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Tue February 15, 2011
By Rob Spence
Hatch – My experience fighting my first Wildfire was eerily similar to my most exciting Combat mission in what was often called "Tony Blair's War"; suddenly nothing was going right in a high threat environment.
The call from dispatch came in at 1 PM on the 8th of February 2011. I had been anticipating the call since the prevailing conditions qualified for a Red Flag fire advisory; winds steady over 20 mile per hour with gusts to 35. "Hatch Fire, Rincon Fire, Garfield Fire Grass fire reported on Highway 26 at mile marker 36, please respond."
"Oh My", I thought (not), "this could be really bad". Chief Pittman was calling my cell phone before I got out the door. "Hi Chief." "You in town?" he asked. "Walking out the door as we speak." To which he replied "I'm already here."
A few minutes later as we climbed out of the Hatch Valley on NM 26 I commented "I hope the sky is obscured by dust and not smoke." Robert just smiled. Soon after, cresting the hill overlooking the Uvas Valley the fire came into view. It expanded from the North edge of the road and continued in that direction as far as the eye could see. Although clearly originating from the West, enough smoke drifted over the highway to prevent seeing how great a distance the fire had already traveled since it had been called in. As we descended the hill, Robert and I commented on the various areas of flames we could see through the hazy layer. We had identified six separate zones as we descended into the smoke and lost sight of them all. Chief Pittman on the radio: "Dispatch from Hatch Fire, request mutual aid assistance from Luna and Sierra Counties."
Some men with Uvas Valley Dairy embroidered on the crown of their caps flagged us down at the eastern edge of the fire line, both to ask to borrow shovels and to point out a break in the barbed wire fence through which we might enter the desert. The workers having informed us that the Dairy's dust control water trucks were working the Western Front, we bounced Northeasterly into the hazy desert, without our shovels. The landscape looked like a blackened Alien battlefield, except that the piles of smoldering debris that peppered the landscape originated from within the Bovine species and was alien only to true city slickers.
I drove the Hatch VFD brush truck, a 1 ton 4X4 equipped with (now even more) limited tools. Of more significance to our mission, our brush truck carried 500 gallons of water we planned to judiciously dispense at the right location to stop the advancing wall of flame. Normal operation is simple. Arriving on scene the driver stops the vehicle, places the vehicle in park, applies the parking brake and ensures the toggle switch that provides electrical power to the truck bed is on. The driver than proceeds to the back of the truck and starts the air-cooled two-cycle gasoline engine that provides power to a dual impeller pump that pressurizes the inch and a half hose. The passenger meanwhile exits the vehicle, grabs the working end of the hose and begins to drag it to the fire in order to extinguish same as soon as the line comes to life. These procedures, along with attempting to steer between mesquite bushes, were going through the back of my mind as we bounced and surveyed the scene.
Our destination was not immediately apparent. The winds were not only gusting a great deal, the direction from which they gust fluctuated by up to 30 degrees. After traveling over a mile through the smoldering vista, Robert and I had just agreed we had reached a good point to bend the Beast when a silver Dodge pickup bounded up to us. At the wheel was a man senior to me so I took him to be the boss. He shouted at us to follow him and bounded off further into the smoke and what I now guessed was an easterly direction. Our progress was hampered by not only the weight of 500 gallons of water but by my concern for the age and ability of our brush truck to negotiate the rough desert floor, but at last we arrived to where the impatient gentleman directed us.
The man knew what he was doing and brought us to the head of the fire. The miles of burning brush and grasses were all up wind all right. Now all we had to do was wet down the tall tinder dry range grass to starve the fire.
O.K. I didn't put the parking brake on, but everything else was looking good. The engine started right up, Robert had the hose within five feet of the fire when the engine sputtered and dies. Oh, it will restart if I fiddle with the choke, but anything over an idle and the engine will not continue to run. Chief is looking at me like "anytime now" as he is forced to back away from the flames. "It won't run" I yell. Robert dropped the hose and ran to the back of the truck. I swap positions with him and grab the pistol grip nozzle knowing in my gut that there isn't anything he can do that I didn't try. Here comes the owner again bounding over in his pickup. The look on his face is priceless. When he sees our predicament he puts up his arms and drives away. I don't see him again.
I have retreated with the nozzle now to abeam our truck; it is time to back up the truck before I read about it in the paper. The Chief and I go through two more iterations of this sequence as my exasperation grows. Not only is this an extremely dangerous and incendiary (sic) position I have deliberately put myself into, I am now there for no useful reason as I don't even have a gunny sack to beat the flames. "As worthless as tits on a boar, soon to be roasted" I think to myself. After looking at my jacket while contemplating its use as a fire beater I told Robert "I'll be damned if I'm going to take this water out of here; let's at least run it out the back by gravity along the edge to try to contain it." So we did.
Perception is reality. Before we emptied our truck the entire sector had gone out. At one point I was kicking flames out with my tennis shoes, but they were all out. Our efforts are assisted by fickle nature as the arriving cold front began to shift the wind from a more Northerly direction. Just then a new call over the radio. "The fire has jumped the highway, it is on the South side now threatening the hay stacks." With that we begin to bounce back across the burned out dessert looking for the cut in the fence while the Chief is on the radio and his cell phone trying to get an ETA on help.
We could see the flames licking across the field on the South side as soon as we reached the highway again. I noticed a HUMMV with Arrey / Derry VFD notations and pulled up behind it so Chief Pittman could speak with the occupant. Soon thereafter I heard over the radio "Hatch 20, Engine 10, where do you want me?" Looking up I could see our 1,500 gallon pumper cresting the hill. "Engine 10, Hatch 24 bring it on ahead to where the brush truck is and we'll go after the fire there on the South." A NM DOT worker cut the fence and Joe drove up to the scene. A Dairy truck was already doing a good containment job and Joe quickly extinguished the last flames which threatened the hay stack.
At that point the radio chatter began to pick up quickly. Rincon VFD, the Dona Ana County fire department of jurisdiction, arrived on scene and Chief Pittman transferred Command to them. Soon there were adequate resources directed to extinguish the last of the flames.
I returned to the scene the next day and it looked rather insignificant; you couldn't see the many burned acres to the north from the highway. Interestingly the fire began in Luna County, traversed the entire section of Sierra County that has Highway 26 frontage, and ended in Dona Ana County, less than half a mile along the highway. In addition to the departments mentioned, the Fire Departments from Garfield, Caballo, BLM as well as many locals and dairy employees responded and assisted in containing the fire and deserve our appreciation.
Rob Spence moved to Hatch from Fort Worth in October 2008 to witness and participate in the development of Spaceport America. Prior to this move he was employed by Bombardier Aerospace as a Pilot Instructor and FAA/JAA designated Flight Examiner in Lear and Challenger business jets. He earned both USAF Command and FAA Airline Transport Pilot ratings and besides Combat time in the F-16 has extensive experience in the F-4, A-7, C-130 and O-2A. Rob retired from the Air Force Reserve as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2000. Diplomas are issued in his name from New Mexico Military Institute, U.S. Air Force Academy and Air War College. He is married to Rhonda who teaches NM History at Truth or Consequences Middle School. More information is available at www.go-galactic.com