in remote areas and the spotter will direct the fire apparatus onto the narrow woods roads that lead to the best vantage points for fire suppression.  Watching for shifting flame fronts and newly formed head-fires that can sweep around from the rear and trap firefighters unaware, is one of the spotter's most important functions.  Many a fire could have turned into a disaster if it were not for these sky-high observers. 

 

The first county plane was put in service on May 11, 1949, in Plymouth County after much insistence by the now retired District Fire Warden, Harold Ballard.  D.F.W. Ballard had his headquarters in Myles Standish State Forest, Plymouth, until he retired in 1968.  According to retired Warden Ballard, Myles Standish State Forest was run by a forester named Bill Day who just happened to be the first forester for that area.  Unfortunately, Bill Day lost his life one night while he slept in his bed, the victim of a fire.  In his will, Forester Day requested that he be cremated and his ashes be spread across Myles Standish State Forest.  His request was honored and during the dedication flight of the first County spotter plane, the first forester's ashes were scattered over the forest.

 

 

 

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HISTORY OF BRUSH BREAKERS

 

The firefighters of southeastern Massachusetts would find it nearly impossible to combat these woodland fires without the aid of specialized fire apparatus.  The "brush breaker" is the savior in this case.  This is a piece of rugged motorized fire apparatus that exists in only one other area in this country, which is the New Jersey Pine Barrens.  Other fire departments imitate the brush breakers but none completely duplicate them.

 

In 1938 (There seems to be a very old controversy as to which fire department developed the forest brush breakers.  Some say the first one was put into service in Centerville/Osterville on Cape Cod around 1937, while others claim that the event took place in Plymouth in 1938.), the first breaker was designed and built for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation at Myles Standish State Forest.  This truck was protected by a large bar or rail made from hard oak wood that was fastened to the front and sides.  This first breaker was destroyed in 1944 while operating at a forest fire in Myles Standish Reservation.  The two firefighters on the truck were burned but not seriously.  The design of the breakers was improved with a great deal of help from D.F.W. Harold Ballard.  In 1966 the Farrar Fire Apparatus Company of Hopkinton, Massachusetts, built the first mass-produced breakers for the Massachusetts DNR.  Maxim Motors of Middleboro, Massachusetts and Thibault of Canada also custom built brush breakers.

 

Today's brush breakers are built with heavy gauge steel push and protection bars that are fastened to the front, sides, top, and rear of the unit.  They carry from 250 to 1500 gallons of water in the larger units; are all-wheel drive; and operate with the pump and roll method of fire suppression.  In addition, each rig carries both 1 1/2" and 1 1/8" forestry hose, some tools, and most have a winch to "pull out" of tough spots.  The brush breaker is virtually a firefighting tank dressed in armor.  They are powerful enough to easily push over oak and pine trees with trunks measuring up to 8 and 12 inches respectively.  The new generation of brush breakers are now dual-purpose firefighting units and are equipped with Class A-Foam systems for SWI fire suppression.

 

 

TACTICS AND STRATEGY

 

The tactics and strategy of fire ground operations are basically to let the spotter plane guide you into the fire's flanks, follow the flanks and extinguish the fire as one chases along, until the fire's forward movement is hopefully stopped.  This sounds fairly easy, but easy it is not!  This type of firefighting is hot, grueling, and extremely dangerous work!  The firefighting can last for hours on end, and in some cases, day after day without much relief.  The men often eat and drink on the run.  Exhaustion, smoke inhalation, and swollen, red eyes are an accepted occupational hazard.  A number of firefighters have paid the "supreme sacrifice", and many others have been seriously burned while battling these roaring infernos.  The firefighters of southeastern Massachusetts deserve a definite tip-o-the-helmet for the work they do during the fire seasons.

 

 

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Carver Fire Chief Dana Harriman:  "Firefighting presents one of the greatest challenges to firefighters.  Depending on wind and other conditions, the fire can get a pretty good head start prior to arrival of the first units.  You're deep in the woods and can't see where she's going or where the head fire is.  The smoke is really thick and what a sight it is to see this boiling mass of black and gray smoke!  The sound that one of these fires produces is like a freight train - loud, very loud!  Then, when the flame climbs into the upper portions of the pines and begins to "crown", the pines explode like dynamite charges, literally blowing the trees apart.  The winds are constantly shifting and you don't know if this thing is going to suddenly come at you.  So you have to stay on the edge of the burned area just in case.  That is the only safe place to go if the fire shifts.  It is quite a sight to see 40 acres of fire rolling through the trees and jumping a road.  No camera lens can capture the full impact of one of these fires.  They're just too big, and too much is going on at one time.  There is nothing else like it...no other firefighting is like it."

