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Still Burning

2nd-day of battle waged against 150-acre blaze

Times Observer photo by Brian Ferry A helicopter contracted by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to help in fighting a wildfire in Watson Township approaches a landing zone Friday near the Incident Command Center at Warren State Hospital. Photo published with the permission of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.

The Cobham Hill Road fire in Watson Township settled down some overnight, but it was still burning on Friday.

The wildfire was up to an estimated 150 acres – including consumed and involved – as of Friday afternoon.

As of Friday afternoon, there had been no injuries and no buildings damaged as a result of the fire.

“The folks did an excellent job yesterday doing structure protection,” Public Information Officer Wayne Wynick, working for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) Incident Management Team, said. “That’s a priority.”

There have been some impacts to residents in the area of the fire. “There are a couple of folks that cannot get back to their homes, yet,” Wynick said.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation, but officials urge people not to burn. The fuels in this area can go from wet to flammable in one hour under the right conditions, Wynick said.

“Please do not burn your trash or your yard waste in the spring when it’s hot, dry, and windy,” Allegheny National Forest Fire Public Information Officer Wendy Andersen said.

Firefighters remained at the scene and continued to work to get the fire under control.

There was some activity during the night. “Night operations are usually monitoring with minor suppression work,” Wynick said. “When the situation is a little spooky, you put people in there at night to keep an eye on it.”

And, the attack built up again when firefighters could see. “We’ve had people on the ground since daylight,” he said. “The folks are back at it. Crews are working to complete the containment. They’re working on control lines around the fire.”

Crews from DCNR and the Allegheny National Forest were on the scene on Friday. The initial response to the fire – involving whatever personnel and equipment could get there immediately – has shifted.

“There are no volunteer fire departments today,” Andersen said.

As local responders are released, “the wildland firefighters will assume the responsibility of extending the attack,” Wynick said.

“At a certain point, we will turn this back over to the local agencies,” Wynick said.

A helicopter was on scene again Friday. The contractor “flew the fires this morning to get an accurate perimeter and assess fire activity,” Wynick said.

In addition to reconnaissance, the helicopter is able to repeatedly pick up 80 gallons of water to drop wherever it would help.

A DCNR single-engine air tanker (SEAT) out of Clearfield was available Friday but did not fly up in the morning due to weather at its base. Wynick said the SEAT carries 800 gallons, but has to land to reload.

There were other aircraft over the fire on Thursday and officials strongly warn private citizens from flying drones over wildfires.

“If the drones are there, our aircraft have to be grounded,” Wynick said. “It is a hazard to firefighters.”

He asked people to imagine a single-engine aircraft striking a metal object at about 150 miles an hour.

Even if no firefighters or contractors are hurt by drones, flying them over wildfires is against the law. “Fines and jail time,” Andersen said.

Bulldozers are available to help ground crews clear breaks.

Conditions on Friday were less favorable for the fire and more favorable for those opposing it.

“The fire behavior is not as intense as it was yesterday with the winds,” Wynick said.

“The wind’s down. The temperature’s down. The relative humidity is up a little. That all combined to lessen the intensity of what the guys are facing out there today. We’re trying to work as quickly as we can while we have the advantage.”

Weather conditions are a temporary improvement.

Wynick said a dought map of the United States shows “bright red” for “about one-third of the area west of the Mississippi.”

Hemlock fire

A second fire of 100 acres or more also started on Thursday and was still burning on Friday.

The fire off of Hemlock Road in Glade Township, “was at a better condition as far as fire activity” than the Cobham Hill fire, Wynick said. “We’ve still got personnel on it who are beating it to death.”

“A concern with both of the fires is the rough terrain that the firefighters have to work in,” he said. “It slows things down.”

In both cases, the types of fuel made it more likely that a fire would start, but made them more likely to burn out quickly.

“Our fuels are generally light fuelds. We don’t have that much heavy fuel,” Wynick said. “As a general rule, it’s leaf litter and grass. It burns very fast, but it’s over very quickly.”

Incident management

A DCNR incident command post – with a Type 3 Incident Management Team – was set up Friday at Warren State Hospital to help manage the firefighting effort.

Although the bulk of the fire is on U.S. Forest Service property, DCNR is heading up the fire response because the point of origin is believed to be on private land. If the origin had been on Allegheny National Forest land, the U.S. Forest Service would be the lead agency.

Wynick and Andersen worked out of the command trailer in front of the Israel Building at the State Hospital on Friday.

The communications personnel were only one part of the team. There are folks on the team that are dedicated to specific tasks – not necessarily firefighters,” Wynick said. “Some focus on operations. Some focus on logistics.”

Wynick explained the importance of the incident command team.

“With a volunteer fire company, the incident command team is probably in one person,” he said. “The ‘span of control’ – when you’re overseeing more than five people, you’ve exceeded that.”

So, specialists are brought in to manage different areas of need.

The team that will probably be the last to leave town is not the firefighters – it’s finance, Wynick said.

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