Firefighting Part 2

Taking care of the fire hose occupied much of our time around the firehouse. Fire hose is after all what keeps firefighters alive in many situations. After each fire, the engines had to be cleaned and restocked. Dirty hose was carried to an area down below and behind the garage where it was stretched out over a long wooden table made of slats. We would mix a bucket of soap and use brushes to scrub each piece of hose. After the hose was rinsed off, we’d check each length for tears or cuts, make sure the brass was in good condition and then raise them up by a pulley and hang them to dry. Hose that had cuts or which had failed on the fire was either discarded or cut and brass was reattached. This was the engineer’s job. Repaired hose had to be static tested up to a certain number of pounds pressure to ensure that it wouldn’t break. This involved pulling an engine out and running the pump. We had to pressure test all hose on a regular schedule so records were kept and all of the hose was numbered.

After a day or so of drying, each length of hose was re-rolled. The hose was folded in half with both brass ends together and the rolling begun at the bend in the hose away from the ends so that the brass ends where on the outside. The rolls were wrapped with large black rubber band which were just slices off of old engine tire inner tubes.

The method of rolling the hose had a practical purpose beyond making them easy to carry and store. The rolling made the hose fast to deploy in a fire by grasping the brass ends and throwing the roll forward while snapping back the brass with the other hand. We’d each carry a two roll pack of hose into the fire when there was a hose lay from the engine to the point of attack. Most of the hose we used on forest fires was 1.5 inch in diameter, not the large 2.5 inch hose more common for use on structure fires which were rare in the mountains.

We’d practice doing hose lays at the station when there were no fires. Our station site was steep and wooded so it was a perfect place to practice. Now it might seem easy to lay hose from the engine to the fire and in concept it isn’t a difficult task. However, add youthful adrenaline, a raging fire that is trying to get away from you, smoke, lights, sirens, aircraft flying overhead, squawking radios and captains barking orders and suddenly connecting two pieces of threaded brass can become quite difficult. Not to mention that the guy on the nozzle closest to the fire is counting on you to get him some water – and quick. So practicing makes a lot of sense.

I learned the importance of lining up the threads of the brass by reversing the twist until you hear a click then reversing the motion to engage the threads. I learned how to do a live hose lay which is when there is a need to spray water as the hose lay is being extended along the fire line. This involved a little contraption called a hose clamp. Our hose clamps were bare aluminum and consisted of three hinged bars with a locking loop of wire over one end. The top bar when raised opened the bottom bars like a huge pair of pliers and this was slipped over the charged hose. The top bar was then forced down to close the clamp on the hose and the wire loop slipped over the ends held it all closed. While the firefighter was clamping off the water supply, another firefighter snapped open a roll of hose. As soon as the clamp was applied, the firefighter on the nozzle, the “nozzleman”, quickly unscrewed the nozzle and reconnected it to the new length of hose while the guy who had unrolled the hose connected the next length to the live hose. When both connections were made the nozzleman shouted “charge it” and the clamp was opened sending water into the new length of hose. The new hose expanded like a circus balloon, taut and full and immediately the nozzleman opened up on the fire and all three fighters advanced. The two men helped to drag the hose through the brush while the nozzleman sprayed the fire. The process was repeated as far as needed. On one fire I recall that we laid over a mile and half of hose into the fire. Most of it was downhill creating tremendous pressure and the line kept breaking so we had to go back and clamp and insert a new section whenever that happened.

When the fire was close to the road and rather small we’d one of the hose reels that look like large garden hoses on a fire truck. These were called live lines and they had their own gasoline engine pump on the engine. This was separate from the power transfer pump that ran off of the engine’s motor. These lines could be quickly charged, required no connections so they are the fastest method for getting water on a fire. But they are small in diameter so don’t deliver much water and they are limited in length and can’t be extended. We liked them because there was no hose to clean when we went “back to the barn”.

Another way to get water on a fire was to use a backpump. This was a steel can with shoulder straps and held about 8 gallons of water. It had a small hose and a pump sprayer that you would use like a big squirt gun to put out the flames. A misconception of rookies is that you have to spray at the flames to put out a fire. I learned with a backpump that a little water can actually put out a pretty big fire but not by aiming at the flames. I was on a fire out along a rural road once and I was told to put on a backpump and go put out fires as I came to them. A large bush was burning and it I was standing there squirting water on the top of the bush where the flames were. My captain came by and barked at me to squirt at the base of the bush, not at the top, when I did what he told me it only took a few squirts and the whole bush quit burning, another rookie lesson learned.

It was on this same fire that I took my first full drop from an bomber. Most people have seen the airplanes dropping pink stuff on fires on the news but not too many people have been under one when it made its drop. I was near the bush and marveling at how the water squirted at its base had stopped the conflagration when I heard the aircraft coming. I looked up to see it bearing down on me and so I dropped my eyes and held fast as it dropped its whole load right on the area I was standing on. It was a little like “Ghostbusters” when they get slimed. The pink slimy substance is called Phos-check® and it is made to slow the fire down, not put it out. Foliage that is coated with the stuff burns more slowly or not at all so the strategy is to lay down a line of the stuff in front of an advancing fire, not necessarily put it on the fire directly. Phos-check® also serves as a fertilizer after the fire is out so it has a dual purpose. The problem in being dumped on is that it has a lot of ammonia in it which makes it hard to breathe and it burns in all of the small cuts and scrapes you inevitably get while fighting a fire. It’s also thick and slippery to walk on and it will eat into the paint on the engines so the engineers and captains were always ticked off if we got dropped on.

To be continued…