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Base firefighters aid Emerado, extinguish 400-acre wildland blaze

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Aaron J. Jenne
  • 319th Reconnaissance Wing Public Affairs

Early in the morning, before the auburn glow of pre-dawn touched the horizon, red and blue strobes needled the darkness, racing toward a distant, ominous orange glow.

Less than 5 miles away, sirens blared in the 319th Civil Engineer Squadron fire department on Grand Forks Air Force Base, waking the firefighters and alerting them to a pending response.

At 3 a.m. Oct. 21, 17 base firefighters donned their equipment and sped off to aid local volunteer firefighters battling a 400-acre wildland fire rapidly expanding and threatening several houses, livestock and personal property.

Hours earlier, several volunteer agencies responded to a fire at the same location, a controlled burn of conservation reserve program wildland had gotten out of hand, and the North Dakota winds spread the fire quickly. Fire fighters from Red Rock Volunteer Fire Department, Manvel Fire Department, Emerado Rural Volunteer Fire Department and Thompson Fire Department responded. After several hours, responders from the four departments extinguished the fire.

“These types of calls get very taxing on the firefighters themselves,” said Jake Lanes, the assistant fire chief for Emerado Rural Volunteer Fire Department, the initial responders to the early-morning emergency. “A grass fire like this, we’ve only got the two pickups and the one ATV (all-terrain vehicle) that are able to go out into a field, so the rest of the people I can’t fit on the truck, or on the apparatus, have to walk.

“It’s a natural field, so the terrain’s not nice and perfectly flat like walking on concrete. You’re walking through dirt piles and … it’s rough terrain. That becomes taxing.”

Grass fires may not sound particularly hazardous, Lanes said, but the fires can spread to personal property and generate smoke, which can impair breathing and limit visibility. If the wind or humidity changes, the fire can begin to move in unpredictable ways. These types of fires aren’t to be taken lightly.

There is another concern when fighting wildland fires … they often reignite.

“CRP (conservation reserve program land) has a tendency to lay down on top of itself, creating a pocket that traps the heat, and once the wind picks up, it’ll reignite the fire,” Lanes said. “Really, the only way to fully extinguish everything would be to till the land up and get rid of that fuel.”

Airman Matthew Gurule, a firefighter with the 319th CES, explained some grasses act like lit cigars, which can keep smoldering for several minutes, even after they’re extinguished.

And that’s exactly what happened; early morning winds reoxygenated the smoldering embers and set the field ablaze once more.

Members of the Emerado Rural Volunteer Fire Department responded first and took control of the scene.

“We were out there on the first call, and everyone was tired,” Lanes said. “We maybe had a little bit of time to clean the trucks up, take a shower, get something to eat and try to lay down – Boom, going right back out.”

The fire was quickly spreading, heading toward several houses, and it was quickly determined that more help was needed, and dispatch toned for mutual aid.

“I can tell you that, hearing the other agencies over the radio saying that they’re enroute, that they’re responding, was relief,” Lanes said.

In total, nearly 40 firefighters from Grand Forks Air Force Base and several local volunteer fire departments tirelessly worked through daybreak to extinguish the fire.

“All of our people were gainfully employed out there,” said Master Sgt. Brian Maas, the assistant chief of operations for the 319th CES fire department. “All had different tasks. Some were actually fighting the fire. Some were standing by in case the wind shifted.”

Gurule, age 20, was one of the responders – straight out of technical training, he had been studying and performing practical exams for the last three months to quickly complete his on-the-job training as a firefighter. This was his first wakeup call for an actual fire response.

Gurule helped set up the base’s 4,000-gallon tanker as a water resupply station and then set out to work with a brush truck dousing burning grass with water and smothering it.

“This was my first actual fire,” Gurule said with a smile. “I’ve done lots of training and fought fires in simulators, but this was my first time responding to the real thing. I’m really glad I got to go this time, and I know that if something goes wrong, we’ll be there to respond to it, and respond as best we can.”

A veteran firefighter, Maas said the excitement in the eyes of Gurule and the rest of his team was encouraging.

“It was amazing to see all the guys come back covered in soot – they were fighting fires – and it was all smiles,” Maas said. “It’s a terrible day for somebody, and absolutely it is. But, for us, we got to apply all of our skills and training and hard work to save something. And that’s a great feeling – to be able to help somebody in a time of need.

“I’m very proud of our department. I’m proud of Emerado as our neighbors, and I look forward to working with them in the future, on anything.”

There is a long tradition of camaraderie and mutual support between the base and local townships. Emerado firefighters have trained on base, and they supported the recent air show. Base firefighters have also volunteered in town events like the annual Emerado Corn Feed.

This is just the latest example highlighting this partnership.

“When you see that glow of that fire at 3 o’clock in the morning at several miles away, you know you’re in for a fight,” Lanes said. “Having these other agencies come to back you up – no questions asked other than, ‘Where do you need me?’ That’s the only question they want, ‘Where do you need me?’ – There’s a lot of pride behind that, I think. I’m pretty proud to call these guys from all these other agencies my brothers.

“I want to thank these other agencies for being willing to come out in the middle of the night and work their tails off for us,” Lanes said. “Wonderful work – these guys put everything they had into it, and I think, knowing that close to probably half a million dollars’ worth of property was saved is huge.

“Thank you and wonderful work. Whatever you guys need, we’re here for you too.”