Forest Fire Experiment Station staff builds on firefighting history to better protect Michigan
April 10, 2014
What do you do when you need a tool or piece of equipment to complete a task but can't find an appropriate model on the market? If you're the Department of Natural Resources' Forest Resources Division, you make it yourself.
That's been the practice of the Forest Resources Division for more than eight decades, when Michigan's Forest Fire Experiment Station (FFES) near Roscommon was founded in 1929.
The Forest Fire Experiment Station started as a cooperative venture between the Michigan Department of Conservation and the USDA Forest Service, one of the first such facilities in the nation. Because of the state's history of disastrous forest fires - including an 1871 fire that killed more than 200 people and reduced eight towns to ash - the facility was established to assist the Forest Resources Division's efforts to find new and better ways to help manage forest fires.
The facility maintains a full-scale fabricating shop that builds everything from fireline plows to wildland fire engines that suit the state's needs but are unavailable for purchase.
The FFES recently completed building a new wildland fire engine, beginning with a commercially available truck chassis. The vehicle is ready to be put in the field as the upcoming fire season approaches. The truck was designed and built by DNR personnel at the station - a staff that includes an engineer, machinist, welder, mechanic, draftsman and a secretary. The station enlists the help of local fire officers during the winter months, too.
"We can typically build one or two vehicles a year," explained Dan Munn, acting manager at the Forest Fire Experiment Station. "It takes about nine months from the receipt of the vehicle to build it. It's quite a process."
Starting with the bare chassis, the crew installs the necessary electrical and hydraulic systems to make the vehicle suitable for fighting fires. The truck is heavily armored around the fuel tank, the wheel wells and windshield so it can be safely taken off-road through the woods. The shop also builds a custom, heavy-duty bumper.
"Most larger wildland fire engines that the FFES produces could be used to push over small trees in an emergency situation," Munn said.
The frame is typically extended several feet - front and back - to make room for equipment, such as a hydraulic winch on the front and a pumping unit and hose reels on the rear. Then, after the frame rails have been lined with wood to help cushion them from the shock and friction that will be caused by having an 800-gallon water tank riding on them, the staff installs the tank, which has been built from scratch by the staff using the shop's fabricating equipment.
The result is a wildland fire engine that can handle fighting a fire while protecting the fire officers - and other DNR staff trained in fire suppression - from danger, which can appear in many forms as the trucks lumber over uneven terrain into a burning forest.
"You can't design for every contingency," Munn said. "But the design of these vehicles does a good job of capturing what our fire officers and other trained staff need in the field."
Besides building the trucks, another of the shop's main products is the Michigan Fireline Plow. The fireline plow is built and installed on each of the 125 or so crawler-tractors that the Forest Resources Division has stationed around the state.
The half-ton plow, which is designed to be hydraulically operated behind a truck or tractor to cut fire lines, produces a 6-foot-wide "firebreak" - an area free of combustible materials that prevents ground fire from spreading. In the case of large fires, the operators may create additional lines in concentric circles around the perimeter, creating an even wider firebreak.
If something breaks on a plow - or on one of the wildland fire engines' water packages - the FFES produces replacement parts and fixes the damage. The staff also continuously upgrades existing vehicles with the latest safety equipment, such as fire curtains for the crawler tractors, which can help shield operators from radiant heat.
All of the work done at the FFES requires a lot of space, and that's something the building has been lacking for years, Munn said.
The DNR has broken ground on a new FFES building. The new facility will be larger so it can handle the bigger vehicles that are being used to build wildland fire engines. In fact, some of the chassis used are so large the staff has to let the air out of the tires in order to get the vehicles into the building. The new space will facilitate the assembly process and create a smoother work flow.
Michigan's forest fire simulation team will also be housed in the new energy-efficient building. The team helps train new fire officers and other DNR staff and also helps enhance the skills of experienced fire staff by allowing them to experience virtual firefighting situations using video clips from actual forest fires as well as created scenarios.
The new FFES building is currently under construction. The building is expected to be complete by early fall.
"We're pretty excited about what this new building will mean to our ability to better prepare for fighting fires in Michigan," said Munn. "The DNR has a long, proud history of battling blazes in order to protect people, property and natural resources. This improved facility will be a very important part of helping us continue to get that job done."
For more information about the DNR's fire management program, visit www.michigan.gov/firemanagement.