Tuesday, September 1, 2015

BNSF "War Train!"

A symbiotic relationship has grown between the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and the US Forest Service, declaring "war" on the Sheep fire threatening both.

For several days now, the Sheep Fire burning near the Middle Fork Flathead River near Essex, has been taunting travelers on US Route 2 and the BNSF transcontinental line, over Marinas Pass on the Hi Line Subdivision, which includes Amtrak's "Empire Builder."

Close support has been provided to protect Essex, including the famous Izaak Walton Inn. Fire crews have come a long distance, like this Arizona Hot Shot crew, to protect Essex. The explosive placard — "1.4 EXPLOSIVE  F" — on both vehicles, required further investigation on my part. "Inquiring minds "need to know!  Who better to contact than the Washington State Fire Marshall's office in Olympia.

This from Scott at the State Fire Marshals office: "Usually the type of equipment carried using this type of markings would be for signal flare guns carried on the vehicle for the purpose of creating a burnout/backfire situation in support of fire suppression measures during a wildland fire. They are not carried on vehicles all the time, only in areas where there is remote conditions and normal ground operations would not be feasible."

As the only recognized flag stop for the Empire Builder, there is year round activity — from fly fishing on the Middle Fort Flathead  — to winter skiing, which keeps the Inn busy year round.

Because of the short — but state of the art platform, with special heating system to keep the deck snow and ice free — the Empire Builder requires multiple "stops."

Elevation, steep terrain, and near zero road access create a unique situation wherein the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) has dedicated one of the twin lines crossing the Continental Divide at Marias Pass, for the so called "War Train."

The War Train — in this example, leased by BNSF from Herzog Railroad Services —has been transporting firefighters and equipment to an area where the Sheep Creek fire has be taunting the settlement of Essex, railroad support infrastructure, and the World Class Izaak Walton Inn, home of Great Northern 441 motel.

Last week, an "elevated" (read "recommended") evacuation order was posted on the structures where ~58 full times residents live.  Many work for BNSF; others at the Izaak Walton Inn, while still others are involved in the very active recreational activities along the Middle Fork, Flathead River.

"Rocky, " the Great Northern Goat, traces his family tree back to this area of Montana!

The press release stated that US Route 2 was reopened, but scant information about rail operations on the Hi Line. So reached out to Justin Franz, a frequent Trains magazine contributor, who helped me sort out what I could not find out from BNSF.

"Hey Robert, Here's what I know: They are running trains when it is safe to do so, including Amtrak. On Thursday and Friday that meant they would run late at night and early in the morning until the fire flared up in the afternoon then they would shut it down again. 

From what I've heard, every train has to get a Form B from someone on the ground before going through, so they can basically shut it down at a moments notice. 

Also, one track has been reserved exclusively for fire work (fire train, work train, hi-rails etc.). Haven't heard that bit about them holding oil trains, what I can say from my own observations is that they are still running empty oil trains east. Saw two within an hour at West Glacier yesterday. Hope this helps, Justin"

In addition to announcing the lifting of the modified evacuation order of Essex, the Monday mornings situation report  included:

1. The re-opening of US Route 2 and resumption of train travel.

"U.S. Route 2 reopened at 6 a.m. today, (Monday)with pilot cars escorting traffic between mileposts 176.5 at Schellinger and 185 at Bear Creek. Escorted vehicles are not allowed to stop in this area. BNSF trains and Amtrak are running intermittently."(from "Daily Fact Sheet)

2. Construction of shaded fuelbreaks.

A "Shaded Fuelbreak" is defined as "A strip of land where trees, brush, dead branches, or downed logs have been cleared to slow the advance of a fire."

To protect the BNSF lines, the forest service dispatched "War Trains," this one included a couple of Feller-Bunchers, and a large logging Cat to clear "Shaded Fuelbreaks," along the BNSF rights of way.

Creating Shaded Fuelbreaks involve removal of small caliber scrub brush and small trees, leaving behind larger trees with full crowns, or tops, providing shade, and potential life saving refuges for firefighters.

Here be an interesting monograph on Shaded Fuelbreaks, and here be a demonstration of a Feller-Buncher creating a fuel break. Interestingly, timber harvested from a shaded fuel break is often sold — "Waste not; want not."

Work train on the dedicated "War Train" line, picking up timber harvested by the timber processors.

"Shaded Fuelbreaks" are often confused with "firebreak." Fire break is removal of all combustibles, by hand or bulldozer, down to bare soil,or occur naturally, such as barren soil, streams, rivers, roads.

3.  Structural protection measures.

This can be as basic as physically removing combustible material away from structures, protecting structures with fire streams, applying an aquas film forming foam, such as Aquas Film Forming Foams (AFFF.) Smothering foams have been around since the early 1900's.

AFFF rely on proteins to stick to the surface and form a barrier that deprives a fire of oxygen.  The tricky part is not to disrupt the film. If if is breached, oxygen re-ignites the fire.

Most recently, by wrapping structures with an thermal blanket made with aluminum. From what I have been able to ascertain, wrapping structures has been dabbled with since the late 1990's.

Combination of structural wrapping and installation of sprinklers, fed by portable water pumps installed in a near by water source.

Both Sheep Creek and Java Creek railroad trestles have been fitted with sprinkler systems.

Crews spent several days installing and testing the sprinkler systems, fed by gasoline pumps, sucking water from their respective stream beds below.

Conversation Starters.  Mix your favorite cocktail and join in the conversation. Let your views be heard!

Conversation starter Number 1: "Is it possible that structural protection measures can be taken to the extreme?"

Conversation starter Number 2:  "What crew position is this firefighter assuming, and in what equipment?"

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