Fighting fire and ice
Firefighters try to keep flames from spreading to a shed during a house fire on Main Poland Road in Conway. The house, as well as an RV and a van parked behind it, was a total loss. The severe cold made it tough for firefighters every step of the way.
Recorder file/David Rainville
Larry Bernier of the Shelburne Falls Fire Department drops a weight on a chain down a chimney as crews work to extinguish a chimney fire in Shelburne Falls in this file photo.
Recorder file/Paul Franz
Massachusetts saw several structure fires during the cold snap that started the year, and many of the responses were hindered by frozen equipment.
Pump trucks and fire hoses froze solid in Conway and Ashfield Jan. 3, showing how hard it can be to fight fires during zero-degree weather.
It was a battle just to get water up the long driveways of the houses.
Firefighters pounded hose couplings with sledgehammers, scrambling to swap out a frozen pump truck for a fresh one several times during the simultaneous fires. Once assisting fire departments arrived with portable propane heaters, they fired them up and used them to thaw frozen equipment and lengths of hose.
There were no hydrants near either home and several departments trucked water to the scene in tankers.
The house in Ashfield could have been saved, if firefighters had had a steady supply of water, said Ashfield Fire Chief Delmar Haskins.
The problems encountered that day were not unique to rural towns and volunteer departments.
Frozen equipment and other cold-related problems plagued firefighters at several fires across the state in early January, according to the state Fire Marshal’s Office.
The January thaw has come and gone, and now, another cold snap is upon us. The forecast calls for minus-10 degrees in the early morning hours today, and highs below freezing for the next week in Greenfield.
While below-zero weather is rare in Massachusetts, other areas deal with the extreme cold on a regular basis.
“We’ve fought fires in 30 and 40-below weather,” said Gary Carlson, chief of the Barrow, Alaska, Fire Department.
Temperatures like that aren’t uncommon in Barrow, the country’s northernmost city. Last week’s temperatures were as low as 33 below zero, and Barrow won’t see highs over 12 degrees for more than a week.
“We’ve never had a problem (with frozen equipment), as long as the water kept moving,” Carlson continued.
Carlson said there isn’t much specialized firefighting equipment out there for the extreme cold.
Their pump trucks are outfitted with heaters in the pump panels. They come in several varieties, some using a small radiator and engine coolant, others using electric heaters and generators, and a more costly system re-routes the truck’s exhaust lines through the pump panel, to use engine heat.
Carlson said these can help prevent freezing, but it falls to firefighters to use practices to fight freeze-up.
“Heaters help, but you’ve got to keep the water moving,” said Carlson.
He said his department stores their pumpers full of water, in a heated garage, and they turn on the pump before they go, to circulate water all the way to the scene.
“Response time is important, too,” said Carlson, noting that a running pump could still freeze if it’s on the road for too long.
That can be difficult for Franklin County firefighters, where fire departments often rely on mutual aid from crews several towns away.
Firefighters will also leave their hoses slightly open, to allow a trickle of water to flow through when they’re not in use, said Carlson.
“Once you shut off a hose, the water in the nozzle starts to freeze and then the rest of the line will freeze,” he said.
Carlson said his department also uses synthetic, lower-viscosity lubricants, which work better in the cold. Though they won’t prevent water from freezing, they can help prevent cold-related mechanical failures.
“If things break down and stop (circulating water), then you’ve got problems,” said Carlson. In that case, he said, equipment should be brought back to a heater garage to warm up as soon as possible.
The freezing cold isn’t just hard on the equipment.
“If you get sprayed with water at 30 below, you’re going to turn into an icicle,” said Carlson.
He said he doesn’t know of any special cold-weather firefighters’ clothing. To compensate for the cold, his firefighters wear layers, and bring a change of clothes.
Firefighters face a long list of dangers on the job. There’s the risk of smoke inhalation, exploding objects, room-filling flash-over flames and structure collapse, just to name a few.
When it’s below freezing, exposure, icy terrain, frostbite and more are added to that list, and normal firefighting hazards can be worsened.
Firefighters can become exhausted more quickly while working in extreme conditions, said Jennifer Mieth, spokeswoman for the state Fire Marshal’s Office.
If firefighters ignore the signs of exhaustion, they can put themselves and others at risk. An incapacitated firefighter can’t help anyone.
This means they need to work in shifts, with weary firefighters being pulled off the front lines to rest up, as fresh crews are brought in. A “rehab” RV-type vehicle is used to freshen up the forces.
Inside, there’s a mobile command center, as well as places for firefighters to rest up, change into dry clothes, rehydrate, and grab a bite to eat.
Firefighters also need to dress for the elements, said Mieth. That means putting on layers of warm, moisture-wicking clothing underneath their heavy turnout gear, and having a change of clothes on-hand in case what they’re wearing gets wet.
While water that hits the coals of a fire quickly turns to steam, overspray can freeze just as fast. It can make for more than treacherous footing — ice accumulation adds weight to fire-weakened walls and roofs, heightening the risk of a fiery cave-in.
In the end, despite modern technology, many aspects of firefighting are the same as they were 100 years ago.
“We’re still using hoses and pumps, and spraying water,” Carlson concluded.
You can reach David Rainville at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 279