But rural Bee County will be a lot safer now thanks to some valiant efforts on the part of the Beeville Volunteer Fire Department.
“We’ve got more grass fire capability than the Corpus Christi Fire Department,” said Capt. Kirk Delgado as he surveyed three of the BVFD’s four newly refurbished brush trucks.
One of the vehicles was down last week for repairs on a faulty rear wheel.
All four of the trucks have had upgrades, fresh paint jobs, new equipment added and one thing that is a rare sight in South Texas but will wind up being the most important innovation yet.
Each truck has a new, 1,000-gallon water tank and two of the trucks are equipped to spray foam on grass and brush fires. The other two are expected to receive the foam equipment in the weeks ahead.
“We can carry 8,000 gallons of water to a rural fire,” said Assistant Fire Chief Lanny Holland. “Multiply that by four and that gives us 32,000 gallons of fire-fighting ability in a place where no water lines are available.”
That multiplier comes from adding foam to the equation. Fire Chief Donald C. Morris said the added effect of using foam actually increases the power of the water in the truck by more than four times.
“Four is a conservative number,” Morris said.
Foam is nothing new to many of the BVFD firemen. It was used extensively by some of the department’s older firefighters when they worked with the fire department at Chase Field Naval Air Station.
“It’s not common in South Texas,” said Holland, who spent eight years working with a fire department at a U.S. Coast Guard station in Kodiak, Alaska.
He said firemen in the northwest United States where trees grow tall and underbrush grows thick and dries out quickly in the cold, mountain air, have been depending on foam technology for a long time.
In places like Washington state, Oregon and Alaska, where fuel (dry vegetation) is plentiful and resources are scarce, firemen commonly use foam to fight wildfires.
Firemen in that part of the country not only use foam systems on their trucks but individual firemen carry foam systems on their backs when fighting wildfires. And aircraft use special wetting agents in the water they drop on wildfires in that country.
“It stretches our water capability a long way,” Morris said. “It puts out fires quickly and they stay out.”
Holland said it was Morris’ idea to start converting the brush trucks so they could use foam. But firemen here have been believers in the technology for a long time.
The acquisition of a compressed air foam system on the department’s CAF-1 truck has been a boon for BVFD for a couple of years now. The system, mounted on a donated pickup, was purchased with the help of a donation made by the Bee Development Authority to provide the local department with the ability to fight aircraft fires at the Chase Field Industrial Airport Complex.
Holland said adding a foam system to an existing water pumping truck is not all that complicated. And foaming agents can be as simple as diluted dish soap.
Morris said firemen here use a couple of foaming products when fighting blazes.
There is the “alcohol resistant aqueous film forming foam” for dousing gas and oil fires. It covers the fuel, cuts off the supply of oxygen to the fire, keeps the fuel from vaporizing and igniting and smothers the blaze.
There is the Class A foam normally used in dousing structural and grass fires. It uses a penetrating, or wetting agent that breaks the surface tension of the fuel and allows the water to get into the fuel, cool it and prevent it from burning.
The Class A foaming agent is purchased locally, Holland said, and it is what normally is carried on the department’s brush trucks.
The vehicles are large, all-terrain trucks that are maintained under the close watch of BVFD Chief Engineer Dale Eernisse. He was the man who designed the new foam systems and department members assisted in installing them onto the trucks.
Lt. Joe Wall was the man in charge of repainting the vehicles to make them look like new. Then he and department members applied new reflective graphics to the vehicles to make them more visible at night.
The power to run the pumps and the foam systems came in the form of four, new Briggs & Stratton, two-cylinder, 23-horsepower engines with electric starters so they can be put into action in an instant.
The big engines allow the systems to run at lower revolutions per minute, Morris said. “It doesn’t stress the engines as much.”
During the deadly 2005-06 wildfire season, much of Texas turned to ash when rains quit falling and the countryside seemed to ignite and burn for days at a time. Morris said there were plenty of grass and brush fires in Bee and surrounding counties. But the area did not suffer the vast losses experienced in many other parts of the state.
“Our tactic was to get on them fast, put them out and keep them out,” Morris said of the fires fought locally. Waiting to respond to a wildfire during those years could be disastrous.
During that fire season alone, the Texas Forestry Service reported that 734 homes and 1,320 outbuildings and 160 vehicles were lost throughout the state. Nineteen Texans, two of whom were firemen, were killed and about 10,000 cattle and hundreds of miles of fencing were lost to fires. TFS experts estimated losses that year to wildfire hit $4.1 billion.
In 2007, firemen across Texas again became concerned as rains fell on much of the state, causing foliage to grow thick and tall in places that usually were arid.
When the rains stopped, Texas had more fuel than usual in the fields and pastures and as it dried out the threat of wildfires grew.
The TFS reported that this spring wildfires put 8,688 homes at risk. Fortunately, because of the rapid and successful efforts of firemen throughout Texas, only 145 homes were lost and only 41 were damaged by the fires. But more than 1 million acres were burned.
Fortunately, for Bee County property owners, members of the BVFD are not content to meet and eat when they are not fighting fires. They plan, work and train hard to keep themselves prepared to perform their volunteer jobs to the best of their ability.
Morris said it took the department about six months to convert a fleet of brush trucks into state-of-the-art rural fire-fighting vehicles.
With an $8,000 donation from the Central Fire District, some money from the City of Beeville, lots of donated equipment and other items and a lot of volunteer labor on the part of firemen, the BVFD has become one of the most effective fire departments in Texas.
“That’s the design of it,” Morris said of the new systems. “Injecting foam increases our truck capabilities four times but our manpower on a truck is still two. We’re able to stretch our capabilities to the max without having to increase our manpower.”
“It stretches our water a long way and gets us back home a lot quicker,” Morris said. “That’s nice.”