Firefighters say delays battling Utah home fire resulted from timing, location

The fire hydrant placement also affected the crew's ability to fight the fire

By Mark Saal

WEST POINT, Utah — Wrong place, wrong time.

Although some residents have questioned firefighters’ response time on the fire that destroyed a West Point home on Wednesday, Aug. 3, North Davis Fire District Chief Mark Becraft says any delays in getting water on that fire were an unfortunate combination of bad timing and an inconvenient location.

“It’s a fluke. It’s bad timing,” Becraft said. “I tell my firefighters all the time — ‘We take the calls as they come.’ ”

Posts on Facebook have claimed that it took fire crews as long as 25 minutes to respond to a fire that destroyed Rick and Holly Porter’s West Point home. While Becraft admits there was a slight, unavoidable delay in getting water on the fire, he insists it took nowhere near that long.

In checking the emergency logs, a Davis County dispatch worker told the Standard-Examiner that the 911 call came in at 4:50 p.m. Wednesday. Becraft said his records show that North Davis Fire District got the alarm at 4:53 p.m. and “paged out” firefighters at that time. The first fire engine on the scene, Clinton Fire Department Truck 21, arrived at 4:59 p.m., according to Becraft’s records.

The goal in firefighting is to have a unit on the scene within five minutes of an alarm, according to the fire chief. One of the reasons for the delay on Wednesday was that the four firefighters and engine normally posted at the West Point station — which is less than 3 miles from the Porter home — had been dispatched to a medical call and were unavailable at the time. To compound the issue, Becraft said the house is on the outskirts of the county’s population.

“It’s one of the furthest-west streets in West Point,” Becraft said. “If this truck isn’t here (at the West Point station), it’s a long way for the other departments to come.”

Clinton Fire Department Chief David Olsen said departments in the area have long-standing agreements to help one another on emergency calls.

“Basically, in the north end of Davis County, none of us is big enough to handle all the situations, so we have mutual-aid agreements,” Olsen said. “We all work together. It’s not about turf wars or the color of the firetruck responding. It’s about getting the job done.”

Olsen’s logs show a slightly different timeline on the West Point fire. Olsen said his department was paged at 4:55 p.m. and arrived at 5:04 p.m. The Clinton ladder engine arrived a minute later, at 5:05 p.m., he said.

“For being as far west as it is, a 10-minute response time isn’t bad,” Olsen said.

Becraft and Olsen suspect that it only felt like the response time was nearly a half-hour, especially for those who had to watch helplessly as the fire consumed their neighbor’s home.

“When you’re waiting for an emergency vehicle, it always seems a lot longer than it really is,” Becraft said.

Olsen said this is a normal human reaction he deals with all of the time.

“Sometimes, the perception is, we’ve had people who think it took forever for us to get there,” he said. “When it’s your property or your loved one, it feels like time stops.”

And according to Becraft, the hard truth is that when someone chooses to live out in the country or in the middle of the forest, there are certain realities that come with those decisions.

“It’s a trade-off,” he said. “I would never wish a forest fire to burn down anybody’s cabin, but when you build one in the middle of the forest — where lightning has struck the ground for thousands of years — that’s the chance you take.”

It’s been an exhausting couple of weeks for firefighters in Davis County, with several large structure fires — including the massive July 25 blaze at Balchem/Albion Minerals in Clearfield.

“In the last two weeks, we’ve had more working fires than we’ve had in a long time,” Becraft said. “We’ve had $6 million in fire losses, counting this latest house. The stars don’t usually align like that, but they did this time.”

Olsen said his fire department has been strained as well.

“For a small city, we’re 141 calls above what we were at this time last year,” he said. “June, for us, was the busiest month we’ve ever had.”

Following a fire, the departments involved typically will do what they call a “hot wash” or “bumper meeting” — briefly getting together, either formally or informally, to talk about the incident.

“It’s always our duty to take a good look at ourselves and see where we can improve,” Becraft said. “Was there a communication breakdown, was this engine in the wrong spot — things like that. We constructively criticize ourselves so we can do better.”

If there was one glitch in the West Point fire, according to Olsen, it’s that they were forced to use a distant hydrant connected to a 4-inch-diameter water line. Most residential areas today require an 8-inch line, with hydrants spaced every 500 feet. But the 4-inch hydrant Clinton Fire ended up using was more than 600 feet from the house.

“In this particular case, there was a hydrant with a 6-inch line near the house, but it was hidden — nobody could see it in the weeds,” Olsen said.

The smaller-diameter hydrant did reduce somewhat the amount of water firefighters could pour on the fire, Olsen said.

“We were pumping about 1,500 gallons a minute on that 4-inch line, and the pump is rated at 2,000 gallons,” Olsen said. “So we just didn’t have full water pressure.”

However, Olsen doesn’t believe more water would have helped. With all the glues, plastics and synthetic materials in houses these days, “things burn hotter and faster than they ever did.” When the first fire engine arrived, Olsen said there was already a 20- to 30-foot fireball coming out of the garage, and it was punching through the roof.

“I believe we might have been able to contain it a little better (with more water), but with the fire, smoke and water damage, it was going to be a loss any way you look at it,” Olsen said.

The fire was just too big,” Becraft said. “I can’t imagine the outcome would have been any different. But you can’t tell these people on Facebook. You can’t explain that to them.”

The Facebook users who said firefighters’ response was delayed did not respond to the Standard-Examiner’s requests for comments. The claims were made in the Facebook comment thread were sent to the Standard-Examiner in a screenshot. 

Copyright 2016 the Standard-Examiner

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