Space-Age Brush Fire Brigade

Space-Age Brush Fire Brigade

Aerial view of United Technology’s Coyote, Calif., test center, showing the isolated rural location. Wide dispersal of buildings and test sites over almost 9 square miles gives deceptive idea of the activity going on here. Foreground arrow shows Inert Area; right arrow, Solid Fuel Area; left arrow, Chemical Processing; center background arrow, Liquid Fuel Area

BRUSH FIRES, not rocket fuels, are the biggest fire protection headache of United Technology Corporation’s test center. On 5,200 acres of Northern California’s rolling grassy foothills, the company, a division of United Aircraft, is spending millions expanding its facilities for testing solid and liquid-fueled rocket motors that may put a man on the moon. In this sprawling space-age complex of mysterious chemical processes, where 5,000° flames light the sky and shake the ground, common brush blazes pose a serious problem.

“It’s true,” says G. G. Stensler, UTC’s supervisor of plant protection for the huge test center at Coyote, 18 miles southeast of San Jose. “Our biggest worry is grass fires coming into our property from the surrounding country, where there are no firebreaks to protect us.”

To meet the hazard, UTC has its own highly organized Auxiliary Defense Corps of volunteer fire fighters comprising 10 per cent of its owm work force. Grouped in five-man teams, each with its own leader and assistant, these volunteers total 85 on the first shift, 40 on the second, and a third shift in the near future will add another 40.

In accepting volunteers for the ADC, consideration is given to previous fire fighting training. Some of the men have attended as many as six military fire fighting schools. All receive an initial eight hours of intensive training when they join the volunteer brigade. This initial session (available twice a week for new men) includes lighting and extinguishing various types of fires, operation of all kinds of fire fighting appliances and first aid. Refresher courses are given every three months. When a man transfers or leaves the company, it is the responsibility of his supervisor to replace him on the ADC team and maintain it at full strength. Each ADC member has a special badge giving him free access to all test areas.

UTC’s volunteer brush fire fighters fighting a major blaze in September 1961. Fire started outside company boundaries in area where grass had grown high after stoppage of grazing

—All photos courtesy United Technology Corporation

Brush fire problem

The three-year-old facility is divided into four built-up areas occupying 3,600 acres altogether: The Inert Area, where no actual testing is conducted, including all the headquarters buildings; Chemical Processing where rocket motor fuels are compounded and stored; the Solid Fuel rocket motor test area; and the Liquid Fuel area.

All of these areas occupy grass and brush-covered hills and valleys once used as grazing land. Throughout California’s dry summer, usually JulyOctober, the whole countryside is just so much tinder. So it’s not surprising to hear Gus Stensler say, “When this place got going three years ago, the guards and the firemen were the first people in. We put up a 5,000-gallon wooden water tank as stop-gap protection for it.”

Since then there’s been quite an improvement. To slice up the acreage into units of manageable size, as well as to isolate certain critical test sites, UTC has cut 30 miles of 30-foot firebreaks in and around its Coyote property. We have to recut all of them every year,” says Stensler. “Then as soon as it’s dry enough, maybe by June,” he goes on, “we start burning off areas inside the breaks. Every year we schedule a tremendous number of these controlled bums. They give the fellows good practice, and add that much more to our protection.”

Paid department

There is a paid fire department at UTC, as well as a medical department complete with ambulance. A 12-man force under Lieutenant Laurence Lloyd operates out of a fire station in the Inert Area, using a 750-gpm triple combination pumper carrying 500 gallons of water, a four-wheel-drive pickup. and a high-pressure-fog trailer pump with 200-gallon tank. A minimum of two men are on duty in the firehouse at all times.

Water supply

Water system for the entire facility is self-contained. Its major storage is 5,000,000 gallons in a natural underground limestone basin at the eastern edge of the property. This is kept filled. From it a set of pumps supply a 22-mile network of 6, 8 and 10-inch mains and yard hydrants.

Pressure on the system varies from 115 to 150 psi (static). On strategically located hilltops are several 100,000 and 200,000-gallon tanks maintaining a constant gravity head on the system. A large illuminated panel in the firehouse displays the condition of the water supply at a glance. Level gages record water level in the hilltop reservoirs; loss of water, or pump failure all activate a local siren alarm calling immediate attention to the trouble location shown on the monitoring board. Seventeen of the UTC buildings are sprinklered, and all of the many individual test sites are equipped with deluge or water flood systems.

All that doesn’t help a man on a brush fire line too much, though. For that purpose, there are a dozen major caches of rakes, shovels, wire brooms, and similar tools scattered throughout the areas in “fire chests.” One hundred and fifty back pumps are on hand. During the summer fire season, quantities of 50-gallon water drums are kept filled along the firebreaks so men on the lines can refill their back pumps without leaving the vicinity.


Scattered throughout the Coyote facility are 20 fire reporting phones on marked poles. These communicate directly with a red telephone handset in the main guard station. When the dispatcher gets the nature and location of the fire, he cuts in another “hot line” phone and flips one or more keys on a second switchboard. These put him instantly in direct contact with ADC supervisors in any or all test areas, as selected by the switchboard keys. This direct phone line also reaches the firehouse and medical department. From the main guard station, the dispatcher can also override and take over a local public address system reaching many sites, which is on the line at all times.

Because the ADC men also handle necessary civil defense duties, the main guard station has a Conelrad monitoring receiver on the air 24 hours a day. Should any emergency prove too big for local forces, a transceiver on Fire Frequency 2 of the county-wide fire disaster net can be used to call in the full eight-station resources of the Santa Clara County Central Fire District. A second transceiver ties in the other UTC guard stations as well as UTC’s mobile equipment including the pumper.

If this should fail, a portable transmitter on the citizens’ band is on hand to back up the other communications nets. Handie-talkies are stored at all guard stations, extra sets being available during the fire season. There’s also a stock of powered megaphones for passing the word among the volunteer crews.

When the alarm reaches local supervision, fire teams are quickly alerted and muster at the area guard station. “We have plenty of company vehicles in all areas. We can also commandeer any private vehicles, though we don’t usually have to,” says Stensler.

Fire prevention

Last but not least in the UTC success story are: The fire-conscious attitude of all the employees—not just those in the ADC—and the extreme emphasis on fire prevention. Smoking is rigidly controlled. Electric lighters are provided in designated smoking areas, and when going beyond the Inert Area all persons must surrender matches, cigarettes, or any other flame-producing devices to the guards. Even auto cigarette lighters must be removed and turned in. Welding operations require special fire department permits and inspection. The 20odd miles of access roads on the property are patrolled 24 hours a day by two trucks assigned to no other task.

Result: Just three major grass fires so far, including one all hands worker in September 1961 which covered 600 acres. In a more recent blaze origiating outside UTC boundaries, testfacility property was not involved at all, but the ADC moved in and held the fire until State Forestry crews arrived.

No posts to display