Training with sand in Montana

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Below, is a portion of an article from the Missoulian about using sand table exercises for wildland fire training at Clearwater Junction, Montana. The entire article is here.


CLEARWATER JUNCTION – First came the car crash – two people ejected after a rollover on Highway 200. Then came the car fire – a vehicle engulfed in flames. And then all hell broke loose.

“The vehicle fire has spread into the tall grass,” a call echoed over emergency radios throughout the county. “The fire is spreading in a northeast direction.”
Whipped by winds gusting at 24 mph, the fire quickly spread in 94-degree heat, threatening a stand of tiny trees and forcing the evacuation of a bunch of little plastic orange Army guys.

Already, the accident had injured two of the Army guys, who were quickly whisked away by a Hot Wheels ambulance back to Missoula. One had an injured plastic head; the other, a broken plastic femur.

This is how disaster unfolds at one-eightieth scale. At full scale, of course, this horrific wreck-turned-wildland fire could never fit in a sandbox. But this was just a drill.

So the Missoula County Fire Protection Association had to secure a small fleet of Hot Wheels emergency vehicles, five gallons of sand, two dozen tiny fake plastic trees, yards of colored shoestring, a handful of cotton and, of course, the orange Army guys to simulate a disaster of miniature proportions.

On Wednesday morning, dozens of emergency responders from the multiple agencies that make up the MCFPA played out this disaster as a training exercise, honing their radio and communication skills to prepare for the real deal.

“That’s what’s nice about this form of training,” said Cindy Super, a fire prevention coordinator and supervisor of the training session held at the Clearwater unit of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. “It’s pretty portable.”

More than two dozen real-world emergency workers from the DNRC, and municipal, county and state agencies barked out orders and information as the disaster unfolded.

“Right now, there are no structures threatened,” said Steve Beck of the DNRC helitack crew, as he peered down at the Google Earth-modeled sandbox terrain from the helicopter that existed only in his head. “My suggestion is to get a bucket on it and try to stop it at the top of the ridge.”

Good suggestion. But the fire spread anyway, as the orange shoestring continued to broaden in circumference and plumes of thick cotton rose from the plastic trees.


Thanks Dick

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.