 

This writer certainly agrees with Chief Harriman.  Once you have witnessed a full-blown forest fire, you will never forget the experience.

 

It was May 1st, 1977, when a large, fast-moving fire started on Old Sandwich Road in Plymouth.  I was standing on Route 3A with a large contingent of firefighters, awaiting the emergence of the head fire.  I watched in awe as this angry red and orange wall of flame roared through the forest, heading straight for us!  Above the treetops were great clouds of black smoke being punctuated with bright flashes of red flames.  The head fire jumped the 50-foot wide roadway, right over the firefighters' heads, and continued through the forest on the opposite side!  Many streams of water were played on that fire as it jumped the roadway.  Firefighting efforts had little effect.

 

Centerville-Osterville Fire Chief John M. Farrington:  "May 1964, we were experiencing a very large forest fire in the town of Sandwich.  The head fire had a flame height of 100 to 150 feet.  Fire units were operating on Route 6 (the Mid-Cape Highway) when she jumped the four lanes to the other side.  From the point of the jump to where the head fire landed was over a 400-foot distance, and it just kept right on going through the forest.  We had 2 1/2 inch lines operating on Route 6, but the lines had no effect at all in stopping the fire."

 

Sandwich Fire Chief Dennis Newman:  "Our biggest problems are in the Otis Air Force Base at Camp Edwards.  When the military conducts artillery practice, the exploding shells start fires in their "impact area", which is heavily wooded.  The fire units cannot enter the "impact area" because of the live unexploded artillery shells that are in the ground.  So the fires can get very large and we have to wait for the flame fronts to come to us in the "safe areas".  In May of 1982, we used military helicopters that carried large (350 to 500 gallons) water buckets to make drops on the fires in the impact areas."

 

 

 

 

 

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"Another problem that we have is with marsh fires.  These are fast moving fires that produce a very thick and very irritating smoke.  Often, we have cottages and homes in the path of the fire.  In May of 1982, we had over 500 acres burn at Scusset Beach, and we lost several cottages.  While fighting a marsh fire around here, one has to be very careful of "sink holes".  The holes are caused by the tide waters, which wash away the sand from underneath the marsh-grasses, leaving a very thin layer of soil and grass.  The hole gets deeper and wider with the tidal changes and if you drive your fire truck over it, well, that is why they are called "sink holes".

 

 

MEMORABLE FIRES OF THE PAST AND PRESENT

 

May 4, 1937:  This was a very dry Spring, punctuated by numerous brush and forest fires.  In his official report to the Plymouth Board of Selectmen, Forest Warden James S.A. Valler stated that "he was sorry to inform the Selectmen that he had a 'fire-bug' or 'fire-bugs' working nearly all Summer long, and that 95% of the fires were incendiary.  In one week, Plymouth had 13 incendiary woods fires.  The first major fire (over 300 acres) was at Herring Pond in the town of Bourne.  This fire burned over the line into Plymouth.  Two firefighters were trapped on a woods road because of shifting winds, and were burned to death.  Many others were also injured."

 

Those two Plymouth firefighters were Herbert R. Benton and James H. DeVitt.  A memorial tribute to these firefighters, in the form of a bronze plaque fastened to a large rock, has been placed in the front of Plymouth Fire Department's new central station.

 

April 27, 1938:  Another dry, windy Spring day that brought tragedy to the town of Sandwich and its Fire Department.  A large forest fire was in progress along Route 130, where a number of Sandwich firefighters were trying to make a stand.  It is said that the wind shifted and the flames came down upon the fire crew.  Firefighters Thomas B. Adams, Ervin A. Draber, and Gordon King perished in those flames.  A memorial marker, made of bronze and stone, sits near the spot where these brave men died.

