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Fire chiefs highlight importance of safety after weekend fire in Helena Valley

Posted at 7:22 PM, May 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-12 15:50:16-04

HELENA — Local fire chiefs say a weekend structure fire in the Helena Valley showed the importance of safety precautions, after one firefighter received minor burns.

On Sunday, the West Valley and Lewis and Clark County Volunteer Fire Departments responded to an outbuilding on fire. West Valley Chief Jerry Shepherd said the fire started in a chicken coop before spreading to the building, which was used as a shop.

Shepherd said, while firefighters were putting out hot spots, one kicked a large barrel, which turned out to be full of oil. The oil splashed onto the firefighter and caught fire.

“It just ignited,” said Shepherd. “Thank god it was just for a second.”

Lewis and Clark County Chief Wally Jester said he spoke to the firefighter Monday and found he received only minor burns.

“Because he was fully turned out, right down to the breathing apparatus – he’s in the hot zone, we require them to wear them – so he was protected,” he said.

Jester and Shepherd give some of the credit for that to a new type of helmet their departments have been using. About a year ago, they invested in new, “European-style” helmets, which look more like motorcycle helmets than the traditional fire helmet.

Shepherd said it was a “hard sell” to convince his firefighters to make the switch, but he believes this case shows what having some extra coverage can mean.

“The mask he had on was full of oil, the helmet is full of oil,” he said. “Just having that extra protection, I believe, helped.”

Firefighters also reported some ammunition had been inside the building and was going off. Jester said one of his assistant chiefs found one of the spent casings inside his turnouts when taking them off to be cleaned.

In recent years, West Valley and Lewis and Clark County – which have worked as partner departments for several years – have put extra effort into training for structure fires. They set up training buildings at the West Valley fire station on North Montana Avenue. One is fitted with a pipe to pump in smoke, so firefighters can practice working in dark, smoky conditions. They also have outdoor storage containers where they can actually burn wood to create a realistic fire.

“They’re able to get into the fire, get into the heat and feel it, understand it,” said Shepherd. “It really does hit home: You need to have all your stuff on.”

The departments were actually doing exercises there just two weeks ago.

“If you train hard, when you get on scene, you don’t have to think about it as hard – it becomes reaction,” Jester said.

Jester said, when they go on an incident like the shop fire, they set aside and fully clean any personal protective equipment they used to make sure any chemical residue is removed.