Saving structures

How a crew of specialized firefighters from the Comox Fire Department saved the homes on Dog Mountain during the July 2015 fire.

The Comox fire crew get ready to install a structural protection unit at a Dog Mountain Home.

While close to 450 hectares of forest on Dog Mountain have gone up in flames, only one cabin was destroyed thanks to the efforts of six Comox firefighters.

Considering the 21 cabins located within those 450 hectares, Comox Valley fire Chief Gord Schreiner is calling his crew’s mission a success.

“We got here Sunday (July 5) afternoon,” said Schreiner.

His crew is a six-man team from the Comox Valley Fire Department that spent a week installing sprinkler units on homes at risk of burning in the Dog Mountain blaze.

“The Comox Fire Department started one of the first structural protection teams on the Island,” said Schreiner.

While he’s the fire chief for the town of Comox, he was in the Alberni Valley last month on behalf of the provincial office of the fire commissioner.

While Schreiner’s working with his own crew this time, he’s worked with different fire departments across the province.

“When structures are involved with forest fires, the forestry group will call the office of the fire commissioner who will then send someone like me to the area,” Schreiner said.

“There are a dozen of us in the province who have been trained to do the assessments.”

Working together with the Wildfire Service, the decision will be made as to what structures need protection.

Dog Mountain turned out to be a more challenging case than usual, said Schreiner.

“It’s one of the more challenging ones I’ve seen because of the topography here and because it’s only accessible by water,” said Schreiner.

“When I showed up on Sunday it looked fairly serious. The first day was hectic,  (July 7) was a much easier day.”

A mix of municipal fire fighting and water works, the crew sets up a structural protection unit at the homes that needed protection.

“The guys are all structural firefighters. They have an FPA 1001 training, which is a couple years of training,” said Schreiner. At this level, they’re trained or typical municipal fire fighting.

“On top of that, they take a specialty course called structural fire protection,” said Schreiner.

“That’s all dealing with these small pumps.”

The crew’s equipment consists largely of small sprinkler pipes and long lengths of hose.

“We end up with a very small pump and miles and miles of hose with all these different fittings and plumbing,” said Schreiner.

“The guys are trained in how to put all of that together and basically how to operate the systems.”

The equipment doesn’t come cheap: it’s $70,000-80,000 and that doesn’t include the $50,000 truck that carts it all around.

“There’s easily thousands of feet of hose in several different sizes,” said Schreiner.

With the easy availability of water, the crew poured thousands of gallons of water per cabin.

“Here we have an unlimited supply of water so thousands and thousands of gallons were poured on those houses.”

Houses have to be wet down thoroughly to ensure that they can’t catch fire.

“We’ll have water pouring off the roof,” said Schreiner.

“We’d have a hose wrapped around a hose and at least one sprinkler per side and then a couple more around.”

Fuel for the pumps is more of an issue.

“If this was a bigger situation for forestry they’d have a campsite with a fuel truck set up,” said Schreiner.

Instead, the crew had to buy fuel at local gas stations.

“That means we’re putting fuel in five gallon buckets and carrying it over to our sites.”

They also suspended their lives to help fight the Dog Mountain blaze. Five of the six are volunteers and were on leave from their day jobs.

“They’re putting their lives on hold.”

Six structures were protected with Comox crew’s equipment on July 6 and two more were protected throughout the next few days.

“We installed on eight residence type structures and also protected the smaller buildings (sheds, outhouses etc.) associated with these structures,” said Schreiner. Most of those were on Dog Mountain but a couple were on the islands in between the peninsula and the shore at Taylor Arm.

The Comox Fire Department has 15-20 firefighters trained to install these units.

“When something like this happens, we put the call out,” said Schreiner. This time, five out of the six firefighters are volunteers.

“They’re giving up their lives for a week to ocome out here.”

In this case, location worked out well for the Comox crew. They stayed at Joe Van Bergen’s house on Faber Road; Van Bergen is the grandfather of one of the firefighters.

With the uncertainty of how long the Comox crew was set to stay in the region, having a place to stay was a relief.

“It can be  challenge logistics wise,” said Schreiner.

“So it’s been great to be able to stay with Joe. It’s made things a lot easier.”

reporter@albernivalleynews.com

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