 

April 21, 1941:  There had been a dry spell prior to this fire and this was a typical windy Spring day.  At about 1:40 p.m., Brant Rock (Marshfield) Combination #1 responded to a reported fire on Ocean Street.  Little did the fire company know that this would be Marshfield's biggest blaze in its history.  The fire started in the dry marsh area and whipped by a strong northwest wind, jumped a brook and a road, where it entered a residential area of wooden frame buildings.  The dwellings were built very close together and the fire raced through them unabated.  It was said that at any given time during this fire, simultaneously there were hundreds of buildings on fire.  Over 550 buildings of all kinds were consumed in a matter of just a few hours along a strip of land 1/4 mile wide by approximately 1 1/2 miles long.  After the fire, the town changed its building and zoning bylaws and required building lots to be a minimum of 5,000 square feet.  That area of Marshfield built itself back up, but to this day the hazardous conditions of wooden frame houses built too closely together, and those marshes, are still very much in evidence.

 

 

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May 8, 1957:  A forest fire was reported at about 3:00 p.m. in the Wareham/Carver area.  Within 1 hour, this blaze had developed a 3-mile flame front, and by the end of the day, the head fire had traveled 12 miles in the direction of the ocean!  A number of homes and cottages were destroyed.  Three thousand to four thousand firefighters, militia, convicts from the Plymouth County House of Correction, and volunteers fought to save the town of Plymouth.  Two hundred to three hundred pieces of fire equipment and support units responded from across the state when the Governor declared a "state of emergency" for Plymouth County.  The fire continued to burn for several days until its perimeter was 35 miles around!

 

Spring of 1964:  From April through the end of May, the region was experiencing one of its driest Spring fire seasons.  During the weekend of May 9th and 10th, no less than 51 brush fires were reported.  Ninety percent of the fires were thought to be incendiary.  At 1:49 p.m. on May 23rd, the Fire Tower spotted smoke in the town of Carver.  This forest fire progressed rapidly, covering many thousands of acres and destroyed numerous buildings in and around Myles Standish State Forest.  Mop-up and final extinguishment were completed on June 6th.

 

May 15, 1971:  This forest fire was not very large - only 165 acres.  However, in terms of injuries and damage to equipment, this fire was very costly.  The following are some excepts from a special report prepared by the Northeastern Forest Protection Commission:

         At 1:35 p.m., a smoke was spotted near Myles Standish State Forest in Plymouth.  The fire was burning in pine/oak fuels on sandy, hilly terrain and was being fanned by a sea breeze of about 12-MPH.  Humidity was at 25% and fuel moisture was 5.5%.  Initial fire attack was being made by two Department of Natural Resources brush trucks and three Plymouth Fire Department brush breakers.

 

         Suddenly the wind shifted direction and its speed increased dramatically, due to a strong SW weather front overtaking the existing SE sea breeze.  The extremely turbulent winds with high-speed updrafts (possibly to 50 or 60 MPH), which passed over the fire at the time, resulted in a sharply increased rate of burning and a transfer of heat.  This resulted in an extremely hot wave of radiating gasses passing over two Plymouth brush breakers.  An observed sheet of flame, 50 feet high, engulfed the Plymouth trucks and their crews.

 

         A possible contributing factor to the unusual fire behavior is the area ignition of methane gas from a bog.  This probably increased the depth of flame front and added to the residual heat.

 

         This fire burned eight Plymouth firefighters - two seriously, and severely damaged two brush breakers that were caught in the flames.  The engine motors and independent fire pumps stalled out from lack of oxygen, virtually trapping the crews.  Firefighter Warren Diegoli, who was riding the rear, was attempting to open a pump valve and saw his hands crack open without feeling any pain.  No flames were present at this time but he was impressed with the extreme heat, exploding trees and particles of fire that were swirling upward.

 

 

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         Plymouth Deputy Fire Chief Joseph "Buster" Folger (then a private) suddenly felt the extreme heat and his clothing caught fire.  He rolled to the ground in an attempt to extinguish the flames.  He then ran for the road, which was only 50 feet away and collapsed.  That is all that Chief Folger remembers.  He was found lying on the road and was badly burned.

 

         All firefighters eventually recovered and returned to duty.  Recommendations for protective clothing followed this incident but no mandatory standards have been adopted for southeastern Massachusetts forest firefighting.

 

Spring 1987:  Some significant wildfires develop in the region.  One in particular occurred about 20 miles to the southwest of Boston but the fires actually started in Boston.

 

A railroad train left Boston's South Station in the heart of the city and headed out toward southwestern Massachusetts.  A hot box on the train began to throw off sparks along its route.  It was a dry, windy Spring day and the sparks ignited spot fires from Boston to the Walpole/Foxboro area.  Nearly two dozen fires were caused by the hot box.  In the towns of Sharon, Walpole and Foxboro, these spot fires grew in size and quickly became a SWI incident. 

