Firefighter returns from Colorado fires
by The Press and Standard | September 6, 2018 5:00 pm
Last Updated: September 5, 2018 at 8:35 am
Scott O’Quinn got back to sea level on Aug. 28.
O’Quinn returned to work as a battalion chief with Colleton County Fire-Rescue after spending two weeks in the high country of Colorado battling wild land fires.
In the six years he has been part of the wild land firefighting team organized by the South Carolina Forestry Commission, he has been sent West four times.
The last two weeks marked the first time he has been deployed to Colorado, but it wasn’t his first time in The Centennial State. His mother is from Colorado.
Between Aug. 13-28, O’Quinn and the other South Carolina firefighters deployed to Colorado formed a Type II Initial Attack Crew.
The federal government, which requested the deployment, assigned the attack crew rental vehicles to go from fire to fire.
Once a fire was under control, the crew was released from that fire and moved on to the next one.
During their time in Colorado, the crew fought the Cabin Lake Fire and Silver Creek Fire, two large forest fires. Then they were dispatched to the desert to battle two fires ignited by lightning strikes.
Instead of working at sea level, O’Quinn was fighting fires in the mountains. He said the lowest elevation he worked at was 5,000 feet above sea level. “Most of the time we operated between 6,000 and 9,000 feet above sea level.”
“The air is a little thin, and you’re short of breath. You can feel it hiking in the mountains,” O’Quinn said.
When assigned to a fire, the attack crew would drive their vehicles close to the blaze and then hike their way in. “I put some miles on my boots.”
After hiking in, the attack team hand-dug fire lines, cleared brush and set up structural protections.
O’Quinn said the Cabin Lake Fire endangered several remote homes. At one home near a mountain stream, they diked the stream and put in a pump to feed water into a sprinkler system installed around the exterior of the home. At other homes, they installed a drop tank and filled it up with water to feed the sprinkler system.
Then if the fire began to approach the homes, they would turn on the pumps and move to safer ground. They would then return to the homes and extinguish any flames after the wildfire passed by.
It is a firefighting concept less than a decade old. Its goal is to not risk fire trucks or firefighters while protecting a residence.
“Scott has been interested in wild land firefighting for years and takes special training classes to be able to participate in these deployments,” Fire-Rescue Chief Barry McRoy said. “His skills and experience are very useful to them and the knowledge he brings back is helpful to Fire-Rescue.”
The use of portable sprinklers is one of the concepts O’Quinn has brought back to the local department.
He pointed out that massive woods fires are a rare occurrence in Colleton County, but they have happened in the past.
Things like the portable sprinklers’ concept, as well as his experience in working under the National Incident Management System, can be beneficial back home.
O’Quinn said the National Incident Management System is used by the federal government in all kinds of large scale emergencies, including hurricanes.
Because they were assigned vehicles, the attack team was able to return to the fire camp, where showers, portable toilet facilities and warm food were available. They still slept in tents. A couple of nights turned cold up in the mountains, and he awoke with frost on the tent. Out of his sleeping bag in the morning, O’Quinn would race to the nearest warm drink and food.
One convenience the firefighters tended to ignore was razors. Growing beards while fighting wildfires “is kind of a tradition,” O’Quinn said, “a way to mark time.”
Most fire departments do not allow firefighters to have beards at work. “This is the one time we can have a beard.”