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Training exercise gone bad spawns wildland fire

A wildland fire training exercise turned into an actual emergency on the afternoon of July 25, when a key piece of equipment failed and the winds picked up unexpectedly - pushing a fast-moving grass fire across a containment line.

'Grass fires move quick - faster than you can run,' said Lt. John Hopkins, public information officer for the Clackamas County Fire District #1.

The drill was a joint effort between the district and Metro Regional Parks and Greenspaces, which designated a 20-acre parcel in rural Clackamas about a mile southeast of Carver for the exercise.

A secondary goal of the burn was to clear the land of invasive species, to allow native plants to take hold on the property.

'This time of year, we try to hold wildfire training in environments that are the most realistic, so we were excited when this opportunity with Metro came along,' Hopkins said. 'Before the exercise, we mowed a 30-foot wide line all the way around the whole parcel, to serve as a firebreak.'

The training was proceeding according to plan, and 16 acres had been blackened by fire when two unexpected events occurred simultaneously.

'A pump failed on one of the brush rigs, meaning that it couldn't spray water, so the fire got past that piece of equipment,' said Hopkins. 'At the same time, we had a local wind event, which pushed the fire across the mowed area.

'When the training division checked the weather forecast earlier in the day, the conditions were ideal - with no prediction of high winds.'

With the blaze now burning out of control, the training officers leading the exercise called for additional resources. While fire engines and water tenders from across the county roared towards the remote site, a helicopter from the Oregon Department of Forestry swooped down low over the scene and dropped water on the flames.

'Because the incident commander responded so quickly, the fire was pretty much contained before it ever got going,' Hopkins said. 'All in all, we burned about four or five acres we didn't intend to burn.'

No structures or other improved property were endangered by the blaze. In spite of the mishap, Hopkins characterized the drill as a success.

'We always train like it's the real thing,' he said. 'The only way to get experience in this job is by actually doing it. Consequently, we got some really great training today.

'Our partnership with Metro was also a success - we cleared off all that underbrush so that those native flowers will be able to grow and prosper in this area.'