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TVF and R firefighters hone wildfire skills

About 300 firefighters are undergoing the training this week in West Linn
by: Jonahan House, FIRELINE — Firefighter Jeff Pronovost (left) attempts to blow out his torch during a wildfire exercise called a “progressive hose lay” at  TVF&R’s training in West Linn on Monday.

WEST LINN - A few small grass fires flared up in rural West Linn on Tuesday, but the homeowner who lives in a ranch house on 40 acres wasn't worried - several dozen firefighters were on hand with lots of equipment to fight the fires.

In fact, the firefighters started the fires for a live wildfire training exercise.

The weeklong training is giving Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue's 300 career firefighters 'the opportunity to utilize specialized apparatus and tactics to extinguish controlled field fires and establish a water supply in an area without fire hydrants,' said Karen Eubanks, TVF and R public information officer.

She added, 'The skills, tactics and equipment employed in battling a wildfire are significantly different than those used in fighting a structure fire. Therefore, it is imperative that emergency responders have an opportunity to practice these skills and familiarize themselves with the limits of their equipment before they're needed in an emergency.'

The month of August usually provides the best conditions for the drill - dry vegetation and hot weather - although it didn't work out that way this year.

The burns were originally supposed to take place on the Clean Water Services site close to the intersection of Hall Boulevard and Durham Road in Tigard, but 'the lack of flammability of the vegetation' there necessitated the move to the back-up site.

'The grass was just too wet - it just didn't burn,' Eubanks said of the Tigard site.

Also on Tuesday, the cool temperatures and cloud layer didn't provide ideal burning conditions, but the firefighters gamely used fuel to set areas of grass on fire and then practiced several techniques to knock down the flames.

One of the on-site activities was structural protection and triage to practice fighting fires in 'interface' areas on the fringes of cities and on steep hillsides, according to Eubanks.

Firefighters used a compressed air foam system (think shaving cream) as a protective barrier to prevent structures and equipment from catching fire.

Jeff Pierce, a TVF and R apparatus operator, explained that the foam protects structures from the radiant heat that fires produce.

Firefighters can control the composition of the foam, keeping it 'drier' to spray on buildings or 'wetter' when actually applied to a fire.

Another activity was progressive hose lays, in which firefighters connect long sections of hose together to extinguish a fire a long distance from a water source.

In a mobile field attack, firefighters in 4-wheel-drive brush rigs equipped with hose lines and 300 gallons of water get ahead of fast-moving fires to extinguish them.

Finally, since fire hydrants are a rare commodity in interface areas, water must either be brought to the scene in water tenders or an alternate water supply must be established, such as pumping water from a river, lake, swimming pool or well into collapsible holding tanks.

Last month, TVF and R kicked off its annual Wildfire Campaign to remind people to use caution and take preventative measures to protect their homes from wildfires.

In the past several weeks, TVF and R has responded to several significant wildfires:

n July 14 - A brush fire on Gram Street in Tualatin was hard to access due to heavy vegetation, railroad tracks, ponds, bridges and a lack of roads.

n July 17 - A fire in two vacant buildings on 170th Avenue in Aloha was already spreading to nearby trees and shrubs and threatening neighboring homes when firefighters arrived, and another brush fire occurred on Leahy Road in Multnomah County threatening West Tualatin View School.

n July 20 - A field fire in Sherwood destroyed almost 4 acres and threatened a nearby barn.

n July 29 - A brush fire in West Linn threatened Camassia Nature Park and the West Linn High School football field as firefighters faced rugged terrain, heavy smoke and dense poison oak while battling it; the fire burned about 2 acres and took about 40 minutes to bring under control.

n Aug. 19 - A two-alarm fire near Hunziker and Wall streets in Tigard burned one-half acre of grass; the area was difficult to access, and hose lines had to be stretched across two sets of railroad tracks.

TVF and R provides lots of tips on protecting homes from wildfires on its Web site, www.tvfr.com.

People who own houses in interface areas can receive free assessments of their properties' potential for fire by calling Deputy Fire Marshal Ed Bonollo at 503-612-7004.