Why are there firefighters in Antarctica? Fire services at the South Pole

Overview of McMurdo Station / photo Gaelen Marsden on Wikimedia Commons

In 1948 an accidental fire destroyed the facilities of Station D, the scientific base that Great Britain had built in Hope Bay, the eastern end of the Trinidad Peninsula. The thing seems to be nothing special except for one detail: this place is located in Antarctica and the devastating effect of the fire not only caused the death of two of the three members of the team but forced the other to survive in a tent for sixteen long days until he was rescued. Perhaps things would have been different if there had been a firefighting service, but can there be firefighters in Antarctica? Well, there are, oddly enough.

It could also have turned out worse for the British because the regular staff actually consisted of thirteen men. The incident meant the temporary closure of the station, which was rebuilt in 1952 under the name Trinity House but was on another site and only lasted twelve years because the British Antarctic Survey decided to transfer it to Uruguay (which renamed it ECARE, short for Estación Científica Antártica Uruguaya Teniente Ruperto Elichiribehety); it was due to its unfriendly neighbors.

The current Argentinian base Esperanza/Image: Andrew Shiva on Wikimedia Commons

In fact, an Argentinian frigate fired warning shots at the British when they were unloading material, since they were also building a base a few hundred meters away. The curious thing is that the Argentinian one, called Destacamento Naval Esperanza, was also destroyed by a fortuitous fire in 1958. These accidents were a wake-up call on the need to implement fire-fighting measures, since, as it turned out, the result of a fire could pose a danger even when it had already been extinguished, leaving people exposed to the danger of frostbite in such a climatically hostile environment.

Station D was not the first time it had happened because something similar had already happened in the Southern Cross Expedition. It was the first British trip to the South Pole, led by the Anglo-Norwegian explorer Carsten Egeberg Borchgrevink between 1898 and 1900; in the course of the expedition, a candle falling on a mattress engulfed one of the huts in flames and was about to spread to the others, thus endangering the ten people who were part of the expedition. Although the cold and snow are a valuable help in preventing fires from spreading, they do occur occasionally.

This was the case more recently. We will not include the one in 1984 of another Argentinean scientific station, the Almirante Brown, because it was intentional, provoked by its doctor, apparently to avoid having to winter there (and he was successful, since the US ship USS Hero evacuated the personnel); but there were two others in 2008 (at the Russian Progrés Base, which, in addition to losing contact with the outside world for several days, caused one death and two serious injuries) and in 2012 (where an explosion in an engine room of the Brazilian Antarctic Station Comandante Ferraz caused two fatalities).

Carsten Borchgrevink during the Southern Cross Expedition/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Therefore, although there are no forest fires at the South Pole (98% of which are snow and ice and the remaining 2% rock), there are others that can threaten both human lives and material goods. In this sense, the burning of the shelters is a double weapon because it means that if their tenants do not die of charring or smoke inhalation, they could die of cold because they have no place to shelter, taking into account that the long distances imply a long time to carry out a rescue. That is why, for some time now, fireproof materials have been used to build independent and separate modules, in addition to erecting supply warehouses at a safe distance to hold out while waiting for help.

Organizing fire departments to fight fires in the most desolate corner of the world involves both pro and con factors. Among the first is the fact that Antarctica is the windiest place on Earth and the winds blow at such a speed that they help to extinguish flames instead of spreading them, unlike in other places. Also, the low temperatures make combustion difficult; there are no heat waves there to provide favorable conditions.

On the other hand, if the incident occurs on a day when the wind is not blowing too strongly, it will help to fuel the fire and the same temperature that hinders it causes the available water to freeze, thus depriving the main tool to extinguish it; at least in sufficient quantity. Consequently, a variety of firefighting equipment has been created, although it should be noted that most of them only work part-time because in the winter season the danger is greatly reduced.

This is what happens at the Russian Stántsiya Vostók (located at the point where the lowest temperature on the planet was recorded in 1983, 89.2º centigrade below zero, and with a staff of twenty-five people in summer and thirteen in winter), at the New Zealand Scott Base (located on the Hut Peninsula of Ross Island, housing eighty-five people in summer and ten in winter) and at the Italian Stazione Mario Zucchelli (of large dimensions, since it occupies 7.100 square meters, where between two and three hundred scientists work).

New Zealand base Scott in summer/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

However, two professional fire departments also operate in Antarctica. One of them is the Southernmost Fire Department, which serves at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, a U.S. base located a hundred meters from the geographic South Pole. Built at the end of 1956 for the International Geophysical Year (which was to be held between July 1957 and December 1958), it was decided to maintain and expand it, so that today it consists of a main building known as the Old Base, a geodesic dome of fifty meters in diameter linked to a tower called Skylab and the so-called elevated base (because it has two floors).

Some two hundred people of various nationalities are stationed there, although only a few dozen remain on standby during the winter. The complex is sufficiently important to require the aforementioned professional fire department, established in the 21st century to replace the previous volunteer team, which was made up of station personnel duly trained with a one-week course. During the summer season, when the risk is greatest, the staff is increased by six operators from the Antarctic Fire Department, which we will discuss below.

The Antarctic Fire Department is based at McMurdo Station, a U.S. facility located on Ross Island – just three kilometers from the New Zealand base – operated by the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) for research purposes. Opened in 1956 for the same reason as the other US base, it is the largest in Antarctica with 1,258 summer residents; in fact, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is supplied through it, since it has a port, three landing strips and a heliport.

Aerial view of the U.S. base Amundsen-Scott South Pole/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

It is practically like a village (there is even a church), hence the need for full-time firefighters. There are forty-six of them, although only twenty-one of them are actual firefighters (in winter they are reduced to a dozen), the rest being miscellaneous personnel. They are divided between two fire stations: Station 1 is in the center of the base, with a couple of trucks, a water tank, a rescue vehicle and a SCAT (Self Contained Attack Truck); Station 2 is in the vicinity of the airfields and has an ambulance and seven ARFF (Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting) vehicles.

They are joined by a third, Station 3, which is the name given to the team sent to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station to, as mentioned above, swell the ranks of its Southernmost Fire Department. Obviously, all the vehicles have been adapted to negotiate the deep snow layers – although they can also use tractors and motorized sleds – and, given the difficulty of preventing the water from freezing, in Antarctica they use mainly dry chemical products, of which several hundred kilos are stored together with several hundred more of foam.

Of course, putting out fires is not the only mission of these corps; they also deal with health emergencies, hazardous material spills, underwater emergencies, monitoring by GPS the departure of individuals or vehicles from the base in bad weather and even keeping animals (seals and penguins) away from the airstrips. A peculiar job, indeed.