Grand Forks firefighters in demand worldwide for flood-fire experience

GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) — It was an unforgettable sight: fire sweeping through 11 downtown buildings in a flooded city. For a time, firefighters seemed helpless against one disaster on top of another.
“I would not want to do it again, but you either grow a little or you die a little,” Deputy Fire Chief Peter O’Neill, a 25-year veteran firefighter, says now.
The Grand Forks Fire Department has done a lot of growing since battling a major fire in waist-deep, freezing floodwaters last April.
Since then, the department has been sharing its unique experience with firefighters and emergency personnel from as far away as Tokyo.
They want to know “what worked for us, what didn’t work for us,” said Mike Flermoren, the department’s training officer.
Emergency workers are eager to hear from the Grand Forks firefighters because a major-structure fire in floodwaters is unheard of in modern times, said Connie Leicher, coordinator of an annual emergency response seminar in Iowa.
“They just never had the same two elements put together as they had in Grand Forks,” Leicher said.
The Grand Forks fire broke out in a downtown building on the afternoon of April 19, 1997, during a flood that engulfed about three-quarters of the city. Eleven downtown buildings in three separate blocks were destroyed or severely damaged by the time the fire was extinguished early the next day.
“The water was so cold, our people were so challenged, I guess that’s why we’re so proud … despite the fact that we lost 11 buildings,” O’Neill said.
Firefighters had to battle about 4 feet of icy, grimy, swift river water with no operating fire hydrants. But first, they had to evacuate by boat dozens of people who had disregarded evacuation orders earlier.
There was plenty of river water flowing in the streets, but it was so deep that it clogged fire-truck engines that powered pumps to suck the water into fire hoses.
“We never sat down and discussed how we were going to get our equipment into 5-foot-deep flood waters,” O’Neill said.
Unable to fight the fire from the ground, a small helicopter with a water bucket and an airplane used to fight forest fires were called in. The helicopter dumped water from the air, while the airplane dropped fire retardant. That worked well until the aerial attack had to be stopped because of darkness.
Two huge airport crash trucks, able to pump river water from the street without damaging their engines, joined in the fight and helped check the fire’s advance.
“But even with those folks, early on it was a nightmare at best,” O’Neill said.
At the suggestion of colleagues in Fargo, firefighters drove fire trucks onto flatbed trailers and hauled them piggyback into the fray. That made the difference, helping them pour 7,500 gallons of river water a minute onto the fire.
The fire cost the department about $1 million in damaged equipment, labor and other expenses. But no one died.