Incident Report: December 2014
By Steven Sorensen
On July 31, 2013, members of the Sooke Fire Rescue Department in British Columbia responded to one of the largest fires in their community in recent history. Evergreen Mall, a two-storey commercial strip mall was gutted by the work of an arsonist. The fire was spectacular and fighting it was a major challenge for the department. Five mutual-aid fire departments were called in to help combat the fire over a 15-hour period.
Exactly one year later, July 31, 2014, Sooke firefighters were recounting this fire at an anniversary thank-you barbeque hosted by the local Royal Bank of Canada branch, one of the businesses destroyed in the 2013 fire. Nobody imagined that just four hours later, the same six volunteer fire departments that responded to the 2013 fire would be summoned to another major fire in Sooke. This time, the fire began at a single-family home, which erupted into flames that rapidly spread to the surrounding tinder-dry forest. The fire occurred in a rural section of the community, which does not have a municipal water supply, requiring the establishment of a complex tender shuttle operation. Many of the valuable lessons learned during the 2013 fire were incorporated into this incident, resulting in a more orderly and safer operation for all personnel involved.
The fire was called in to the department at 4:36 p.m. by a man cutting firewood on the property. He reported smelling something burning and at first assumed something was wrong with his saw. After turning off the saw, the man looked around and saw dark smoke issuing from the kitchen window. Thinking that the occupant of the home – who had left about 45 minutes earlier – may have left his dogs inside, the man kicked in the front door to see if the dogs were inside, but was driven back by intense smoke and heat and could see fire “swirling in the living room.” He then ran around to the side door and opened a small dog door at the bottom and tried to call the dogs heard no barking or noise. With the fire rapidly spreading, the man retreated to the road to wait for the fire department to arrive.
It was a hot, dry summer afternoon. Fortunately there were no prevailing winds that day. Given Sooke’s location on the west coast of Vancouver Island, wind off the ocean is often a daily occurrence.
Sooke Car 1 was the first to arrive with the fire chief assuming command. An older, ranch-style, wood-framed home was fully involved. Fire was visible at all the windows and through the roof, and multiple exposures were already burning or about to ignite. The exposures on fire included a detached two-car garage, a 12-metre-long travel trailer, a passenger car, several motorcycles and outboard motors, household objects, and numerous trees. Seconds after arrival, there was a large explosion, which was later thought to be a propane barbeque tank rupturing. Radiant heat caused several other objects to begin smoking or melting including a pickup truck, a fiberglass sailboat on a trailer, a second utility trailer and many other objects scattered throughout the property. The location of this fire was in hilly terrain surrounded by dense forest. Several of the surrounding 30- to 40-metre-high trees exploded into flames. Directly behind the burning house and up a steep hill, a large log home was in the path of the rapidly spreading fire.
With no available water supply, rapidly deteriorating conditions, and multiple spot fires igniting from falling embers, assistance was needed to combat the fire. While still en route, Car 1 observed a large column of smoke about four kilometers from the fire and immediately requested mutual aid. In addition to two engines, a tender, a command unit, a communications vehicle and a utility truck from Sooke, the neighbouring Otter Point Volunteer Fire Department dispatched an engine and tender, East Sooke Fire Department sent both of its tenders and the Metchosin Fire Department arrived with a tender and an engine. As the incident progressed, the Langford Fire Department was called in and supported the operation with an additional engine, bringing the total number of firefighters to 45.
The structure fire was located only metres away from Sooke Road, also provincial Hwy. 14, which closed for public safety and to allow the tenders room to safely traverse to and from various water-supply points. Two 8,000-litre porta-tanks were set up on the roadway. As Hwy. 14 is the only route into Victoria from Sooke and the fire occurred during the start of the evening commute, it did not take long for traffic to back up for kilometres.
