Local volunteers help bring down historic brush fire



Local volunteers form a fire line during a 700-acre brush fire April 14 in Exeter to prevent the blaze from spreading. About 200 firefighters responded to the blaze, including 24 from Jamestown. PHOTO BY KARL ROCHON

Local volunteers form a fire line during a 700-acre brush fire April 14 in Exeter to prevent the blaze from spreading. About 200 firefighters responded to the blaze, including 24 from Jamestown. PHOTO BY KARL ROCHON

As the fire department readies itself for a new chief after 18 years, the changing of the guard this month could pale in comparison to what the volunteers dealt with last month.

Local firefighters were among rescue personnel representing more than 20 agencies to respond April 14 to a brush fire in Exeter that threatened more than 700 acres. Due to the dry seasonal conditions and high winds following a mild winter lacking snow, public environmental officials across New England were warning communities about the high risk of brush fires.

The warnings proved to be legitimate.

According to deputy chief Howie Tighe, two days before the fire in Exeter, April 12, firefighters from Jamestown responded to a 5-acre brush fire in Narragansett.

“As that fire was happening, there was a 200-acre fire in West Greenwich,” he said.

After about four hours in Narragansett, the local contingent was dispatched to West Greenwich for another four hours. All told, local firefighters were assisting with off-island brush fires from about 12:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. as Portsmouth covered the local station.

Smoke from the Exeter fire can be seen from the Newport Pell Bridge.

Smoke from the Exeter fire can be seen from the Newport Pell Bridge.

Those two fires combined, however, could not compete with the blaze 48 hours later. Just south of the West Greenwich site, a blaze about four times that size erupted from a campfire on School Land Road at the Queen River Nature Preserve. It has been called the largest in state history.

“You could see the smoke from Jamestown,” Tighe said. “It took off pretty quickly.”

When Tighe arrived in Exeter, he was tasked by command to take over the northern part on Williams Reynolds Road. He then coordinated with other chiefs to set up a fire line.

“If the fire jumped Williams Reynolds Road, it would have been at your front doorstep,” Tighe said. “It would have been to Route 102. So, we made a decision, tactically, to do whatever we had to do to stop the fire.”

During the worst part of the emergency, Gov. Dan McKee recommended an evacuation of the area, and Exeter Public Library became a temporary refuge for about 20 people. Rhode Island State Troopers went door to door urging residents to leave their homes.

Black Hawk helicopters, operated by the Rhode Island Air National Guard, drop water onto the blaze.

Black Hawk helicopters, operated by the Rhode Island Air National Guard, drop water onto the blaze.

“Our team is responding to a large fire in Exeter,” he announced during his first of his three public updates. “Right now, we’re asking Rhode Islanders to stay away and not fly drones in the area while the firefighting operations occur.”

As those 20 people were moved to a shelter at Exeter-West Greenwich High School, Tighe manned the north end of the fire, and his fellow deputy, Steve Tiexiera, with a crew of six firefighters, fought the blaze from the west side of Purgatory Road. While it was spreading, the fire jumped at his end, too. Tiexiera’s daughter, coincidentally, lives near Purgatory Road.

“It was getting a little sketchy for them,” he said.

In addition to the state and local agencies that responded, the Rhode Island National Guard provided aerial firefighting support, including Black Hawk helicopters. Although it was “coordinated,” Tighe called it “taxing.”

 

 

“A lot of those same departments, resources and personnel were in West Greenwich or Narragansett two days before,” he said. “You can wear people out pretty quick, which is something you got to be cautious of. Because wildland forest fires are very, very labor intensive.”

According to Tighe, “there’s a lot of ground game that has to happen with a brush fire.” Among the challenges that differ from a house fire is dealing with “a different diameter size hose that’s made to go through the woods.” These hoses, he said, are made to be impinged on fire so it can extend to more than 1,000 feet.

“You can’t do that with traditional fire hose off a fire truck,” he said. “It wouldn’t be able to supply the pressure.”

Local firefighters also had to tap into the water supply in Exeter, which included using a private pond. This concept, however, is not novel to local volunteers. Tighe called this “our home-run area.”

Flames from the fire double the height of the trees in some areas. The blaze in Exeter, which is believed to have started from a campsite at the Queen Nature Preserve, threatened 700 acres of forest.

Flames from the fire double the height of the trees in some areas. The blaze in Exeter, which is believed to have started from a campsite at the Queen Nature Preserve, threatened 700 acres of forest.

“We always use tank trucks,” he said. “We’re used to rural water-supply uses. We don’t have fire hydrants through the whole town in Jamestown.”

Tiexiera also talked about the conditions that the crew had to contend with during the three brush fires.

“I think the biggest challenge is to make sure everybody stayed hydrated,” he said. “It’s hot and you’re working.”

Tiexiera also talked about the crew working in bunker gear. Typically, he said, brush fires are fought in lighter gear.

“You don’t usually fight brush fire with bunker gear,” he said. “They have totally different gear; it’s lighter. Bunker gear is pretty heavy, it puts a lot more strain on your body. And, we had to walk. I think we were walking for almost a quarter of a mile, it seems like, where we had to go. So, you’re carrying hose bags, you’re carrying shovels, and other tools. Yeah, it takes a toll on people.”

“That was probably the largest brush fire that any of us had seen in our time in the fire department,” said Tighe.

Almost 200 firefighters were involved with putting out the blaze, coming from as far away as central Connecticut, including two dozen Jamestown personnel. McKee lifted the evacuation order four hours after issuing it. About 80 percent of the fire was contained by 8 p.m. that night.

“Nobody got hurt,” Tighe said. “Nobody lost their house.”