Fire Fighters Hop On Trail Bikes To Protect 6,000-Sq.-Mile Nevada Area
Chief F. W. Farr of Sparks, Nev., has a responsibility that covers 6,000 square miles. His 35 full-time firemen and a few hundred volunteers dot the map from Sparks to the Oregon state line—a distance of 150 miles.
Last August, Farr put into action a team of 18 motorcyle firemen. The idea struck Farr and his men on a hot, dusty day when they were called to put out a lightning strike.
“The temperature was touching 100 degrees,” Farr said, “and it took us 30 minutes to get our equipment to the top of a hill. While we stood there trying to catch our breath, two kids on trail bikes came racing up the side of the hill in less than half the time it took us. I knew then that motorcycles could be used to fight fires.”
The Sparks Fire Department had an advantage. A few of the firemen were already bike riders. A careful plan of study and training began. The firemen with bikes volunteered their use, and other firemen soon bought their own. The Sparks Police Department, with four highly trained motorcyclists, offered to help train and ride with the group.
Two hours a day, twice a week, were put aside for training—all on the men’s free time. One hour was spent in the classroom and one hour in the field. The policemen taught correct formation riding and riding safety. The firemen taught the policemen fire fighting techniques. In all, 80 hours of study were taken by the group before theory was put to use in the field. At this time, the group consisted of 18 members.
High, brush-covered Rattlesnake Mountain, southeast of Sparks, was used for maneuvers. The motorcycles could reach the top in half the time it took the four-wheel-drive fire fighting vehicle. The bikes scouted steep ridges looking for the best and quickest route for fire fighting equipment to take.
The men found that on level ground they could carry two 5-gallon plastic containers of water. On rough hilly terrain, the riders could carry only one 5-gallon container of water safely. This was important because sometimes a man on the fire line must run 100 to 200 yards to refill a back pack pump. Now bikes can be used to shuttle water and other equipment from the trucks to the fire line and back.
During training and on field exercises, safety precautions are always followed. Farr’s men ride and work in pairs. The importance of this was found previously because of Nevada’s grassland. The area is covered with “cheat grass.” This is a type of grass which grew up after the sagebrush was burned off and bulldozed over for housing developments. With a small tail wind, cheat grass can burn faster than a man can run. On many lightning strikes, the firemen must always be alert to avoid being boxed in a canyon or other rough terrain.
While training, it was found that the bike riders could ride through such fires safely if they had to.
For fast response to lightning strikes, snag fires (burning trees), camper fires, and search and rescue, the bikes can cover more ground than a four-wheel-drive vehicle or a horse, and 47 percent faster. This includes speedier return to the fire station to be able to respond to other fires or emergencies.
When a call is received over his home radio receiver, and a fireman rushes off on his bike, he can safely get to the designated area quicker than a fireman using his car.
The equipment found most helpful and now carried on the bikes includes a shovel, radio, burlap bag, ax, canteen, snakebite kit and emergency food ration. In addition, heat shields are being mounted on the front of the bikes. Farr hopes to get a fire-resistant blanket from the United States Forest Service to be included among the items carried by the personnel. The blanket could be used to protect a bike if a rider had to leave it in an advancing fire.
Jump suits worn
“We have to test every item,” said Don Young, “to be sure it meets our requirements and can be carried safely. To give an example, now we are wearing parachute jump suits. The suit is made of heavy material. The advantage of this material is that we are able to crash through dense bushes that could other wise tear us to pieces. This item was suggested by one of the firemen who is a parachutist.”
The Nevada countryside is dotted with abandoned mine shafts. These present a problem because adventurous people and wandering animals fall into these mines and cannot escape. Every emergency requires different or special rescue techniques and equipment. The trail bikes are able to rush to the scene and radio special instructions for a speedier rescue.
There are many different types of trail bikes on the market today. All of them are highly versatile with almost unlimited potential for fighting fires and rescue work.
Another advantage of the cycles is the low operating cost. They average about 50 miles per gallon of gasoline. The Sparks firemen have cut down on their operating expenses by using them.
Known as Hills Angels
The Sparks Fire Department motorcyclists use their own bikes and pay their expenses and repairs themselves.
Fire and police bike riders wanted a special name for the group. They decided that they would be called the Hills Angels.
“We used to ride when we were off duty for the sport of it,” Don Young remarked. “The bikes are a way to relax. Now when we train and ride across town in formation in our red uniforms, we are able to associate with young people. We couldn’t do this before. I think we found one way to help close the generation gap.”
“As in any new tool for fighting fires,” Farr stated, “it has to be tried and proven, not just a few times but over and over again. This we have done. I know the bikes can be used to save life and property—and this is my job.”