CLB Journal

Summer 2013

In-house Fire Departments for Landowners

All large fires were once small, and a few well-placed gallons of water at the right time can make a critical difference. In response to the Labor Day 2011 wildfires in central Texas, the Browning Ranch began to develop a Drought and Wildfire Management plan to identify what actions we could take to lessen the impacts of these events. It became clear that if a wildfire were to occur on the ranch, we were under-equipped to do anything about it. Since then, we have assembled an in-house fire department for the ranch that enables us to be the first line of defense against an encroaching wildfire. I encourage all landowners to invest in simple and efficient fire-suppression equipment and the following information will describe some of the decisions, equipment, and methods we decided to use on the Browning Ranch

In the Texas Hill Country, most of us have limited water supplies that are already taxed to their maximum. Finding a suitable and reliable supply of water for fire suppression is the first step. On the Browning Ranch, we decided not to rely on a spring-fed creek for our water supply because although abundant, it often contains a lot of sediment and debris that can clog the pump at a critical time. Clean water is critical in fire suppression and should be of utmost priority for the landowner, and in my previous discussion ‘Rainwater Collection for Fire Suppression’ (Summer 2012), I go into more detail on this important issue.

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Even a water source like our spring-fed creek contains too much debris to be considered clean fire-suppression water.

Instead, we decided to install a rainwater collection system in an old hay barn that now provides 14,000 gallons of clean water. It was important to the ranch’s owner to have a significant water supply not only for the ranch, but also available to the local volunteer fire department. If rainfall is not sufficient, the tank can be filled from the creek if necessary. In a similar way, landowners could set up a water tank next to any reliable water source if they allow enough time for organic material to settle to the bottom. We were cautious not to design a water supply system that relied upon electricity, as this is often the first resource to go in wildfire situations. A float valve at the top of the tank could ensure that it is always full should the power ever go out. The importance of clean water for fire suppression cannot be overstated.

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This is our 14,000 gallon water tank inside the hay barn.

The next step is to determine how to apply the clean water during a fire. The most economical and efficient option for most landowners is a slip-in water tank for a pick-up truck. Remembering that water weighs about eight pounds per gallon, the largest, strongest truck that can maneuver off-road should be selected. We acquired a 225 gallon polypropylene skid-mounted tank and mounted it to the bed of our ranch truck. I sought the advice of Keith Blair, owner of Red Buffalo, LLC (http://www.myredbuffalo.com/), for the plumbing design and configuration.

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Here is the spray rig.with the engine and pump at lower left; hose reel at lower right; suction and knock-down hoses stored on top of the tank; and mounted on a one-ton four-wheel drive vehicle.

There are two manifolds on the spray rig: a suction manifold and a discharge manifold. The suction manifold can pull water from the tank or through a suction hose. The suction hose that we used to fill from the creek can also be used to draw from the rainwater tank. The discharge manifold provides water to either the hose reel or the ‘knock-down’ valve. The hose reel stores 150 feet of three-quarter inch hose with a nozzle gun at the end.

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The discharge manifold is located in the center of the image and includes the three yellow-handled valves and the short red connector hose. The suction manifold is located in the bottom center of the image and includes the brass valve, short black connector hose, and the fill line running off the bottom of the image. By adjusting the valves on the discharge manifold, we can divert the water to the hose reel, knock down valve, and/or back into the tank.

The ‘knock-down’ valve provides water to a one and a half inch hose that is long enough to reach to the front of the vehicle. This hose is intended as a last resort to ‘knock-down’ an approaching fire and protect the truck and equipment.

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The knock-down valve is right of center in the image pointing at you. This valve and accompanying hose distributes large volumes of water with considerable force.

Engine and pump selection is an important decision and it is not recommended that any short-cuts be taken here. With our configuration, we can displace soil - the best measure of performance - at over seventy feet. In the truck box, we keep extra hose material and hose repair tools, tools for working on the pump, and extra fuel for the pump.

When fully loaded, our ranch truck is an all-terrain brush truck that can deliver 220 gallons of water to the fire. If we were to hold down the trigger on the nozzle gun until the tank ran dry, it would last around fifteen minutes. My experience is that 200 gallons of water will provide about forty-five minutes of working time. Many ranchers and farmers in the area use chemical spray rigs for fire suppression. This is typically a metal tank mounted on an axle that can be towed by a truck or tractor. I have used these in the past with success, however have found them to be more prone to mechanical failure, weak on power, and much more difficult to maneuver off-road.

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Here is a picture from a neighboring ranch that uses cattle sprayers for fire suppression.

With the issues of water supply and water distribution covered, the next step was to decide how to transport the water around the ranch. The forty-five minutes provided by one load in the spray rig can often be enough to suppress the fire and re-filling would not be needed. Sometimes, though, that’s not the case. To reduce the risk of losing critical time by having to refill the spray-rig from remote areas of the ranch, we decided to purchase a 1,025 gallon horizontal water tank and mounted it inside of an old livestock trailer.

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Here is the water wagon being filled from the rainwater tank, which is inside the barn.

We also stocked the trailer with extra basic equipment like a supply box that contains firefighting clothing and a backpack sprayer. At the back of the trailer, we mounted a water jug, first aid kit, and tool box. Along the sides, we mounted our flappers, rakes, and fire axes. When fully loaded, this water wagon has expanded our fire-fighting capacity to over three hours without stopping to refill.

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This is the rear of the water wagon where the water jug, tool box, and first aid kit are mounted in place.

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This is the storage box inside the front of the trailer where we store the back-pack sparyer, NOMEX fire clothing, goggles, etc.

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On the sides of the water wagon, we store our shovels, flappers, axes, and drip torch.

The need for spray rigs and water wagons exists only if there is someone on-site willing to put these tools to use. When there is no one on-site, rainwater collected for fire suppression and made available to local fire departments can be an important resource that the landowner can often easily provide.

Altogether, the Browning Ranch now has three self-contained systems for addressing fire suppression. Like everything else, these systems require maintenance and monitoring, such as pump maintenance and hose care. After careful research and planning, the Browning Ranch is as prepared as possible for wildfires, and grateful for each day when it is not needed.

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Wildflowers at sunrise