SWEETWATER COUNTY– Sweetwater County Fire Warden Mike Bournazian provided a briefing on the 2018 fire season for the Sweetwater County Commissioners Tuesday morning.
“2018 was a good fire year depending on your perspective, and 2018 was a bad fire year depending on your perspective,” Bournazian said.
False Alarm Calls Decrease in 2018
In 2016, Bournazian worked with the state to acquire a new and better reporting system so the county fire department can keep better and more accurate records of their calls. With the new reporting system, Bournazian has been able to collect factual data regarding the types of calls the fire department receives.
In both 2017 and 2018, the call volume was about the same with 108 calls in 2017 and 107 calls in 2018. However, actual fire calls “dramatically increased” while false alarms and good Samaritan-type calls decreased in 2018, according to Bournazian.
The fire warden cites fuel and climate as the reason for an increase in fire calls.
As for the decrease in false alarms, he said dispatch protocols and better communication among the county’s fire departments have allowed them to operate more efficiently. This is a success, as the fire department is not having to respond to calls that are unwarranted.
“My goal has always been to reduce the amount of false alarms that we have to respond to,” Bournazian said.
The most significant fire in the county in 2018 was the Laney Rim fire, which burned 13,000 acres of wildland.
“That’s the largest wildland fire we’ve had since I’ve been here, for four years,” Bournazian said of the Laney Rim fire.
The fire started on BLM land, and only burned 160 acres of private land.
The suppression costs have not been finalized yet for this fire, and with the government shutdown, they probably won’t be finalized until spring. However, the estimated suppression cost is about $1.3 million.
The BLM will cover the majority of the cost. The county fire department will only be billed for one percent of the acreage of the fire.
The suppression costs are then weighed against the fire department’s ability and what they provided to the fire.
“We put forth about $15,000 in apparatus and several thousand dollars in personnel,” Bournazian said. “That will be weighed against what we would owe.”
The Blacke Butte fire was estimated to be 3,000 to 5,000 acres. It was the second largest fire in the county in 2018.
The Black Butte fire occurred in Sweetwater County Fire District 1’s jurisdiction, so Bournazian said he did not have great numbers for the fire.
Unable to Respond to Four Fires
Bournazian said there were four fires in 2018 that the county fire department was unable to respond to.
“We ran out of people,” he said. “The BLM was out of people.”
The firefighters were tied up with the Laney Rim fire, and did not have the personnel to send to the four other fires.
“One fire did get up to 300 acres and took four days to put out. Luckily for us, that fire started on BLM land,” Bournazian said.
The Sweetwater County Fire Department played the role of “good neighbor” this fire season, according to Bournazian.
The county fire department is responsible for approximately 7,000 square miles of unincorporated areas in Sweetwater County that they provide wildland fire assistance to.
However, when a fire is outside the definition of wildland fires, or is outside their 7,000 square miles of land, the county fire department will provide mutual aid.
Depending on the apparatus and experience needed, they will provide assistance and support to other departments and districts, and those departments and districts will aid the county fire department when needed.
The county fire department responded to six fires outside of the county, including fires in Platte County, Laramie County, and in Utah, in which they kept the fire from burning into Sweetwater County.
Most notably, they provided responses to the Roosevelt fire in Sublette County, in which 55 homes were lost.
The fire department also helped put out a landfill fire in Manila, Utah, in Daggett County. Bournazian said Manila didn’t have the resources or apparatus so the county fire department took the lead.
The Green River Fire Department as well as the Granger Fire Department helped extinguish the fire. This fire was the first landfill fire the county fire department had ever responded to.
Working with Red Cross to Install Smoke Alarms
In 2018, the Sweetwater County Fire Department developed a rapport with American Red Cross of Wyoming and participated in their smoke detector campaign, Sound the Alarm.
Along with the Rock Springs Fire Department and the Sweetwater County Fire District 1, the county fire department helped install over 200 smoke alarms in Sweetwater County, at no cost to the community.
“That was a really positive experience for us,” Bournazian said.
Developing a Wildland Program for the City of Rock Springs
A couple years ago, the City of Rock Springs showed interest in starting a wildland fire program for the city’s fire department. Bournazian said the county fire department took the lead with that and worked with RSFD to build a wildland fire response program with their wildland firetruck.
They finished the training process in 2018, and the city’s wildland fire unit were able to assist on four fires outside of the county on a national response basis. Bournazian noted that they are also another asset to the county and the county’s fire department, so it’s a big success for the county.
Costs and Revenue
All the fires the Sweetwater County Fire Department were billed for in 2018 have been paid, and they generated about $95,000 in revenue. That money comes back to the county.
Roughly $15,000 of that revenue was reimbursement for payroll and insurance costs. About $5,000 was reimbursement for travel expenses. Also, about $40,000 was generated in the use of equipment. The fire department charges an hourly rate for the use of equipment.
However, the fire season had a big impact on the department’s budget, with about 97 percent of their equipment management budget depleted.
The fire department went through several tires in 2018, and the Roosevelt caused some damage to their equipment. During the Roosevelt fire, temperatures were below freezing, which caused a pump to freeze up, valves to crack, and other damages.
Bournazian also said that the department spent a lot of their budget towards fuel, simply because of the large amount of travel they had to do when responding to fires.
An Exhausting Fire Season
Bournazian said fires in 2018 started in February, increased in March, and lasted through November. Simply, the firefighters were exhausted by the end of the year.
“We need to look at how we’re doing business. We can’t stretch our folks to the level that we did,” Bournazian said.
The fire department ended up “relying heavily” on other departments to help, despite the other departments having the same issue.
“They’re being stretched [too]. Luckily, they have better numbers than we do. They have more personnel,” Bournazian said.
Nationally, over 120,000 firefighters have quit the profession. The number of volunteer firefighters has been decreasing for a while and continue to do so. Bournazian noted that the BLM was never fully staffed for the entirety of 2018.
“Recruitment is big. It’s really big. We got to have a reason to bring people here,” he said.
Bournazian said he is proud of what the department accomplished in 2018 and is excited to see what the future holds.