Kevin Wilson: PNT Staff Writer
In an area referred to as the kitchen, the Portales Fire Department has something more akin to a family living area with a small kitchen, numerous chairs and tables and a television.
A good day for the members of the department is when there is no reason to leave the area, because it means there are no fires during their 7 a.m. to 7 a.m. shifts.
Wednesday was certainly not one of those days, with a grass fire in the Floyd area that burned nearly 35,000 acres and required help from the PFD and several other agencies.
Four members of the PFD took time during their Saturday shift to talk about Wednesday’s fire. Shannon Lee, Gary Nuckols, Paul Jarvis and Scott Candeleria were part of the shift that first responded Wednesday morning.
Q: When you first got the call, was there anything in the dispatch that made the call unusual?
Nuckols: Not initially. We just responded with mutual aid. It was pretty routine.
Q: When did you realize it wasn’t routine?
Nuckols: I could tell on the way out there. It was like the world was on fire.
Q: You fight a lot of different types of fires. What makes a grass fire different from residential or structure fires?
Nuckols: Usually there’s not as big of a safety issue with grass fires, but this one came into safety issues (due to) the high winds, the speed of travel of the fire.
Lee: It depends on the type of fuel you have for the fire also. You have your fields that are heavy cover for the last 15 years. If you have the range grass that’s very short, that’s a lot easier to put out. A structure fire, you generally run into one room involved. If it’s multi-room, you sit outside and protect it defensively.
Q: What does it mean to fight a fire defensively?
Lee: Prevent spread, control the fire to the area of origin. Don’t let it get off the single structure that’s involved, or a single field either.
Q: How much is wind usually a factor in fighting fires?
Jarvis: It’s always a factor.
Lee: For our area and terrain, it’s always causing trouble, even on structure fires.
Q: The wind was obviously a factor on Wednesday. What were the other major factors?
Lee: Fuel growth over the last two years. We’ve got a lot of range land that’s not grazed, knee high grass and tumbleweeds that had grown. It’s just an extremely heavy fuel load.
Q: Is a lot of that a result from a heavy rainfall throughout 2004?
Lee: Right. A lot of it is still extra growth from the 2004 year, plus this year.
Q: How was Wednesday’s fire different from other grass fires? Or did it have all of the same elements but instead on a much bigger scale?
Lee: All of the same elements were there, but the wind made it get to a large scale. It wasn’t so much that the fire grew immediately to that size. The wind spread it so quick that intial responses of Cannon and Melrose weren’t able to hold it to the bombing range’s boundaries.
Q: When did you know this wasn’t going to be a quick job?
Lee: After the first four hours, I knew it was going to be an overnight issue.
Nuckols: For me, it was even shorter than that. Once it jumped the Floyd highway, I knew we were going to be there for a long time.
Q: When you end up in one of those long fires, what is done differently?
Nuckols: They had that set up for us in Floyd. Once they had the crews to a certain scale, they had rehab set up at the school. Once we got there, we had food, water, other assignments posted for us.
Most of the guys that were on the fire line probably didn’t get to rehab for the first six or seven hours.
Q: And those are hours where you don’t take even a minute-long break, correct?
Candeleria: You don’t. The fire’s not going to stand there and wait.
Nuckols: Unless you have a crew standing in to rehab for you, you’re not going to get a break.
Q: Other crews came in to help out, and guys on different shifts came in. How prepared do you have to be when you’re not on shift?
Lee: It’s a regular occurrence for us anyway. Your day off is subject to callback every day.
Nuckols: When you’re on duty, you have to be mentally prepared for whatever goes on.
Q: Looking back, is there anything that occurs to you about the fire that didn’t necessarily occur right then?
Nuckols: My thoughts are, we’re very lucky nobody was seriously injured. As many firefighters and agencies as we had out there, we’re lucky nobody was seriously injured.
Q: Anything that could have been done better by anybody?
Candeleria: No, we had good leadership. Those road crews made all the difference. They created fire breaks where we were able to get on the fire. They clear all the fuel. They just leave (a road) of dirt.
Nuckols: If we could have stopped the wind, it would have helped (laughs), but you can’t control nature.
Q: Looking back, is this the biggest fire you’ve fought?
Lee: Since I’ve been here (for eight years), yes.
Q: When a new crew member comes aboard, and they ask you about your experience with Wednesday’s fire, what do you plan to tell them?
Candeleria: Right for reach, left for life.
(The firemen all laugh)
Lee: (to Candelaria) That’s right, Scott. You learned, didn’t you? That’s a (saying) we have for our nozzle patterns. You dial the nozzle to the right to reach the fire and dial it to the left to put a fog on you, which is your safety.
Nuckols: It’s basically a fog pattern that sets up a wall between you and the fire.
Q: How often are there grass fires throughout the year?
Lee: It will vary. We can go a single fire in a week, then we can have 30.
Q: Is November/December usually a busy time for grass fires?
Lee: Generally after our first killing frost is when we’ll start running into our fire season.
Q: What other seasonal fires are there to worry about?
Lee: The first good cold spell of the year, when people start lighting and re-lighting their fires. When it’s really a cold snap, people put in extra space heaters …
Nuckols: Run extension cords where they shouldn’t off of multiple outlets.
Q: An investigation from Cannon Air Force base has yet to determine a cause for the fire. When grass fires start, is there a common bond in how they start?
Lee: No. I’ve seen them start from pieces of glass in a pasture, and they’ll work as a magnifying glass. Cigarettes, power lines down, static electricity. A lot of it is in cleanup. People will rake their leaves, set them in a pile to burn, go do something else.
Nuckols: A lot of county people will burn their trash in barrels. Some (burning trash) will get out and start a grass fire.
Q: What’s the biggest recommendation you can give to people, primarily in rural areas, to prevent fires?
Lee: The biggest thing is keeping their grass short. Just pay attention to the weather of the day.
Nuckols: Don’t leave (any kind of fire) unattended. Have some way to put it out nearby. Be aware of your wood piles and things that are near your structures. A lot of people want to stack their wood pile next to their house. You’ve got (potential for) a fire right there.