Due to the embers being produced from the fire, several spot fires flared up in the surrounding forest. A request was made for the BC Forest Service to attend. A three-person rapid-attack team arrived shortly after by helicopter to assist, which was also very useful in locating the additional spot fires hidden in the dense forest. As these fires moved through the brush and grew in size, several crews were diverted to attack the rapidly growing spot fires, one of which grew to cover about 300 square metres. The escalating situation resulted in the establishment of two more porta-tank sites and a complex operation of co-ordinating six tenders using two fill sites, and supplying four engines with four portable tanks at three different drop locations. With several homes in the fire path, Sooke RCMP evacuated residents in the highest-risk areas and placed those further away on evacuation notice. The highway closure added to the problems as tender crews were forced drive with caution using only one side of the winding, two-lane road while travelling to and from the fill sites and drops sites. Adding to this were dozens of cars that gave up waiting and decided to turn around and go back in the direction from which they had come, rather than wait out the fire and the opening of the road.
The temperature was almost 30 C that day, thus dehydration and exhaustion of responders was a major concern. The BC Ambulance Service provided monitoring and rehab for all personnel and ensured that responders were hydrated and in good condition before allowing them back to the fire line.
The fire was brought under control and contained by about 6 p.m., however many hotspots on the original property and surrounding forest still had to be dealt with. With the water-supply requirements stabilized, crews were able to remove one of the porta-tanks off the highway, which allowed single-lane traffic to begin flowing. As the incident stabilized, mutual-aid companies returned to their stations, with the last Sooke unit clearing the scene at 9:30 p.m. One crew returned around midnight when an old tree stump started burning as result of the earlier fire.
The home, contents and several exposures were totally destroyed by the fire. However, crews were able to save the sail boat and pickup truck. While the fire did not destroy any additional homes in the area, it came within three metres of the neighbouring log home. The damage to the home in which the fire started was too severe to determine a definitive cause, but the fire did not appear to be suspicious. While the home was insured, the tenant was not and he lost almost all his possessions.
Accountability of large numbers of firefighters from multiple fire departments is a difficult task. In the past, several area departments used different types and colours of accountability tags for their firefighters. Following the 2013 mall fire, all area fire departments have switched to the same colour-coded accountability tag system.
Better use of senior officers at major incidents played a key role in ensuring overall safety, accountability, and monitoring of sectors. All available senior officers from responding mutual-aid departments reported to command for sector assignments. In the past, mutual aid officers often stayed and operated only with their own fire department members. For some departments, this change required alterations to their SOGs.
Enhanced joint training sessions in such areas as accountability, RIT, tender shuttle operations, and communication, helped to streamline efficiencies on the fire ground.
Better use of non-suppression personnel to assist in non-hazardous areas helped to free firefighters from roles that they would normally fill. With limited daytime firefighting resources a key concern in Sooke, the department enhanced its training of volunteer public-education members to take on additional duties. These members – now known as support services – can be assigned to traffic control, crowd control, photography, as scribes for command officers, to assist the accountability officer and to fill SCBA cylinders.
Assigning a media-relations officer played a critical role in providing accurate information to news agencies, as on social media platforms. Messages on Twitter and Facebook at regular intervals helped to keep the public informed as the incident progressed, and provided up-to-the-minute details on the road closure and pending resumption of traffic flows.
The protocols used in the control of this incident were reviewed in the days following to determine what areas of concern may have been noted. Nobody expected that just six weeks later, on Sept. 11, 2014, these practices would be employed at a much larger incident that would completely tax the resources of almost every volunteer fire department in the region. Watch for that story in a future issue of Fire Fighting in Canada.
Sooke Fire Rescue Department - established 1913
Location: 40 kilometres west of Victoria
Area protected: 65 square kilometres
Equipment: Two fire stations operating with three engines, one ladder truck, one tender, one brush truck, two squads and two utility vehicles.
Average annual calls: 750
Membership: Fire chief, deputy chief of prevention, assistant chief of training and two career firefighters; 30 volunteer firefighters and 10 volunteer support services
Steven Sorensen is the fire chief and emergency operations co-ordinator for the Sooke Fire Rescue Service in British Columbia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org