July and August 2006



Sawmill Fire Sparks an Interest in Fire Brigade

Bennett Lumber Products, Princeton, Idaho

By Barbara Coyner

Anyone in the sawmill industry knows fire can torch up at any minute, even in the most efficient of mills. As Brett Bennett watched a blaze threaten part of the sawmill at Bennett Lumber Products ten years ago, he figured it made sense to have a complete fire attack squad right at the Princeton, Idaho mill. In no time, he rounded up nine willing employees, got the required 40-hour training and equipment for them, and launched a serious fire brigade. Since then, you might say the Bennett Fire Brigade has caught on like wildfire.

Brett Bennett, left, and Ed Katus, right, stand beside the he Bennett pumper truck.

Creating Firefighting Team

“When they had a grain bin fire in Potlatch some years back, I got more interested in industrial fires,” says Brett, vice president at Bennett Lumber. “That big community fire kind of sparked my interest in learning more, so I did.”

Seeing the need, Bennett immersed himself in fire training, joining the Moscow Fire Department, building up a capable firefighting force of over 35 men and women at the mill, and acquiring a stable of firefighting equipment that’s the envy of many small towns. Low-key about his personal contributions, Brett credits loyal Bennett employees as the driving force behind brigade accomplishments.

As for the equipment roster, it now includes a “pump and roll” engine, a structure tender, and a regular tender, not to mention miles and miles of hose, proper firefighting suits, air packs, lights, and even a collection of MREs, the portable cuisine of firefighters everywhere. Among other aids are four portable engines mounted on trailers, as well as huge 2,000- and 4,000- gallon water bladders called “pumpkins,” which allow firefighters to transfer water from engines to mount prolonged attacks against fires. With two dozers and trained operators, the department is thoroughly versed in both wildland and structure firefighting.

Fighting Fires

“We go anywhere adjacent to our timberlands,” says Brett, adding that the brigade also cooperates with Idaho Department of Lands (IDL), as well as fire departments at Moscow and Potlatch.

Ed Katus, Bennett’s shop supervisor and Brett’s right hand man, takes his firefighting as seriously as Brett does. Because Brett also serves as a battalion chief for the Moscow Fire Department, he often looks to Ed to stand watch at Princeton. Ed loves the challenge and the responsibility, but, like Brett, says the brigade is all about having well-trained and efficient crewmembers who know their stuff.

“On an IDL fire, I’m usually monitoring the radio out of Coeur d’Alene and am already getting ready as the call comes in,” says Ed, a 20-year veteran at the mill. “My job is to set everything up, get details on the location, pull the crews together, and make sure the equipment is on its way. Once we’re working, my job is to make sure everyone stays safe.”

Tied to fire radios and cell phones, Brett, Ed and the rest of the Bennett team stand ready to roll at a moment’s notice. Some of the force also volunteers on the Potlatch Rural Fire Department, and several members have EMT training. Mill employees routinely donate their free time to advance their training, Brett says, and he and Ed have advanced coursework on fire behavior and arson investigation.

“Fire is always so fascinating and every fire is different in the way it acts and responds,” says Ed, noting that one of the most challenging calls for him was putting out a controlled burn that jumped out of control. “You have to get a strategy and consider the landowner as well as the fuel load. Sometimes you just have to let it burn to see how it reacts.”

Bennett’s Fire Brigade is thoroughly versed in both wildland and structure firefighting.
Bennett’s Fire Brigade is thoroughly versed in both wildland and structure firefighting.

Balancing Work & Firefighting

Because the fire brigade is an auxiliary part of the sawmill business, a big question is how to balance duties at work with the volunteer firefighting. “It gets kind of tricky sometimes,” Ed admits. “But we manage. That’s why it’s good the mill has two shifts. Often times, the fire lays down at night because of higher humidity, so some of our crew can go home to rest. Most of the time, we’re out there with other departments like IDL, so not everything depends on us.”

Outlining the far-flung Bennett lands on a map posted on his office wall, Ed sums up his major focus as saving trees on the thousands of acres of company ground. At the same time, he’s committed to helping those whose homes are threatened by wildfire in the area. No doubt the training and equipment also carry some monetary dividends, and Brett notes that the Bennett fire brigade actually has helped lower insurance premiums for both the mill and the Potlatch Rural Fire Department.

Backed by the Community

The biggest plus for Brett, however, is seeing the community spirit that especially comes out during a fire.“There is a lot of community spirit among our crew, and strong camaraderie,” Bennett says. “We sometimes go out as contractors for others, and our usual territory goes as far north as Coeur d’Alene, and as far south as Orofino. It really does help that we have all the equipment and trained people here, and it saves vital minutes in response time. The quicker the response time, the better you have it.”


This page was last updated on Sunday, January 21, 2007