Fewer calls over this July 4 holiday than previous years; open burning remains prohibited in Cascade County

This year’s Fourth of July festivities were less destructive than the last two years.

Between July 2-4, the time during which fireworks are legal in the city, Great Falls Fire Rescue ran 75 calls, about 10 of which were probably related to fireworks, according to Chief Steve Hester.

That’s down from last year, when GFFR ran 101 calls, with a few of them running into the morning of July 5. Last year’s holiday included 32 calls involving fireworks. In 2015, GFFR responded to 120 calls with two structure fires related to fireworks.

The department increases staffing for the July 4 holiday and this year, an extra engine company and a brush truck crew were in service at Station 1 on the evening of July 4.

This year, there were a few grass fires, dumpsters on fire and illegal bonfires, but nothing major and no major damage, according to Hester.

The Electric rode along with GFFR crews on the evening of July 3 and July 4.

GFFR engines

On the evening of July 3, the crew on Engine 1 responded to a grass fire near Rainbow Dam, behind new construction in AgriTech Park on the northeastern edge of Great Falls. The fire was actually outside the city limits and GFFR responded first, largely extinguished the roughly two acre fire, then turned the scene over the Black Eagle Volunteer Fire Department when they arrived on scene.

Fireworks and a lighter were found near the scene.

GFFR grass fire scene

GFFR firefighters quickly extinguished the fire and used swatters with rubber ends to swat out flames and got another chance to break in the department’s new brush truck.

The new brush truck has a 500 gallon water tank and the Department of Natural Resources installed the equipment on the back of the truck, which also has 4-wheel drive. DNRC officials also came to Great Falls to train GFFR on use of the new brush truck equipment.

New engines rolling at Great Falls Fire Rescue

The truck hadn’t yet been used until the grass fire near Hill 57 last week and it was used for several small grass fires over the July 4 holiday weekend.

Last year, GFFR had extra staffing but at one point all apparatus and staff were on calls and four fires were burning simultaneously requiring mutual aid from the Montana Air National Guard and Cascade County Rural Fire Services. There was also a major structure fire that impinged on rail tank cars on the lower westside, according to the 2016 GFFR report.

In 2015, there was a windstorm the night of July 4, causing power outages, in addition to the holiday related calls. Two structure fires were attributed to fireworks and caused major damage.

Though the holiday is over and fireworks are no longer legal in the city limits, the fire danger continues as the hot and dry weather persists.

Open burning remains prohibited in Cascade County, by direction of several rural fire chiefs.

All burning prohibited in Cascade County until further notice due to high fire danger

Since last year’s Vinyard fire, the city has made changes to better prepare and fight large-scale fires that might threaten structures in the city limits.

The transition from open land, whether it be prairie or forest, is known as the Wildland-Urban Interface, or the WUI.

The new brush truck is a major part of that plan. Since it allows for pump and roll, GFFR is now equipped for direct attacks of wildland fires.

Engines at GFFR are designed for structure fires and have to be stopped to pump water. “Trying to pull a hard line is very difficult,” Hester said, and if conditions change, it’s time consuming to move that hose line.

GFFR

Hester and Dave Nordel, city emergency manager, said GFFR is developing a study of the WUI by working with the city mapping office to see where hot spots would be.

The map will look at where certain types of fuels are, such as grasses, brush and trees so firefighters will have a better idea of conditions should fires approach the city limits.

During the Vinyard fire, responders also discovered some fire hydrants in the area of new construction hadn’t been charged and had no water. To address that issue, fire officials have now been checking the hydrants. City planning and public works officials have been bagging the meters that are installed but not yet charged, said Craig Raymond, city planning director.

GFFR is continuing to work with rural fire departments to improve communication and collaboration through the mutual aid agreement signed last year, Hester said.

City departments are continuing to take lessons learned from the Vinyard fire to improve planning and responses to prevent or better fight wildland fires that threaten the city.

“Where the interface is has to have some common sense to it,” Nordel said.