 

Fire services from all of the area towns responded to the mutual-aid call.  With area resources committed, the incident commander asked for a forestry task force from his county to assist in fire suppression.  Approximately 250 acres were consumed before the fire was declared under control.

 

The Spring of 1988 was another busy fire season.  In stark contrast to wildfires versus structures, even the plight of the homeless was affected by wildfires.  April 20th at 16:37 hours, a small (1/2 acre) marsh-grass fire in Quincy (next to Boston) claimed the life a street person.  A group of homeless people had set up "housekeeping" in cardboard boxes amidst the eight foot high marsh-grasses that grow abundantly throughout the area.  The fire victim was a young man in his thirties.  He was found lying face down in the charred grass by Quincy firefighters.  The cause of death, according to Quincy Fire Officials, was from smoke inhalation with extensive burns to the body.  Cause of the fire was listed as unknown.

 

April 22, at around 14:15 hours, a forest fire began at Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod.  The fire grew in size as it was pushed along by strong winds.  A PAVE-PAWS radar installation was threatened and 50 people that were working at this key military facility had to be evacuated from the site.  The fire rapidly grew to the point where it seemed to be creating its own local thundercloud directly above its thermal column.  The fire was moving toward Route 130 and numerous structures sat in its path. 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fire units from throughout Plymouth and Barnstable Counties responded to the fire scene.  Task forces were requested and stood by at the Cape Cod Canal until ordered into the fire scene.  Convoys of brush breakers attacked the fire's flanks and worked their way up to the head fire.  Military bulldozers cut a wide firebreak ahead of the fire's path.  Then the wind died down and the fire was successfully halted and extinguished before it could jump Route 130 or damage any structures.  Total acres burned were approximately 1,600.

 

April 25 at 17:40 hours, a brush fire was reported in the City of Medford (just a few miles to the north of Boston).  Again, fire in high marsh-grass and brush was being rapidly pushed along by strong winds and drove the flames into a parking lot of a local automobile dealership.  Motor vehicles began to ignite and buildings were in danger of becoming involved in flames.  The on-scene incident commander ordered 2nd, 3rd and 4th alarms struck due to the volume of fire present and the speed with which it was moving.

 

Approximately 50 motor vehicles were destroyed or damaged, a major radio station lost its power due to flames burning power lines, and three firefighters were injured.  Loss was set at $1,000,000.  Total acreage of burned grass/brush was only three to four acres.

 

The Ship Pond Road Fire - April 11, 1991:  Plymouth, "America's Home Town", where the Pilgrims landed in 1620, is located 40 miles to the south of Boston.  It is one of the largest towns in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, covering 103 square miles.  This huge land area contains thousands of acres of predominately pine forests with a mix of oak trees and is dotted with cranberry bogs.  During the past 30 plus years, hundreds of wood framed dwellings and other structures have been built around and into these pristine and combustible forests.  Plymouth Fire Chief Thomas Fugazzi states, "Plymouth has a severe structural-wildland urban intermix fire problem."

 

On Thursday, April 11th, the Plymouth Fire Department, the Town of Plymouth, and the Plymouth County Mutual Aid System were stretched to their respective limits when a fast moving forest fire began in two locations off of Ship Pond Road. 

 

Appreciable rain had not fallen for many days, air temperatures were warm and a very gusty wind was blowing in from the northwest at speeds of between 30 to 40 knots.  The Spring forest was tinder dry and the stage was set for the largest fire suppression effort in this region since the "Pine Hills Fire" of 1977, which was also in Plymouth.

 

The "Ship Pond Road Fire" was first detected at 13:08 hours by State Forest Fire Patrolman Alan Debonis while he was on fire watch in the State operated Plymouth Fire Tower.  He reported that heavy smoke and flames were showing from the Ship Pond Road area and that the fire was building fast.  A short time later he spotted a separate fire not too distant from the first fire.  Two Plymouth Fire Department brush breakers (brush fire units) were immediately dispatched to the fire scene.  Prior to their arrival and based on additional incoming reports, Chief Fugazzi ordered

 

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several more brush breakers to the fire.  Reports that structures were being threatened prompted Chief Fugazzi to order additional brush breakers, water tankers, and structural pumpers to the scene.  Within about 90 minutes, approximately 25 fire units were dispatched and engaged in fire suppression efforts and/or structure protection.

