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SUSE Linux Professional aides in controlling Wisconsin wildfire.

Novell Cool Solutions: Feature
By David Weitz

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Posted: 25 May 2005

My name is Dave Weitz. I'm the regional public affairs manager for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' West Central Region.

On May 5th of this year I was working in my office at Eau Claire, Wisconsin, when the phone rang. It was Arvid Haugen, our regional forestry chief. He said, "We've got a running crown fire near Big Flats and we need your help."

A crown fire is the fastest spreading forest fire. It happens when a fire is so hot that flames leap from treetop to treetop. An Incident team was setting up at Big Flats Fire Department. As Fire Information Officer, my job was to work with the press and local people affected by the fire.

Incident Commander Steve Courtney briefed me. The fire was moving rapidly through an area of red pine and jack pine which are both highly flammable fuels. Fire departments were trying to protect about 106 structures within the perimeter of the fire and law enforcement had evacuated about 125 people to Pineland School.

The state and the local press were arriving, and Jennifer Rabuck, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Fire Information Officer who'd arrived earlier, had scheduled a meeting with the people who had been evacuated so we could update them. We needed factsheets in a hurry.

I had brought my state-issue Dell Latitude and my personal Acer 290 laptops with me. The Town Clerk offered the use of an HP printer. I plugged in the USB connection to my Dell Latitude with Microsoft XP Pro and saw a message informing me that new hardware had been found and that I needed Administrative Privilages to install it. Because of state network security, normal users don't have administrative privilages, so that laptop became useless. I powered it down.

Next I powered up my Acer in Microsoft XP Home. Again I got a message that new hardware was found and I was told to connect to the WorldWideWeb to download the proper drivers. In the current situation, the Fire Department didn't have enough phone lines, so I couldn't connect to the Web. Another option went down the drain.

I had, however, one more ace up my sleeve. I rebooted my Acer again letting it boot into SUSE 9.0 this time. As soon as SUSE booted, I got a notice that new hardware had been found and a moment later, the HP printer was automatically installed and ready to use.

For the next two days I used SUSE and OpenOffice to write news releases, factsheets, and summaries for meetings with the people who were evacuated and whose homes were in danger, summaries for fire information officers, and press releases.

The Cottonville fire burned nearly 3,500 acres and destroyed 9 permanent homes and 21 vacation homes. About 300 dwellings were saved in the evacuation area. It was one of the toughest Wisconsin fires in the last two decades. We'd find out later that the fire ripped through the area at nearly two and one half miles an hour.

One fire fighter suffered dehydration and two others were treated for ashes in their eyes. None were seriously injured and no one lost their life in the fire.

The Incident Team did it's job. And, thanks to SUSE, I was able to do my part. Thanks SUSE. You came through for me in a pinch.

David Weitz
Fire Information Officer
Cottonville Fire

David Weitz is regional public affairs manager for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' West Central Region at Eau Claire, WI.

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