Gas patch presents additional dangers for wildland firefighters

DEAN HUMPHREY/The Daily Sentinel—A crew from California passes through the dinner line at the Grand Junction mobilization center after fighting the Brush Creek Fire north of Rifle. Firefighters who go through the center will get 14-point hazard sheets for the gas patch.

Combatting wildfire in oil and gas country has a set of dangers unlike most of the blazes firefighters confront on a regular basis.

They’ll have to beware of poisonous gases, narrow roads, occasional explosives and the seeming safety of open well pads.

The first order of business, said Renee Lamoreaux, the safety officer for the Central Oregon Incident Management Team, is to “go slow.”

Take, for instance, large open areas in the middle of pinyon-juniper forest.

Firefighters unfamiliar with them might see them as open, safe areas, when they are, in fact, well pads, where any number of hazards exist, from pipes to gases.

Think underground pipes are no issue for firefighters?

Think again, Lamoreaux said.

“You can’t run a dozer over them,” she said.

Lamoreaux’s voice on safety is the first firefighters at the Grand Junction mobilization center — called “mob center” by those who gather there and pronounced “mobe” — will hear.

Her voice, however, won’t be the last on stressing safety.

Lamoreaux dispenses general wisdom about the hazards of fire in the gas patch. It’s up to safety officers at the scene to brief firefighters on specific hazards they might confront as they begin working the fire lines, Lamoreaux said.

Firefighters also are to be accompanied by representatives from the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service or National Park Service who familiar with the territory and its hazards, Lamoreaux said.

Lamoreaux, whose firefighting career began in 1985 in Montrose and includes 16 years as a smokejumper, said her basic advice to firefighters is simple: “Go slow, collect intelligence” before making any decisions.

Firefighters who appear at the mobilization center will get 14-point hazard sheets for the gas patch.

Among the dangers: untrained people trying to deal with fire using heavy equipment.

Two-way radios can be problematic because explosives sometimes stored in the area are detonated using two-way radio frequencies, so those radios can’t be used within 500 feet of where explosives might be stored.

The hazards of the gas patch aren’t the only ones for which firefighters must be prepared.

Firefighters from across the country will be staged at Grand Mesa Middle School, but they could end up fighting fires in the high elevation of Colorado and Wyoming or the prairies of Kansas, Nebraska or South Dakota.

The mobilization center, meanwhile, is expected to swell as crews arrive for rest, briefings and eventual assignment.

The members of the Central Oregon Incident Management Team have bivouacked at Grand Mesa Middle School while setting up the mobilization site and could be assigned to a fire, depending on what’s needed for any particular fire within the area the mobilization center covers.


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