 

Driven by strong winds, the fire spread with amazing speed.  The winds became erratic and spot fires had become a major problem.  It was reported that spotting ahead of the main fire was occurring at distances of between 1,000 to 2,000 feet!  The fire grew in size and complexity as small spot fires became large independent fires which merged together.  Some crowning through the trees and some torching occurred but amazingly, no major crowning activity was reported.  Had major crowning taken place, the results would have been devastating.

 

Brush breakers crashed through the forest as the firefighters struggled to gain control of this potentially disastrous forest fire.  Structural protection was an important strategic factor early on in the fire.  It would become critical as the fire grew and advanced.  Numerous homes, cottages, a campground, and a retirement community trailer park were in the path of the fire's spread.  Despite Herculean efforts by the army of firefighters, two summer cottages and a trailer were destroyed by the fire.

 

After over two hours of forward movement, the wind shifted to the southwest and it jumped across Old Sandwich Road.  Trailers and homes were then directly threatened in the Plymouth Commons area.  Chief Fugazzi ordered yet more brush breakers, water tankers, and structural pumpers to the fire scene to protect structures and people.  Task forces of brush breakers, tankers and pumpers from Barnstable, Bristol and Norfolk Counties were ordered and dispatched to Plymouth.  This was coordinated by the *Plymouth County Emergency Communications Center, Hanson, Massachusetts (see page 11).

 

At 15:40 hours, the Plymouth Emergency Operations Center (in Plymouth) was now manned by three fire personnel and put into operation at 16:26 hours.  A local state of emergency was declared for Plymouth.

 

The tug of war between the weary firefighters and the fire itself went on well into the night.  The wind would abate temporarily and the fire would slow.  Then the wind freshened and the fire would make a new run.  On and on it went.

 

Finally, the east flank of fire was stopped at Savery's Pond area and the south flank stopped near Mountain Hill.  At 20:26 hours, Chief Fugazzi released some out-of-town fire companies and declared that the fire was under control, but still burning in areas.  Several miles of sideline fire were still burning and plans were made to attack the lines of fire.  Night operations continued until 02:10 hours on April 12th.  At 06:00 hours, a fire watch was established.  Final extinguishment of hot spots continued throughout the day.

 

 

 

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Major Problems Identified:

         Weather factors - a) strong/erratic winds, b) low humidity, c) low fuel moisture. 

         Plymouth County Patrol Plane was not airborne due to high winds.  The plane became operational after about 20 minutes into the fire.  Air turbulence made flying extremely dangerous and airsickness was a major problem for the crews.  They had to change crews three times.  Despite major handicaps, they performed well.  The plane was an indispensable part of fire ground tactics/strategies.

         Rapid fire movements and spotting

         Difficult terrain to traverse due to large oak trees, boulders, hills, water canals, and cranberry bogs blocking access to fire.

         Radio communications became overloaded.

         Incident Command System (ICS) not in place.

         Additional sector/command/chief officers were needed.

         Structure protection required fire units that were needed on the fire lines.

         Severe structural-wildland intermixing.

         Evacuation of residents.  They were leaving on the same narrow and smoke-filled roads that fire units were using to get in to fight the fire.

         Brush breaker mechanical problems due to difficult terrain.

         Lengthy arrival times by incoming mutual-aid units due to distances traveled.

 

* Plymouth County Emergency Communications Center, Hanson, Massachusetts:

This county entity performed extraordinarily well.  They did what they were put in place to do.  Chief Kenneth Calvin, Halifax Fire Department, assisted the members at the Center at the height of the fire.  The Center requested and dispatched about 73 pieces of fire equipment from the counties of Plymouth, Barnstable, Bristol and Norfolk.  35 Forest Fire/Brush Breaker units and 7 tankers were dispatched to the fire scene.  22 other brush fire units, 6 tankers and at least 4 pumpers covered at other fire stations or were on standby as task forces.

 

The Plymouth Fire Alarm office/dispatchers performed magnificently as they simultaneously fielded emergency calls, dispatched fire apparatus, operated the 3 radio frequencies, and coordinated numerous other activities.

 

The Plymouth EOC assisted in numerous other ways and provided food and drinks to the firefighters.

