Anticipating the worst, Salt Lake’s firefighters train with new tools

SALT LAKE CITY — Firetrucks lined the quiet residential street of 18th Avenue in Salt Lake’s foothills Thursday morning — but instead of fighting fires, crews were training a new way to fight the next one.

According to Tom Simons, Salt Lake’s emergency management coordinator, the city’s fire department and the state of Utah identified Salt Lake’s northern foothills as a problem area because it lacked a water supply for aerial wildfire operations.

"So we worked together with the state to purchase the water tanks that we can refill helicopters from, and today, we’re practicing how to set those up and what our helibase here is going to look like," Simons said.

Thursday’s training session is a small part of a larger effort to ensure the Wasatch Front does not fall victim to what is projected to be a "terrifying" wildfire season, according to the fire department.

Utah experienced 1,166 wildfires that covered 249,829 acres last year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, a government agency that coordinates resource mobilization for U.S. wildfires.

For Thursday’s drill, about a hundred firefighters from Salt Lake’s "A" platoon carried out two large, empty rubber water tanks, known as "pumpkins" for their bright orange color, to staging areas on the plains above Salt Lake’s upper Avenues.

The tanks are recent purchases for the department.

Firefighters practiced connecting the necessary hoses to the recently purchased tanks to get a feel for the steps they’ll need to take in a real fire. The tanks, resembling above-ground swimming pools when filled, were positioned strategically with enough distance for possible helicopter access.

Tom Simons, emergency management coordinator, right, trains Salt Lake City firefighters to set up a “pumpkin” water tank, which helps helicopters fight wildfires, above 18th Avenue on Thursday, May 31, 2018. (Photo: James Wooldridge, KSL)

The tanks can hold up to 6,000 gallons of water each, according to Simons. In the event of an emergency, helicopters would come into this area, fill a large bucket from the water tank and fly back to the fire scene.

The helicopters, depending on their size, can hold from 150 to nearly 2,000 gallons of water, according to Simons.

The water tanks and the training required bridge the important time gap between deploying and fighting the fires. Simon said with this new setup, they can have helicopters over a fire in 30 to 45 minutes.

"Obviously wildfire starts very quickly, and we want to protect citizens’ homes," Simons said. "And the faster that we can get assets in the air, over the fire, the faster we can control the fire."

Salt Lake City firefighter Kip Wardell trains to set up a “pumpkin” water tank, which helps helicopters fight wildfires, above 18th Avenue on Thursday, May 31, 2018. (Photo: James Wooldridge, KSL)

In previous years, Simons says they relied on the state’s resources for nearby wildfires, which could have taken "quite some time" in comparison.

Thursday was just one of a series of trainings, according to Audra Sorensen, Salt Lake City Fire Department public information officer.

"We have 340 firefighters," Sorensen said, "so today we’ll train about 100."

While the majority of the department’s firefighters are certified to handle structure and commercial fires, Sorenson said last year’s wildfire deployments in Utah and California showed the department’s need for red card certification, a unique certification specifically for fighting wildfires.

Salt Lake City firefighters practice setting up a “pumpkin” water tank, which helps helicopters fight wildfires, above 18th Avenue on Thursday, May 31, 2018. (Photo: James Wooldridge, Deseret News)

Nearly 50 Salt Lake firefighters received the certification in early 2018, according to the department.

"So not only are we better able to support some of our surrounding cities and states, but we can better support this community as well," Sorenson said.

Firefighters are also conducting community outreach, and on Saturday from noon to 2 p.m. they will go door to door in the Chandler Drive/Avenues area, letting residents know they are in the "wildland interface," a high-risk area for wildfires.

"They give them some fact sheets and some tips on how to evacuate properly, some of the ways to protect their home," Sorenson said.

Salt Lake City firefighters Steve Smith, right, Justin LaMarr and paramedic Darrin Bandman and others train to set up a “pumpkin” water tank, which helps helicopters fight wildfires, above 18th Avenue on Thursday, May 31, 2018. (Photo: James Wooldridge, KSL)

Sorenson said that even if a home is in a wildland interface area, the firefighters can protect residents if trees and other flammable objects are cleared 9 feet away from the structure.

Sorenson identified three residential areas at a "very high risk" for wildfire: Federal Heights, Tomahawk Drive and Chandler Avenue.

"A lot of research has showed that firefighters are very trusted in the community," Sorenson said, "so for them to knock on your door themselves and say, ‘Hey, we are your first responders, we are the ones that would come to your home in a situation and personally attend to you, whether you had a heart attack or fire, and we want to help you.’ They really do trust that message."

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