Thursday , September 14, 2017 - 5:15 AM
As Utahns anxiously watched developments during last week’s Uintah fire, videos began circulating on social media showing a helicopter dramatically scooping up a bucket of water from residential swimming pool.
Turns out, swimming pool dunks aren’t a common firefighting strategy, but securing water for emergency situations takes meticulous planning. Most of that planning is done long before a fire sparks.
“Actually, the fire warden last summer had spent quite a bit of time going around (the Uintah) area, identifying and pre-mapping helicopter dip sites,” said Fire Marshal Brandon Thueson with the Weber Fire District.
Aerial fire teams working on the Uintah fire largely used a reservoir near Interstate 84 as a helicopter bucketing site, but as the flames spread, they often take advantage of other nearby sources as well.
“They dip in reservoirs, ponds, lakes, swimming pools, you name it,” said Jason Curry with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. “If it’s more than four feet deep, they can get a bucket in there.”
Swimming pools aren’t part of strategic dip sites, but sometimes a pilot has to think fast.
“Put yourself in that pilot’s feet,” Curry said. “Obviously they saw something that made him or her decide it was prudent to take dip out of a pool. Maybe it saved someone’s life, someone’s home.”
(Video posted with permission from Ashley Christensen Wolthuis)
Airplane and helicopter firefighting pilots have to be careful to communicate with ground crews before they release any water or fire retardant. That’s because often times the smoke and flames makes it hard to see firefighters working below.
Then there’s the shear technical difficultly of scooping up water from a small residential pool. It often isn’t safe.
“One message I’d want to tack on is, I saw a picture with an individual posing as the bucket was dipping, that’s a very dangerous place to be,” Curry said. “You can get hit by bucket. The pilot is dealing with smoke and flames, flying a technical piece of equipment, making precision movements. If you add another variable of a person beneath, that makes their job more difficult.”
Crews also make their own portable reservoirs for aerial firefighting. Called “pumpkin tanks” because they’re big, orange and round, the tanks hold up to 8,000 gallons. Firefighters set up the rubbery reservoirs and fill them with fire truck tanks or fire hydrants.
Fire hydrants, by the way, tap culinary water, not secondary lines.
“It’s the same water you drink, we use the same supply,” Thueson said.
That raises the question about another post that circulated social media during fire, imploring people not to use their sprinklers while crews worked. Thueson said it’s still useful advice during fires in neighborhoods, since some homes use secondary water outdoors but others don’t.
Layton fire Marshall Doug Bitton: do not run sprinklers! Affects water pressure for responders #UintahFire— Nadia Pflaum (@NadiaPflaum) September 5, 2017
“It’s hard, during the time, to figure out which areas do and don’t,” he said. “We have to think it’s all connected. Every time someone opens a valve, it’s that much less water pressure for us to use to either fill vehicles or to use to fight fires.”
And while fire experts understand the urge to protect property using a garden hose, they don’t pack the same punch as firefighting equipment.
“We know that’s going to happen, that’s OK — in fact we’re grateful for people who help their neighbors. Some of them made a difference,” Thueson said. “We don’t want to say that’s a bad thing, but once fire ccrews move in and start taking over fire suppression then we’re asking them to turn the sprinklers off.”
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