Salt of Summit County
At the end of Men In Black, Tommy Lee Jones’ character is ready to retire and wants to have his memories of work erased. Mark Fry, former chief and current fire fighter for the South Summit Fire District has some memories like that.
Once, he and his crew were fighting a fire in Brown’s Canyon near a gravel pit when the wind changed and suddenly a 30-foot wall of flame was coming at them at about 50 miles an hour.
Everyone dropped everything and ran for the road. He was sure not everybody would go home that night. They did, but a lot of equipment was ruined a much easier loss.
Another time while protecting some buildings near Rockport, the smoke overcame him.
"It was hard to breath, hard to see," he said. "It was the scariest time in my life, scared to the point I wasn’t sure if I or other firemen were going to make it out alive. I can’t compare it to anything else. All of a sudden here comes fire at you."
When he got out of that one, he went to see a doctor in Coalville about his lungs. That was a Saturday. On Monday, he had to go back to work at his day job as a planner at the department of transportation.
Like super heroes with secret identities, the North and South Summit County firemen are all volunteers who carry pagers as they go about their regular lives until a call comes.
Most of the time the work is mundane, nothing like super heroes. A lot of calls are lightening fires that are easy to put out. The 55-year-old Fry has only been in five big fires during his 25-year-career, and most of those weren’t even in his district.
But once in awhile a fire will be big enough to require immediate response, and once another man shows up you go, even if you know you’re not going to be enough.
"It’s very scary to go on one of these when only two or three men can get there right away. The adrenaline gets pumping, and it’s scary at same time," he said.
Fighting fire is a bit like a combat situation, Fry said.
When a fire fighter arrives at the scene, he has to assess the enemy. He radios to dispatch what he sees and what he thinks it will take to put it out or control it. Then, with the crew on site, a plan of attack is devised.
The easiest way to put oneself in danger when fighting a fire is to forget an exit strategy.
"When people die, its usually because they didn’t have a good emergency plan," he said.
The wind, type of terrain, the presence or absence of buildings all factor into a strategy.
Earlier in his career, he said, he rarely put this much thought into.
"We’d just jump in a truck and go and put water everywhere. But when you’re younger, you don’t look at things like you do when you’re a little older," he said. "You begin asking, ‘Is it worth it? Am I going to do it in a safe manner?’"
A number of things could go wrong besides changing wind and smoke affixation. For one, fire creates its own wind which feeds it and pushes it unpredictable directions without the wind’s help. Also, the heat is intense. Combine that with the heat of the day and the weight of the gear, fighting fire is dangerous work.
Then there’s the unforeseen. Another memory Fry wouldn’t mind forgetting was the exploding trees while fighting the East Fork fire in 2002 near the Boy Scout Camp.
Dry trees began catching fire and as the flame leaped around the canopy, the trees began exploding. First the dry leaves, needles and twigs up top, and then as the heat got to the water and sap inside, the trunks exploded.
"I never saw before, they were blowing up with snap of finger from bottom to top. Ambers and hot coals float through the air and get down the back of the neck," he said. "Stay as far away as you can when that happens."
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