Firemen Battle Teton Dam Flood
When the 310-foot-high Teton Dam burst June 5, it unleased a 15-foot wall of water and routed the Rexburg, Idaho, Fire Department from its quarters for several weeks.
This didn’t put the department out of business. In fact, the six paid fire fighters and 20 volunteers serving the community of 10,000 worked for 46 hours without a break and spent six days in wet turnout gear.
The gravest fire hazard was caused when bulk oil tanks ruptured, spewing flames 30 feet into the air while floating out of reach of fire streams.
More than $1 billion damage was reported as a result of the flood and fires. Rexburg was hardest hit with nearly 5000 residents displaced and the entire business section inundated.
Fire station flooded
Chief Gary Owens, a 21-year veteran of the fire service, offered the following account of his department’s efforts during the flood disaster:
“At the first report of the dam burst (11:30 a.m.) we started blowing the big siren on the fire station and continued blowing it until just before the water came into town …. It burned out.
“As the water came into town, we moved our three pumpers and a vantype equipment truck to high ground three blocks south of the fire station. We also took the base station and a walkie-talkie. Headquarters for all relief agencies was established at the Army Reserve building, which is on a hill overlooking Rexburg. We were there for two weeks, operating out of the parking lot and leaving the rigs in the rain, wind, and even snow,” Owens continued.
“Lou Benedick of the Idaho Public Lands Department offered assistance with three helicopters and we made aerial water drops until dark, attempting to extinguish fires.
Gasoline tank burns
“Water reached the Hoff Lumber Mill about 3 p.m., floating logs and burning debris from the burners into the Conoco bulk plant, rupturing and igniting a 15,000-gallon gasoline tank, which set fire to other tanks. Another large storage tank floated onto the railroad tracks and burned through a hole in the top as it floated around.
“A tank with 15,000 gallons of gasoline was leaking but not on fire. At one end of this tank, there was a pothole in the ground with 2 feet of gas in it. We tried dropping water and detergent on the tank to slow the leak and create a film. By using bars of soap on the seams, we slowed the leak even more,” related the chief as he recalled the first hectic hours of the flood.
Even though one tank didn’t burn, things weren’t in the clear yet. Fire floated from the burning Conoco bulk plant to the Chevron plant, where three upright tanks with a total of 40,000 gallons of gasoline all ignited. Logs from the saw mill were also involved in fire at the bases of the tanks.
Burning logs spread fire
Fires quickly broke out in the bulk plants, ignited by floating burning logs. Transformers at the Utah Power and Light storage lot were so hot the oil burned, causing more small fires.
Rexburg was a gigantic lake for nearly 24 hours, making it impossible for any of the fire apparatus to reach most areas of town.
“After the water went down we rolled on a house fire, but the old log house was a total loss by the time we could get near,” Owens recalled. “The water was so deep, even then it came in the cab of our American LaFrance Pioneer diesel.”
It was nearly 12 hours after the flood hit before fire fighters were able to get near the bulk plant fire, which was out of control, lighting the sky and casting eerie reflections across the flooded city. Fire fighters used 1 ½ -inch lines from two pumpers and had to haul water to the fire even though water was 2 feet deep around the fire-because the flood water was covered with gasoline and oil.
Proud of his men
“In some places, the water was waist deep and covered with oil. The men fighting that fire showed more courage than could be expected from any group of men. I am very proud of them,” said Owens.
Owens said everyone worked 46 hours wit hout a break and then took off only three or four hours a day for nearly a week.
After getting fires controlled at the hulk plants, fire fighters went about the task of shutt ing off LP gas tanks. Two or three men per truck patroled the city, shutting off the gas, especially at trailer courts where five or six tanks were leaking at a time.
All photos by the author
After the fire danger had eased, fire fighters began warning people against burning debris containing toxic chemicals or explosives.
Lack of dry clothing
Owens said the lack of extra turnout gear for a change of clothing caused the most discomfort. He also noted that hose was lost off the racks at the station when it was flooded with 6 feet of water.
A number of house trailers are now being moved into Rexburg, creating added fire danger, according to Owens. He said no records were kept during the first three days of the flood.
“We manned the rigs continuously and responded from one call to another,” explained the chief, who added with a note of humor, “The two new men I had at the start are very experienced now.”
Rexburg is 95 percent Mormon and the church played an instrumental role in disaster relief efforts. The various congregations, known as wards, helped each other move out of the flood water path and salvage belongings.
Emergency food used
The church teaches its members to store a year’s supply of food in case of disaster. The teaching paid off because those who were not flooded were able to feed the flood victims. Dorms at Ricks College provided emergency housing and the cafeteria served meals continuously.
The Idaho National Guard was mobilized within an hour of the dam collapse and by 3 p.m., 13 helicopters were in the area after a 250-mile flight from Boise.
Only 10 persons died as a result of the flood. One was a suicide and another died from an accidental, self-inflicted, gun shot wound.
Rexburg is still cleaning up from the flood and many officials say it will be years before things get back to normal. The cause of the dam collapse is officially still unknown, but most agree it was a human failure in construction, design, or operation. The area back of the dam was being filled for the first time.