Fire hazards posed by tents concern officials in Kuwait
Stars and Stripes June 3, 2003
CAMP UDAIRI, Kuwait — Highly flammable tents and inadequate firefighting equipment, officials say, are the combination for a deadly accident just waiting to happen at U.S. military camps in Kuwait.
In the past three months, several fires have quickly burned tents to the ground at staging camps north of Kuwait City. Troops from the 62nd Engineer Battalion narrowly escaped a wall of flames two weeks ago as a fire at Camp Udairi destroyed three large festival tents.
It was the second big fire at the camp since March, when four large tents that housed the camp’s mess hall burned to the ground.
“We’ve been lucky that with the two big fires we’ve had that we haven’t had any casualties,” said Sgt. Brady Brever, 31, of Racine, Wis., a firefighter at Camp Udairi.
But when camps are packed to capacity — which they will be in the coming months as the 3rd Infantry Division rotates back to the States from Iraq — one spark could spell disaster, said Capt. Howard Aprill, the officer in charge of Udairi’s firefighting detachment.
At times, investigators counted up to 97 soldiers crammed into one tent.
“The tents are extremely dangerous,” Aprill said.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but with all these troops coming in and out, it’s not a matter of if, but when” soldiers are killed, he said.
Soldiers say the tents — which are leased by the U.S. government — are soaked in kerosene for waterproofing, a claim disputed by Lt. Col. Brian Vaught, a V Corps logistics officer. Vaught said there is no requirement under the contract for the tents to be waterproof.
Kerosene or not, Brever said he believes a chemical impregnated into the canvas adds fuel to a fire. Under strong desert winds, a tent can burn in less than 30 seconds.
“We’re not sure if it’s kerosene, but the water repellant acts as an accelerant,” Brever said. “We can fight a fire in an Army tent, but with these Kuwaiti tents we are on the defensive, just trying to prevent other tents from catching fire.”
On April 29, 11 tents at Camp Victory burned to the ground along with the equipment of more than 250 soldiers from the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, said Lt. Col. Irvin Boysen, the former camp mayor.
“We’re real lucky no one got hurt bad that afternoon,” Boysen said. “If it had happened during the dark, it would have been something else.”
Investigators blamed rigged electrical wires, but one troop admitted to smoking in a tent just before the fire started, Boysen said.
The camp had no fire trucks and had to call upon the Kuwaiti military to help extinguish the flames. Minimal firefighting equipment is staged at the Army’s six major staging camps. At one recent vehicle fire at outside Camp New Jersey, firefighters from Camp Udairi drove several miles to assist.
Firefighters’ reaction time was also diminished because they have little way of knowing something has caught fire. At Udairi, soldiers are told to send a runner to alert firefighters or use the camp’s military phones, which are often not working, Aprill said. Radios are not always available, he said.
Once they learn of a fire, it’s often hard for firefighters to find the blaze unless they see smoke, Brever said. Often, they follow troops waving and pointing fingers to direct them.
“By the time we get the call and roll, we don’t get a chance to fight the first fire,” said Spc. William Van Axen. “So we have to take a defensive posture.”
While Camp New Jersey has avoided large fires, camp mayor Lt. Col. Steven Middleton is not taking chances, he said. Soldiers wire their tents for lighting and fans, to add a touch of comfort to austere conditions.
“We’ve had a number of unauthorized wirings, done by soldiers,” Middleton said. “As we find them, we disconnect them.”