 

In total, approximately 1200 to 1300 acres of forest were burned over.  The acreage loss could have been much higher had it not been for the efforts of all involved.  There were no fatalities and only three minor injuries were reported!!

 

Despite difficult firefighting conditions, numerous structures were successfully protected, proving once again that brush breakers/cross-trained firefighters work.

 

 

 

page 11

 

In Summary:

Large brush/forest fires have continued to plague this region every Spring.  However, fires of such magnitude as those that you have just read about, generally have not occurred for a number of years because of abnormally cool and wet Spring conditions; development of some wooded areas; improvements in fire apparatus, firefighting techniques, anti-arson efforts and fire ground communications.

 

During the early to mid-1980's, fire departments in eastern and southeastern Massachusetts experienced a slightly lowered incidence of wildfires due to the Spring seasons being somewhat wetter and cooler than normal.  However, wildfires and interzone situations sporadically occurred throughout the region.  The fire departments in the region demonstrated their excellent capacity to defend citizens against these potentially disastrous fires and have reduced acreage loss to the wildlands.

 

Nevertheless, the vast woodlands are still with us and Spring and Fall fire seasons come every year.  The threat of large-scale vegetation fires is ever present and the firefighters of eastern and southeastern Massachusetts will always keep a constant vigil, being ready to ride the brush breakers into the woods.

 

New terminology has been added to the fire service's glossary.  It is Structural Wildland Interzone or SWI - the area where people and property intermingle with flammable vegetation, creating a fire zone where firefighting tactics and strategies become multifaceted in order to simultaneously combat structural fires as well as wildland fires.

 

For many decades firefighters have had to deal with large-scale wildland fires that have entered into both sparsely and densely populated areas of cities and towns.  Weather conditions, type of vegetation, type of structural building materials used, terrain, amount and type of firefighting equipment used, number of firefighters used and whether they are properly cross-trained or not, vegetation clearing efforts, and water supplies are among some of the many factors that determine whether or not firefighting efforts will be successful.

 

The fire services, both structural and wildland, career, call or volunteer, have become more aware of the Structural Wildland Interzone fire challenge.  Some have become better prepared by cross-training and cross-equipping to be better able to deal with these fires.  However, many other firefighting agencies are still only marginally prepared to safely and effectively suppress these fires.  Much more needs to be done in the way of educating our fire service leaders and their respective fire departments.  Funding for training and equipping for SWI fires seems to take a back seat to other priorities.  This should not be the case at all.

 

Latest NFPA Death and Injury Statistics (1995) portray the grim evidence that SWI and wildland fire suppression has led to the line-of-duty deaths of 229 firefighters from 1981 through 1994.  Many of these firefighters were structural/municipal and many were volunteers.  These statistics

 

 

page 12

 

should raise "red flag" warnings to all of us!  The undeniable truth is that the fire services must be more proactive and not reactive to the training, equipping and funding needs to address SWI and wildland fire suppression.  If fire service leaders ignore or underestimate these facts, then they are unknowingly doing a disservice to their personnel.

 

At the end of 1994, the suppression costs that were known amounted to nearly $1,000,000,000.  It was one of the worst years on record for firefighter deaths during SWI and wildland fire suppression.  Every year the statistics indicate the upward spiral of losses to firefighters, civilians and the environment.  Hundreds and sometimes thousands of structures are damaged and/or completely destroyed because of SWI fires.  Experts tell us that this can only get much worse before it gets better.

 

Clearly the fire services must respond to this growing problem in a proactive movement.  Our political leaders, those who control funding, must be better educated about this situation.  They must be convinced that it is in their and everyone's best interest to adequately fund our fire services.  Law enforcement leaders have convinced the politicians that more funding is required to deal with the rising crime wave.  They continue to receive the lion's share of public safety funds.  It is time that our fire service leaders become equally convincing and start to receive more funding to meet the rising SWI and wildland fire threat as well.

 

 

THE LONG DRY SUMMER OF 1995

 

The month of July was hot and somewhat humid with sporadic episodes of precipitation.  Not a great deal of it though.  As we entered into August, the weather pattern changed, favoring a warm, dry flow out of the north/northwest.  From Maryland up the coast through Maine, a record setting drought took hold.  Conditions were ripe for wildfires and structural wildland interface/interzone fires to break out.  And by the hundreds they did, through the mid-Atlantic and the New England states.

