Forest fire drill to challenge agencies

Jul 04, 2014

On Tuesday, July 8, between 9:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. state, local and county agencies will be cooperating in an exercise designed to test response and support for a simulated island forest fire.

Criehaven, or Ragged Island, lies about 18 miles from the Knox County mainland and about a mile south of Matinicus. Moving firefighters and support equipment to a remote location like this can be difficult.

This exercise will test methods of delivering those resources and will practice emergency radio communication between agencies, all vital to a remote island response. Helicopters of the Maine National Guard will operate from a staging point at the Knox County Regional Airport. Here in Maine, Guard units, like their counterparts in the western U.S., support civilian authorities for many types of emergencies. On average, Maine National Guard helicopters respond to six to eight state emergencies a year including the rescue of a critically injured hiker from Baxter State Park just last week.

For this exercise, they will be using two UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters capable of transporting personnel and equipment. An additional UH-72 Lakota helicopter, newly provided to the Maine National Guard, will serve as a communications relay point linking firefighters and the shore side groups supporting them.

One special piece of equipment going out, then staying on the island for future firefighting purposes will be a 400-gallon mobile water tank specially modified for island use by students at the MidCoast School of Technology in Rockland. That tank will be carried by a sling suspended from one of the helicopters.

Emergency communications specialists of the Knox Regional Communications Center, or KRCC, in Rockland will operate a remote radio base from the Knox County Regional Airport to support the mission and test a variety of communication methods. Most KRCC dispatchers have received specialty training to allow enhanced support of public safety efforts in remote locations.

On-island efforts will be coordinated by a group of Forest Rangers from the Maine Forest Service. Maine’s Forest Rangers, by statute, have responsibility for the control of forest fires in all areas of the state.

Forest Ranger Aliesha Black, serving as the incident commander, will lead the group.

“Our job is to assess a wildland fire then request and coordinate resources to control and extinguish it," Black said in a news release. “Wildfires on islands can be tough. Many islands have storm damaged trees, or blow downs, which fuel wildfire. Getting to an island emergency is only part of the challenge." Forest Rangers use special techniques and tools to fight these fires. Chainsaws, shovels and other hand tools along with small specialized forestry fire hose, pumps, helicopters and lots of local help are required.

Exercises such as this allow participants to train and prepare for emergencies and disasters. They revalidate emergency management plans preparing responders to assist citizens should a real world event occur. In this case, a long term asset to residents of the island will remain; that firefighting mobile water tank modified by area high school students.

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