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People Making the Difference

It Could Happen to Anyone

by Mark Gorman

"It was a dark and stormy night…" Actually, it was a beautiful night in early October and my family was sitting around our dining room table singing happy birthday to our son. Together with family visiting from out of state, all of our attention was on the celebration; no one knew that less than thirty feet away, a fire on our front porch was rapidly growing and making its way towards the roof and enclosed attic. Our government-provided house at Badlands National Park was routinely inspected and was equipped with smoke detectors. Being a conscientious employee and parent, my wife and I routinely changed our smoke detector batteries and kept our main wood pile away from the house. Of course none of this was going to matter as we were about to experience our first house fire.

By the time this fire started, I had been involved in NPS structural fire program management for nearly 10 years and had been an active firefighter for the NPS and various states for much longer. I had responded to numerous fires, directed crews, and was even a fire instructor for the NPS cadre. Unfortunately, nearly all of my training went out the window this night as a fire within our very own home threatened my most cherished loved ones.

The cause of the fire was never discovered despite an investigation by the state with chemical analysis completed by the ATF. We do know that it started at or near a small wood pile we kept on the front porch under a covered walkway to keep it dry for our wood burning stove; just enough wood for one or two days. The fire quickly spread up a wooden lattice towards the enclosed front porch. Although our garage and solid wooden fence concealed the actual fire, the light from the fire was bright enough to be seen by one of our neighbors across the street that just happened to be outside enjoying the fall night. I will never forget the phone call that came next.

Upon seeing the "unusual" light from the front of our house, the park neighbor called me and asked if I was burning meat on my grill as she could see what was possibly a fire near our front door. I put the phone down and looked out the window and was shocked to see that the porch was on fire. I yelled out to my family and almost immediately my children began screaming and crying. As we rushed around trying to get everyone out of the house, our neighbors, all members of the Badlands Structural Fire Engine Company responded to the incident. Luckily they didn't forget their training and the fire was quickly brought under control and extinguished. Because the fire started outside the house and was moving into the attic, no fire alarms were activated. Our only early warning device was that of a concerned fellow employee who was not afraid to get involved and sound the alarm. Luckily no one was hurt and the damage to the house was only minor. If it hadn't been for the quick actions of the employees on the park engine company, the situation could have been much worse, as the nearest capable volunteer fire department was at least 40 minutes away.

The people of the NPS make differences every day; on this day it was not only one of their own, but also one of the park service "family." Needless to say, I never stacked wood on the front porch again.