MASSIVE RESPONSE: Several fire departments teamed up to save structures from wildfires

July 15, 2018

Flames from a Saturday wildfire burn near the ON Semiconductor plant in Pocatello.

POCATELLO — Wildfires threatened multiple buildings on Friday and Saturday in Pocatello but were extinguished before they could cause serious damage.

Authorities are crediting the lack of damage to the fact both wildfires were designated as Gateway Interagency Fire Front fires — also referred to as “GIFF fires” — meaning they were immediately responded to by all available Pocatello area fire departments.

The end result in both cases was the fires being successfully extinguished with no injuries or serious damage to any homes or buildings.

The first wildfire was reported around 5:45 p.m. Friday along Ridgewood Road off Pocatello Creek Road, prompting the temporary evacuation of multiple residences. The fire burned at least two acres before being contained at around 7:45 p.m.

The flames got to within 15 yards of one house and melted its siding.

Additionally, the fire damaged a shed and destroyed power lines, temporarily knocking out electricity to more than 30 homes in the area.

Then around 11:30 a.m. Saturday another wildfire ignited when a tire came off a boat trailer on Interstate 15 between ON Semiconductor and Idaho State University’s former Research and Innovation in Science and Engineering Complex.

State police said the tire somehow ignited a wildfire along the east shoulder of the interstate and the flames quickly spread eastward.

The fire burned 10 to 15 acres of dry grass and brush and came within 100 yards of buildings along Alvin Ricken Drive, including the Idaho State Veterans Home, ON Semiconductor and the former RISE Complex.

Pocatello Fire Chief David Gates said the buildings were not evacuated because they all had plenty of defensible space between them and the wildfire.

Both wildfires were responded to by a number of fire departments and authorities said this was why the flames were stopped from spreading before they could cause serious damage.

The Pocatello, Chubbuck, Pocatello Valley and Fort Hall fire departments and the Bureau of Land Management all responded to the Ridgewood Road fire, and the Pocatello and Chubbuck fire departments and BLM responded to Saturday’s blaze along Interstate 15.

According to Bannock County Sheriff Lorin Nielsen, after the Johnny Creek wildfire in 1987 that destroyed a house, the Gateway Interagency Fire Front, also known as GIFF, was created.

GIFF is a mutual aid agreement with all the fire departments in Bannock County.

Under the GIFF guidelines, the first emergency response unit to arrive on the scene is designated the incident commander and can declare the blaze to be a GIFF fire, which automatically alerts all surrounding fire departments to respond if they can.

“I think it’s a model for many areas, especially in the West,” Nielsen said. “It’s just the nature of where we live. But the response and uniting of resources I think has been a great help. It’s one of the things that we do well. We assist each other.”

Gates said that oftentimes local fire departments will respond to a fire even before the GIFF designation is made.

“The speed of putting the fire out is the biggest factor affecting it from getting really big,” Gates said. “Say BLM is sitting in their station and they see the column of smoke. They’re not going to wait for someone to say it’s a GIFF fire. They’re going to come help.”

According to Gates, the national standard for fire response times is to have firefighters on the scene in four minutes and the total firefighting force on the scene within eight minutes. Gates said local fire departments don’t always achieve the eight-minute goal with wildfires.

“Obviously, total effective firefighting force for wildland (fires) depends on how big it is,” Gates said, “and if we have a 100 or 200 acre fire, we’re not going to get everybody there in eight minutes.”

A wildfire can be designated a GIFF fire, Nielsen said, if it is too much for one agency to handle or if it is threatening nearby structures, such as the wildfires that ignited in Pocatello on Friday and Saturday.

Once firefighters have responded to a wildfire, Gates said they typically try to fight it from the safe side — the side that the blaze is moving away from. However, if the wildfire is pushing toward structures, firefighters will deploy in front of the fire to attempt to defend the structures in its path.

Nielsen and Gates both urged citizens to be cautious in their summer activities because it doesn’t take much to ignite a fast-spreading and destructive wildfire.

“It’s hot, dry and windy out here, and these fires take off real quick,” Gates said. “We’d like to not lose structures or lives because of a silly mistake.”

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