Fighting fires – as everybody should realize by now – is more complicated than showing up and splashing water on the flames. Comprehensive preparation and strong scientific know-how are arguably the firefighter’s most valuable tools, not their axes or hoses.

They certainly were earlier this week, when an inferno rose from the Washburn-Norlands Living History Center in Livermore. An innocuous heat lamp, placed by the caretaker to warm a litter of piglets, set the center’s gigantic barn ablaze, and threatened to consume the historic mansion right next door.

Thankfully, it didn’t, and not just because 10 fire departments battled the blaze; the critical difference, it was revealed, was strategic planning by local firefighters about if – or, in this case, when – the Norlands center burned.

This planning paid off. Instead of reacting to a fire, firefighters executed their preconceived strategy, and were able to make decisions quickly and efficiently.

It was the perfect example of smart preparation and management foresight.

Those involved with planning for an eventual Norlands fire deserve tremendous credit – their efforts, combined with the firefighting on the ground, saved one of Maine’s historical treasures from destruction. Bravo.

Developing plans is the part of firefighting the public rarely sees. Most often, firefighters are seen in soaked, sooty turnout gear after a blaze, or helping at the scene of automobile accidents.

It’s easy to assume their off-time is dawdling, waiting for the next call. Norlands shows it is not, and that this time, if well-spent, pays immense dividends.

Fire officials say it is usual practice for fire departments, large and small, to identify “target hazards” in their communities, and consider how they would combat a blaze, if one occurred. This process is crucial to firefighting, especially in rural areas, where even finding water supplies could be near-impossible.

Firefighters must be prepared, long before the call. “If they don’t have that stuff at the outset,” says Assistant Maine Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas, “it’s already too late.”

The Norlands blaze, along with proving the value of planning, should spur other departments to consider their responses to difficult fires. Perhaps a plan is poorly developed, or out-of-date. Maybe no plan was considered at all.

If so, Norlands is the perfect reason to review or create them. And not just because planning is a good practice, or adheres to the principles of smart firefighting.

It’s because they work.

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