 

On Long Island, New York, a large brush fire was being fought by dozens of fire companies in Nassau County when a fast moving SWI fire began further north in Suffolk County, L. I.  This fire was to grow to nearly 6,000 acres, was fought by over 1500 firefighters from all across L.I., and even New York City responded with 20 engines and several chief fire officers.  When a state of emergency was declared, assistance came from FEMA, and the National Interagency Fire Center dispatched six wildland firefighter hand crews.  The New Jersey Forest Service sent aid as well as air support.  This fire event lasted for several days, injured at least 50 firefighters (structural), destroyed or damaged 7 structures, and burned a lumberyard.

 

New York City firefighters fought numerous SWI fires.  Some of these fires became very large, threatening structures, and multiple alarms were transmitted day after day to control the fires in New York City.

 

 

page 13

 

Massachusetts firefighters were kept very busy as dozens of wildfires and SWI fires ignited across this state.  Most of the fires were in the areas to the south, west and north of Boston.  Hundreds of acres burned in and around historic Salem, Massachusetts.  One fire swept over an area of at least 200 acres, threatening numerous homes and businesses.  Structural fire departments had a very difficult time as they were not cross-trained or cross-equipped for SWI fire suppression.  Large diameter hydrant lines connected to hydrants made mobility for pumpers impossible as they pumped water into deck guns during structure protection operations.  The Salem Fire Chief stated, "In my 28 years on the job, I have never seen anything like this situation.  We operate large pumpers, use large hose and my firefighters wear heavy bunker gear for structural fires.  We are not prepared for this kind of brush fire work."

 

In Maine, officials closed some forests because of the high fire danger and an outbreak of wildfires.  Maine is approaching the fifty-year anniversary of the great fires of October 1947 that consumed over 200,000 acres, leveled nine towns, burned Bar Harbor, and killed 15 people.  Conditions are the same now as they were then, with the only exception being that dead Fall leaves have not yet covered the ground (as of September 5th when I wrote this page).

 

TO BE CONTINUED!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

page 14

 

 

THE SHIP POND ROAD FIRE

 

 

Plymouth, Massachusetts

April 11, 1991

 

by DFC Robert M. Winston                           Plymouth Fire Chief

                                                                               Thomas Fugazzi

 

Plymouth, "America's Home Town", where the Pilgrims landed in 1620, is located 40 miles to the south of Boston.  It is one of the largest towns in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts covering 103 square miles.  This huge land area contains thousands of acres of predominately pine forests with a mix of oak trees and is dotted with cranberry bogs.  During the past 30 plus years, hundreds of wood framed dwellings and other structures have been built around and into these pristine and combustible forests.  Plymouth Fire Chief Thomas Fugazzi states, "Plymouth has a severe structural-wildland urban intermix fire problem."

 

On Thursday, April 11th, the Plymouth Fire Department, the Town of Plymouth, and the Plymouth County Mutual Aid System were stretched to their respective limits when a fast moving forest fire began in two locations off of Ship Pond Road.   Appreciable rain had not fallen for many days, air temperatures were warm and a very gusty wind was blowing in from the northwest at speeds of between 30 to 40 knots.  The Spring forest was tinder dry and the stage was set for the largest fire suppression effort in this region since the "Pine Hills Fire" of 1977, which was also in Plymouth.

 

The "Ship Pond Road Fire" was first detected at 13:08 hours by State Forest Fire Patrolman Alan Debonis while he was on fire watch in the State operated Plymouth Fire Tower.  He reported that heavy smoke and flames were showing from the Ship Pond Road area and that the fire was building fast.  A short time later he spotted a separate fire not too distant from the first fire.  Two Plymouth Fire Department brush breakers (brush fire units) were immediately dispatched to the fire scene.  Prior to their arrival and based on additional incoming reports, Chief Fugazzi ordered several more brush breakers to the fire.  Reports that structures were being threatened prompted Chief Fugazzi to order additional brush breakers, water tankers, and structural pumpers to the scene.  Within about 90 minutes, approximately 25 fire units were dispatched and engaged in fire suppression efforts and/or structure protection.

 

Driven by strong winds, the fire spread with amazing speed.  The winds became erratic and spot fires had become a major problem.  It was reported that spotting ahead of the main fire was occurring at distances of between 1,000 to 2,000 feet!  The fire grew in size and complexity as small spot fires became large independent fires which merge together.  Some crowning through the trees and some torching occurred but amazingly, no major crowning activity was reported.  Had major crowning taken place, the results would have been devastating.

