Mutual aid kicks in for cumbersome brush fires

  • A firefighter helps to control a brush fire that burned about 6 acres in Hooksett on Monday. Courtesy of Todd Grzywacz

Monitor staff
Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A fast-moving, six-alarm brush fire summoned firefighters from throughout the region to Hooksett on Monday, some of whom were fresh off fighting a 190-acre blaze in Stoddard last week.

Forest rangers said the current conditions are historically dangerous for this time of year. Small fires cropped up simultaneously Monday in Chichester, Pittsfield and Deerfield – including departments that were already helping in Hooksett – sending a ripple through the capital area’s mutual aid system.

The wide response to these cumbersome forest fires is a demonstration of why mutual aid was established in the 1940s, state forest ranger Capt. Bryan Nowell said. A streak of dangerous fire weather has tugged firefighters about the state, especially in departments like Hopkinton and Dunbarton that worked in both Stoddard and Hooksett, he said.

“It taxes the dispatchers, it taxes the departments, it taxes the businesses that hire these folks, so it really does become quite a science over time,” he said.

Dunbarton, for instance, sent six firefighters and two vehicles to the 5.8-acre blaze in Hooksett, making up a small fraction of the 60-plus that Nowell said responded from more than 20 departments.

Three of the Dunbarton firefighters working Monday reported last week to the massive Stoddard fire that prompted the evacuation of 17 homes, Chief Jon Wiggin said.

“We’re all volunteers. . . . These small towns that don’t have any full-time personnel, people leave their work to go to work,” Wiggin said.

Nowell said that’s partly why when Hooksett rings six alarms to call in extra help, for instance, it can never be sure how many volunteers will be able to show.

“You’re using of lot of the same resources” from the fires last week, he said. “Once you start going, you don’t know if you’re gonna get one or you’re gonna get 10 when you tone out a department.”

The turnout to Hooksett was impressive, he said, but it still took about five hours to get the fire under control. Gusts of wind early on in the day helped the fire to “torch up and race off” in certain spots and “was really hampering some of the crews’ progress getting the fire under control.”

Hooksett called for specialized off-road equipment to keep the fire at bay, as flames burned in a remote area between Hackett Hill Road and Interstate 93, Nowell said.

Doug Miner, a forest ranger who covers most of Merrimack County, said the National Weather Service issues fire weather watches and red-flag warnings to alert fire departments when hazards may be incoming.

Recently, he said, there’s been a staggering streak of dangerous weather, which is characterized by low humidity, dry fuels and high wind.

“In all my career, I can’t remember so many of those issued by the National Weather Service on back-to-back days for well over a week period now,” said the 20-year forest ranger.

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @NickBReid.)