Department brushes up on wildland firefighting
Photo courtesy of the Plano Fire Department: Brush trucks such as the one pictured above are used to fight brush and grass fires.
The Plano Fire Department has added a second brush truck to its firefighting fleet in the wake of last summer's historic wildfires that burned millions of acres of land throughout the state.
The move comes at a time when wildfires are burning in several Western states, including a huge fire near Colorado Springs that forced personnel at the United States Air Force Academy to evacuate. While Texas has not seen any large fires this year, a hot dry summer lies ahead and local departments want to make sure they are ready if called upon.
"With all of the wildfires in Texas last year, we decided we needed a dedicated wildland fire team," said Kelly Helm, the Plano FD battalion chief over special operations. "We don't have a lot of grass and brush fires, but last year we saw a 92-percent increase in those fires here in the city."
One local grassfire occurred in a large hay field near the intersection of Mapleshade Lane and Coit Road on Aug. 5. The fire charred dozens of acres and was brought under control by the Plano FD thanks to the help of brush trucks from fire departments in Parker, Wylie and Dallas.
The new brush truck is the property of the Texas Forest Service, which is lending the truck to Plano with the understanding it will be available for regional and state-wide use.
In addition to receiving the new brush truck, Helm said 30 firefighters in the department volunteered to undergo a week-long training course on wildland firefighting. Helm said the training is important because fighting wildfires requires different techniques and strategies since a firefighter's main job is to contain wildland fires, not extinguish them. The Plano wildland team will be stationed out of Fire Station 13 in west Plano.
Firefighting efforts for large fires, such as the one in Bastrop County last September and October, are organized by the Texas Forest Service through the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System, or TIFMAS. This organization relies on task forces and strike teams from throughout the state to ensure that local departments receive the help they need when wildland fires break out.
Steve Pollock, assistant chief and regional fire coordinator for the Texas Forest Service, said TIFMAS allows the quick mobilization of local fire resources for state-wide missions.
"We act under the authority of the Texas Division of Emergency Management," Pollock said. "If there is a wildfire that exceeds local capacity the local departments can ask the state for assistance. TIFMAS then provides the overhead and management responsibilities for those resources. We are able to handle the logistics such as making sure departments have fuel for their vehicles."
When Plano and other departments lend their resources to TIFMAS, they are reimbursed by the Texas Forest Service for personnel costs, as well as food and lodging, Pollock said. Departments are also reimbursed for any equipment they provide, with brush trucks reimbursed at a rate of $70 an hour to help cover maintenance and fuel costs.
In 2011, firefighters from the 40-plus cities that make up the Collin-Rockwall-Hunt Fire Task Force were dispatched to fires near Mineral Wells, Abilene, the Davis Mountains and Bastrop. The task force includes departments of all sizes, ranging from Plano to Branch, which has an all-volunteer fire department to serve the small unincorporated community on the shores of Lake Lavon.
"For the Bastrop County fire we sent our guys down there for 13 days total," Helm said. "We left the equipment down there the whole time, but sent replacement firefighters down there after seven or eight days."
Pollock said this year conditions have not been ideal for large-scale fires. He said cooler temperatures, calmer winds and a higher relative humidity have kept fires from spreading as quickly as they did in 2011. He said there have been several fires near the Davis Mountains that have consumed 15,000 to 20,000 acres. Those fires were handled by the Forest Service and local resources, without the need for outside firefighters.