“Fire in the hole!”
A man put a lighter to a pile of gasoline-soaked hay in the tub of a darkened bathroom. After igniting a few straws, he casually walked out of the room.
Within about 10 seconds, the entire bathroom was engulfed in flames. Then it spread to the short, accelerant-soaked hallway less than 10 feet from me. As the flames had nowhere to rise, they crawled across the ceiling of the darkened house, well, like wildfire. The canopy over me, already a smoky layer of fog, suddenly glowed the most vivid orange, briefly overruling the darkness.
My guide through this combustion safari, Fire Chief Matt Poole, signaled to the crew outside. They rushed into the Main Street home with a hose. The already smoky room took a turn toward blackness as the high-powered blast of water began to extinguish the radiating fire and produce an outpouring of black smoke.
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“Once you actually put that fire out, all that water converts to steam. If you have anything missing in your gear, any holes or anything, when that steam comes that’s when you feel it,” fireman David Blanc said later.
Without my gear, I would have roasted in that room with heat in the 800 degree range, and I would have suffocated from the smoke if not for the mask hooked up to the oxygen tank on my back.
On June 21, Garner Volunteer Fire and Rescue laid to waste the town-owned house at 403 Main Street. Since the town intended to tear down the house (and a couple others like it), it granted the independent, town-funded agency a license to commit arson. Aside from benefits reaped from the training exercises, matches and gas are cheaper (and quicker) than demolition companies.
And the department offered to let me to hang out inside as they set and put out a couple fires.
I wouldn’t classify myself as a pyromaniac, but like about 97.4 percent of honest males I know, I have a healthy fascination with fire. I may even be above average; I can stare at a campfire for 30 minutes without being bored. I am not alone; small children watched as parents kept an eye on them (and the fire) and cars slowed down to observe the blaze consuming the 76-year-old home.
So really, maybe I’m not so odd. Plus, I was in the hands of trained professionals, easing my worries and putting much of the responsibility for my well-being elsewhere. As I told a firefighter who asked how it was and if I was alarmed at any point, I don’t spook easily, though perhaps more because I’m dumb than brave. (So argues my wife, anyway; to be fair, she’s usually right.)
Gearing up for the heat
“What size shoe are you?” Battalion Chief Barrett Penny asked.
“Thirteen,” I said.
“Well, I don’t have that; give those a try,” he said, pointing to the gear already laid out.
The boots turned out to be size 11. But the uncomfortably-tight fit would hardly dissuade me. (How much comfort can you really expect in 60 pounds of gear anyway?) The pants went around the boots and were held up by suspenders. Then I put on the heaviest coat I’d ever worn; combined with the oxygen tank it felt like a Kevlar-infused down jacket soaked in water. I donned a ski-mask of sorts, which covered my neck and head, and gloves and a fire helmet. Penny showed me how to lock the oxygen tube into the mask.
I began to sweat because, well, that’s something I do. (A Midwesterner by birth, I’m not built for Southern summers when I’m wearing shorts and a t-shirt). I wasn’t even standing next to fire yet. Inside the house, Poole suggested I get low, as heat rises. I sat in a puddle left in the furniture-less room after watching them set up the exercise.
They would torch two rooms before extinguishing the fires during my time in the house. The second room, without the hallway between the engulfed room and myself, was an even closer brush with a special-effect brought to real life. As I crouched, sitting on the back of my ankles, I could feel the heat stinging my knees and thighs through the suit as the room filled with smoke and ceiling flames.
The pain teetered between mere discomfort and ok-we-have-a-problem-here before the fire was put out and the smoke-steam concoction began to dissipate.
“It was a lot hotter than I expected,” Blanc conceded regarding his first fire.
It was very hot, go figure. Hooray for insulation technology.
Exercises can focus on any of a number of purposes and techniques. That day, Poole said, the focus was on one-room fires with an offensive, direct attack.
“We call that a bread-and-butter fire attack,” he said. “We go to what’s burning and put water directly on it.”
There was also an emphasis on leadership development with lower-level firefighters leading the charges.
Safety measures include gutting the house of all furniture and utilities, using two fire trucks hooked up to the water source, and a Wake EMS truck on scene. That makes the fires a bit easier to manage, since hoses can’t get caught on a couch and a fireman can’t trip on toys left out.
“It’s an uncontrolled environment, but we make it as controlled as possible,” Poole said. “It takes a month to prep this.”
Observing real fires offers plenty of learning opportunities. Even as the house burned down after the training (firefighters by then mostly just threw gas on the fire, monitored, and tried to minimize tree damage with hoses), more experienced members were passing on to newer firefighters a variety of nuances and lessons.
Blanc, on the new side, battled his first two house fires a few weeks ago. He also talked about an instinctive understanding of how fire behaves in different situations.
“I’m trying to learn how the fire moves. It’s a living thing,” he said. “If I throw water over here what happens over there?”
Meanwhile, Lt. Robert Hodge, who joined the department in 2000, said the exercises help acclimate young firefighters who might otherwise struggle with tunnel vision.
“You don’t want to get focused on the fire. You need to be looking at everything, your surroundings (and possible victims). Situational awareness, we preach that all the time,” he said.
Hodge said he was “scared to death,” in his first fire, but then said scared would be the wrong term, instead choosing “wasn’t used to it.” This process helped firefighters get used to it.
“Then after a couple of years it’s like tying your shoes,” Hodge said.