During a regularly scheduled Carbon County Commission meeting on July 18, emergency services director Jason Llewelyn gave an update on the Mathis fire.
The Mathis fire started July 6 and burned 1,900 acres. For the first seven days, the wildfire remained a number one high priority incident.
The ranking was determined by MAC, a nationwide group that meets daily to prioritize the threat to life and structures and property posed by emergency incidents.
Sen. Orin Hatch and Congressman Jim Mattheson played a significant role in helping to get the matter finalized, indicated Llewelyn.
Llewelyn also recognized state fire warden Rudy Sandoval and the county commission for the $186,000 that was placed in Utah's emergency fund to battle the wildfire.
However, the money was spent in the first three hours of day one. To date, total expenditures have exceeded $23 million and costs associated with the Mathis fire are skyrocketing.
A heavy helicopter holds 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of fuel. The helicopter can burn 500 gallons of jet fuel in a one-hour transport, pointed out the county's emergency services director. In a 12-hour period , a heavy helicopter can burn 7,000 gallons of fuel.
For the first two days of the wildfire, a heavy air tanker was used by emergency personnel. Officials stopped using the tanker because it was ineffective and the cost would have been almost double.
Because of the mountainous terrain in Carbon County, larger planes are not able to get close to a fire before they drop water and retardant.
Tankers need about a five-mile air runway. As the aircraft come in straight, they dump cargo across a half-mile area. The higher the altitude, the further out the cargo spreads.
Three type one helicopters were used for the Mathis fire endeavor, pointed out Llewelyn.
The first, a huge helecrane, resembles a large grasshopper. The helicopter went to the local airport to refuel, stock up with the fire retardant supplied Emery County tankers and Carbon water tenders.
The large helicopters dropped a large snorkel and sucked 2,000 gallons of retardant in 45 seconds from a large container resembling a pumpkin at the Carbon County Airport during the operation. The process and location, enabled the helicopters to have a turn-around time of six minutes to fill, then dump their cargo on the fire and return to refill.
The smaller type three helicopters are equipped with 500 gallon buckets. Along with fighting the wildfire, the aircraft shuttled food and personnel to the scene.
|The mess tent at WETC served meals to supervisors and fire fighters that came off the line during the Mathis fire.|
The smaller helicopters did not touch down, said Llewelyn. Emergency personnel have to be certified to repel from the aircraft to the fire scene. The large helicopters have a replacement cost of $10 million each, are contracted from a private company called Erickson Sky Crane. These machines, as they hovered above the site, could dump directly on the fire. This proved to be the most cost effective and efficient after the first day of fighting the blaze. The total costs for the helicopter operation was $464,000.
The large tanker planes flying days one and two, cost $517,000 to operate. These proved to be not as effective as the rotor machines and more costly.
"Based on the availability in the western area, we had to fight to get these sky cranes," said Llewelyn. "They are not designed to put out the fire but are designed to coat the plants ahead of the fire. The water dropped from above extinguishes the hot spots, and the retardant prevents the fire from spreading. It acts as a barrier between fire and vegetation."
Another means to fight the fire was to create a back burn with small golf size balls filled with gasoline that are dropped ahead of the fire. This creates a fire that will burn back into itself.
Llewelyn said that each day would begin at 5 a.m. at the Western Energy Training Center. The Incident Command Center briefings would begin at 6 a.m. and would last for about an hour. Then the crews would go out to the line and repeat their briefings on their ICS system. A company from Montana was contracted to come in and cook breakfast, lunch and dinner for the 309 personnel. The portable kitchen averaged nearly 1000 meals a day at the cost of almost $15,000 per day.
The fire eventually came to within one-half mile of the air intake at the Andalex coal mine at the end of Airport Road. The top priority was to get as many dozers and create as many firebreaks and fire lines as possible to stop it from getting to the air shafts.
"The mine was never closed," said Llewelyn. "The command center maintained hourly contact with the mine and left it up to the workers whether or not they wanted to go in it everyday. The mine workers felt confident enough in the fire fighters ability, to stop the fire that they went underground everyday."
The fire, that was approximately three miles from the town of Kenilworth, often appeared to be much closer to the residents. A small separate fire caused by another lightining strike was classified with the Mathis Fire because of the close proximity to each other. However they were separate fires started by separate incidents.
"They weren't too terribly threatened but you never know what can happen if the wind picks up" stated Llewelyn."We took every precaution that was possible. Rudi Sandoval even spent the night in his truck near the town so the residents would feel safe."
The Mathis Fire was rated as the number one in the nation for a few days because of its proximity to industrial and residential areas. It only affected 1900 acres, compared to the Milford Flats fire that was burning at the same time with 300,000 acres, but it was the power plant, gas wells, and threat to life that gave it the number one rating.
Attempts to get the area declared a disaster area were not successful. The Federal Emergency Management Administration would not designate the fire as such and instead they declared the Milford Flats Fire a disaster area.
The cost analysis for the first few hours of fire fighting was $30,000. July 7 cost $184,000, July 8, $173,000, July 9, $234,000, and the cost just went up from there.
The first $186,000 came out of the state emergency fund. Other state funds pick up the cost from there, and after the state is tapped out, it then becomes the federal governments responsibility.
If planes had been used extensively instead of helicopters, there would have been an additional $2.1 million dollars spent during the fire fighting efforts.
The fire was difficult to fight. It grew from 500 acres to 1900 in one week. The weather was not very cooperative either. One day there would be rain and the next there would be 100 degree temperatures. The terrain was slick and treacherous. The fire moved fast across the area at times, as much as 30 to 50 miles per hour based on the winds. At times there were 300 foot flames moving up hill with nothing to stop it.
Acting quickly, fire personnel worked 15-16 hours a day for 10 days to shut down the blaze. Despite the massive amounts of man hours (24,720) put into fighting the fire, there were no lost time injuries. With just a few headaches and some rest and rehabilitation, the incident commanders said this was a first for them.
Star awards were presented from the incident commanders to others, Price Fire Chief Paul Bedont and to Mark Francis and the county Airport for their work and support.
"These awards are generally awarded to people on their own team," said Llewelyn. "This is the first time they said they have seen counties and cities step up and be responsible to address the needs of their community and stay with it."
The commanders cited Price, Helper, Wellington, Emery County and other communities, for their great work.
Llewelyn said based on this experience, one of his goals is to get with Sandoval and the Bureau of Land Management to get all equipment pre-authorized, pre-screened and inspected. He said he is also looking at additional training, purchasing green and yellow Nomack equipment and have it stored in the county so it will be ready to use should future events occur.
He also said there is a need for steel helicopter pads at the airport.