 

Brush breakers crashed through the forest as the firefighters struggled to gain control of this potentially disastrous forest fire.  Structural protection was an important strategic factor early on in the fire.  It would become critical as the fire grew and advanced.  Numerous homes, cottages, a campground, and a retirement community trailer park were in the path of the fire's spread.  Despite Herculean efforts by the army of firefighters, 2 summer cottages and a trailer were destroyed by the fire.

 

After over two hours of forward movement, the wind shifted to the southwest and it jumped across Old Sandwich Road.  Trailers and homes were then directly threatened in the Plymouth Commons area.  Chief Fugazzi ordered yet more brush breakers, water tankers, and structural pumpers to the fire scene to protect structures and people.  Task forces of brush breakers, tankers and pumpers from Barnstable, Bristol and Norfolk Counties were ordered and dispatched to Plymouth.  This was coordinated by the *Plymouth County Emergency Communications Center,  Hanson, Massachusetts.

 

At 15:40 hours, the Plymouth Emergency Operations Center (in Plymouth) was now manned by three fire personnel and is put into operation at 16:26 hours.  A local state of emergency is declared for Plymouth.

 

The tug of war between the weary firefighters and the fire itself went on well into the night.  The wind would abate temporarily and the fire would slow.  Then the wind freshened and the fire would make a new run.  On and on it went.

 

Finally, the east flank of fire is stopped at Savery's Pond area and the south flank is stopped near Mountain Hill.  At 20:26 hours, Chief Fugazzi releases some out-of-town fire companies and declares that the fire is under control, but still burning in areas.  Several miles of side line fire is still burning and plans are made to attack the lines of fire.  Night operations continue until 02:10 hours on April 12th.  At 06:00 hours, a fire watch is established.  Final extinguishment of hot spots continues throughout the day.

 

Major Problems Identified:

         Weather factors - a) strong/erratic winds, b) low humidity, c) low fuel moisture. 

         Plymouth County Patrol Plane was not airborne due to high winds.  The plane became operational after about 20 minutes into the fire.  Air turbulence made flying extremely dangerous and airsickness was a major problem for the crews.  They had to change crews three times.  Despite major handicaps, they performed well.  The plane is an indispensable part of fire ground tactics/strategies.

         Rapid fire movements and spotting

         Difficult terrain to traverse due to large oak trees, boulders, hills, water canals, and cranberry bogs blocking access to fire.

         Radio communications became overloaded.

         Incident Command System (ICS) not in place.

         Additional sector/command/chief officers were needed.

         Structure protection required fire units that were needed on the fire lines.

         Severe structural-wildland intermixing.

         Evacuation of residents.  They were leaving on the same narrow and smoke-filled roads that fire units were using to get in to fight the fire.

         Brush breaker mechanical problems due to difficult terrain.

         Lengthy arrival times by incoming mutual-aid units due to distances traveled.

 

* Plymouth County Emergency Communications Center, Hanson, Massachusetts:

This county entity performed extraordinarily well.  They did what they were put in place to do.  Chief Kenneth Calvin, Halifax Fire Department, assisted the members at the Center at the height of the fire.  The Center requested and dispatched about 73 pieces of fire equipment from the counties of Plymouth, Barnstable, Bristol and Norfolk.  35 Forest Fire/Brush Breaker units and 7 tankers were dispatched to the fire scene.  22 other brush fire units, 6 tankers and at least 4 pumpers covered at other fire stations or were on stand-by as task forces.

 

The Plymouth Fire Alarm office/dispatchers performed magnificently as they simultaneously fielded emergency calls, dispatched fire apparatus, operated the 3 radio frequencies, and coordinated numerous other activities.

 

The Plymouth EOC assisted in numerous other ways and provided food and drinks to the firefighters.

 

In total, approximately 1200 to 1300 acres of forest were burned over.  The toll could have been much higher had it not been for the efforts of all involved.  No one was fatally injured.  Only three minor injuries were reported!

 

Despite difficult firefighting conditions, numerous structures were successfully protected, proving once again that brush breakers/cross-trained firefighters work.

 

Prepared by

 

 

 

Robert M. Winston, DFC

 

Reviewed by

Thomas Fugazzi, Plymouth Fire Chief

on April 17, 1991