Boardman Fire Chief Marc Rogelstad reported his findings to the Umatilla Rural Fire Protection District board on Oct. 2 after completing an independent investigation into a brush truck that burned up during a fire in July.
The district responded to a natural cover fire started by a cigarette, near the intersection of Highway 730 and Highway 395 on July 21 at approximately 1 p.m.
During that incident, a fire truck known as Brush 11 caught fire while unattended.
“People there didn’t fully recognize the danger,” Rogelstad said, chalking the incident up to inexperience and “tunnel vision.”
According to Rogelstad’s report and an internal report by Umatilla Fire Chief Steve Potts, responding personnel parked Brush 11 in tall grass.
“It was not a real good place to park, but there were not a lot of good options,” Rogelstad told the board.
The truck’s crew stretched 250 feet of hose through trees to reach the fire, according to the report Potts wrote. At some point while they were all up fighting the fire, a spot fire ignited and moved under the truck, which suffered “significant damage” as the crew tried to wind the hose through the trees back to the truck.
The 2018 brush truck was valued at about $150,000, Potts said, and has already been replaced using a combination of insurance money and contingency funds.
Potts wrote in his report that inexperience led the crew to make mistakes, including parking in the grass and not maintaining sufficient situational awareness of the fire’s behavior.
They believed parking far away from the fire was safest, he said, when in fact it would have been more prudent to park close to the fire and use a short length of hose so that they could maintain contact with the apparatus and move it out of harm’s way quickly if needed. He also noted that the grass they were risking the truck to defend was not valuable.
Rogelstad echoed many of Potts’ points in his own written and verbal report, noting the heavy grasses and swirling winds that day made it easy for spot fires to flare up. He said the Boardman district hadn’t lost a fire truck during his tenure there, but a truck he was on while working in Montana caught fire once.
“This is a bad deal that happened,” he said. “There are a lot of lessons learned out of it. The chief gave his report and the young guys will learn. This could happen anywhere. It could happen in Hermiston. In fact, it opened my eyes a little bit, and it will be a topic of conversation around the table tomorrow.”
Rogelstad conducted his investigation last week after fire board member Mark Keith stated at a previous meeting he felt it was inappropriate to only have an internal investigation into the loss of an expensive piece of taxpayer-funded equipment.
Keith told the Hermiston Herald on Thursday he felt that Rogelstad was chosen because he might give a more positive report than someone at the state level.
He said in an email he was also dissatisfied that formal disciplinary action wasn’t taken against the firefighters involved, and criticized the fire district for using “untrained low level responders.”
“Our city is in a desperate situation with volunteers, paid staff and leadership,” he said.
Potts told the Hermiston Herald he considered more punitive actions against the firefighters involved, but decided against it. He said they were all “extremely remorseful” and seemed willing and able to learn from their mistakes. He felt that punishing them further might discourage them from continuing to serve as firefighters at a time when the district is struggling to recruit and retain experienced personnel. He also noted July was a difficult time for them, as a member of the staff had just been killed in a drowning accident.
Potts said additional training and refresher courses are being implemented to address the problems seen on July 21, and he is asking experienced officials from neighboring fire districts to help with the training to provide diverse perspectives.
As for the district’s problems keeping staffed, Potts told the fire board last Wednesday that he is looking at new ways to handle the shortage, which is a nationwide problem for fire districts.
Ideas he is working to implement include more collaboration with the neighboring districts, call response pay and creating a program where city of Umatilla staff could get trained as volunteer firefighters and remain on the clock for the city while responding to fires during their normal work hours.
“We’re trying to think outside the box and look at all options in order to boost our response,” he said.