Article Archive
Up from the Ashes
Louisiana airport quickly recovers from firehouse blaze
Volume 24, No. 5

A fire chief expects some good natured ribbing from colleagues if any of the three following structures burn within the chief's jurisdiction -- the mayor's house, the chief's house or, worst of all, the fire house.

On June 16, 2009, Fire Chief Charlene Miller of the Chennault International Airport's Fire and Rescue Department in Lake Charles, LA, lost the fire house and one of the airport crash trucks to fire. Two other airport crash trucks sustained heavy damage.

"I haven't been out in public a whole lot since it happened, but I'm sure when I get to the fire chief's meeting tonight and the mutual aid meeting next week I'll hear about it a lot," Miller said.

Jokesters beware! The same set of circumstances that befell Miller could happen to any department. Thankfully, some fast action by the chief, city fire department and Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP) together with ample mutual aid support helped turn the situation into a success story that allowed the airport to continue uninterrupted operations.

Formerly known as Chennault Air Force Base, the 1,310-acre Chennault International Airport east of Lake Charles, LA, provides no commercial air services. Instead, the fully operational airport serves as an industrial center for high dollar tenants such as Northrop Grumman and Aeroframe Services.

"Our airport is unique in that we work on very large aircraft, often doing high tech projects," Miller said.

With the fire department unable to meet Federal Aviation Administration standards, Chennault International could have been subject to an FAA notice that would have made landing an unacceptable option for most pilots. Fortunately, that notice was never issued. Within 10 hours, full fire protection had been restored to the airport, Miller said.

Prior to August 2003, the Chennault firefighters had been housed in a three-bay renovated mechanics shop dating from World War II. To provide living quarters, one of the bays had been closed in, Miller said.

"They added a canopy on the front because our apparatus would not fit in the existing bays," she said. "It was all very makeshift."

Then came the new fire station, a brick and mortar structure with four bays adequate for the department's equipment. In addition to the apparatus bay, the station had offices, living quarters, an exercise room, training room, a large dayroom, kitchen and three bathrooms.

"We were so proud of it," Miller said.

Four WSI, Inc. contract firefighters were on duty at the station the night of the fire. At 1:55 a.m. on June 16, an alarm woke Capt. Michael Boutte. Jumping out of bed to check the alarm panel, Boutte and another firefighter noticed the smell of smoke.

"Their first thought was that it may be the clothes dryer on fire," Miller said. "While the captain ran to the alarm panel, the firefighter went to check the dryer. Then they realized the smoke was entering the living quarters from the apparatus bay."

Amazingly, one of the firefighters slept through the alarm and had to be awakened. When the crew checked the smoke filled apparatus bay, they found one of the three fire trucks parked inside ablaze. The source of the fire was later traced to a rear compartment where the pre-heaters and batteries were located.

Boutte called the Lake Charles Fire Department for help. Having exited the station, the crew only had access to one set of bunker gear kept in a pickup truck outside. A firefighter quickly donned the gear in hopes of rescuing the other trucks from the station.

"The door to the third bay had been left open just enough that the truck in it could be pulled out," Miller said. "The firefighter jumped inside but the smoke was so thick he had to feel around to start it. The engine was starving for air and he had the accelerator all the way to the floor."

Driving blind, the firefighter had to rely on instructions from the others once he got the truck started.

"The smoke was so thick he didn't realize he had cleared the bay," Miller said.

Once the truck was outside the station, the firefighters pulled the preconnect fire hose and began battling the blaze. Already shorthanded, the crew had to dispatch one firefighter to open a locked gate for the arriving municipal firefighters.

With municipal help, the firefighters extinguished the fire in about an hour. The crucial issue now became keeping the airport open and operating.

"We had customers that wanted to fly that day," Miller said. "They all had certain regulations for fire protection regarding amount of water available and number of fire trucks on hand."

Again, Lake Charles firefighters came to the rescue.

"Captain Rhorer with the Lake Charles Fire Department helped me coordinate the water supply for the flight requirement for that day," Miller said. "They had a supertanker that carries 4,500 gallons of water, but it is a 16-speed truck."

Lake Charles supplied crews to staff the supertanker and other tankers placed on standby at Chennault. Still short of the required amount of water on hand, the city supplied two pumper/tankers with dump tanks.

With water taken care of, the concern turned to foam. Next, contacts were made to the Lake Charles Regional Airport, which handles the commercial traffic for the area. The regional airport's fire chief soon arrived with a 1,000 gallon capacity fire truck that could produce foam.

"Our requirement is that we have to have three vehicles that are capable of producing foam," Miller said. "The OEP called in Vinton Fire Chief Jerry Merchant, who had worked in local industry. He had contacts with the Citgo refinery and soon after a foam pumper was on-site.

Both the city and Citgo provided training to the airport firefighters on how to take over operation of the equipment as soon as possible.

Through state officials, Miller learned that Ferrara Fire Apparatus in Holden, LA, near Baton Rouge, had recently taken a 1978 model ARFF truck with a 1,000-gallon capacity as a trade in deal. That truck became the third foam vehicle needed to keep Chennault open.

"We named it Oscar," Miller said. "We now have quite a menagerie of equipment here."

However, none of the trucks had dry chemical capability. To meet that requirement, S & S Sprinkler Company loaned Chennault wheeled units that were loaded onto a utility trailer hauled by a dually pickup truck.

Local cooperation did not end there. A local hospital loaned Chennault a mass casualty trailer as a temporary replacement for one damaged in the fire. Others offered trailers where the now homeless firefighters could sleep during their duty shifts.

Not wanting to abuse the endless mutual aid generosity, the Chennault International Airport Authority contacted Crash Rescue Equipment Service, Inc. at the opening of business that morning. Three days later Chennault took delivery on the first of three leased ARFF vehicles. A second vehicle arrived the next day, followed by a third three days later.

"As each truck came in, we started releasing the borrowed equipment," Miller said. "Mutual aid had been great, but we couldn't wear out our welcome. We were tying up other people's personnel and equipment."

Nobody pre-plans a fire in their own station. Beyond that, nobody pre-plans how to cover its obligations if a fire house and equipment are lost. But the fire service stands as a community. After the Chennault fire, that community came together to help members in dire need.

"For two days my phone did not leave my ear because everyone was calling and offering," Miller said. "People were great. Everybody was calling to offer whatever we needed."

 
 

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