It’s not every day that two firefighters, dubbed “ignition technicians,” use a diesel-fueled “drip torch,” wooden pallets, kindling wood – even a dry Christmas tree – to set fire to a house, over and over again, eventually getting the all-clear to burn it to the ground as their colleagues stand by and watch the roaring blaze.
In any other circumstance, it would be called arson.
But out Couch Market Road in Tumalo on Saturday, it was called training – a successful day of “live fire” training that marked graduation day for four Bend Fire Department recruits and a healthy refresher course in firefighting techniques for dozens of colleagues in helmets and air tanks from as far away as Sisters, Redmond and Crooked River Ranch.
As a light snow fell off and on, thick yellowish-white smoke periodically billowed from the windows and eaves of the 71-year-old, two-story wood-frame house, donated to the cause by owner Steven Goebel of Portland, who plans to build a new home on the rural 7 ½-acre parcel.
At mid-morning, Bend Fire Inspector Susie Lovisco said, “The plan of attack is to start on the second floor, with starts and stops” of the flames, reacquainting all involved with what has become in recent years a far more scientific way of monitoring a fire’s behavior – all the better to knock it out as quickly and safely as possible.
Amid the amiable chatting, a warming tent and plenty of sandwiches and drinks, It might seem a bit like fun and games – until you’re told that more firefighters are hurt, even killed in such “burn to learn” exercises than dealing with real, everyday fire calls.
“Most firefighters (killed on the job) perish in training,” Lovisco said, so safety is the watchword for such exercises. The home is boarded up, stripped of anything toxic and actually made more structurally sound, so firefighters can worry less about collapsed walls or floors or ceilings.
Intense heat from erupting blaze can melt plastic, scorch metal many feet away
House fires easily exceed temperatures of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit – and that can melt the plastic parts of a car parked too close, not to mention the plastic mask of a new firefighter who didn’t get low to the ground in time and thus experienced part of the “rollover effect” of flames in enclosed spaces. At one point, firefighters even hosed down a nearby engine, to prevent any scorching or other damage.
Lovisco said there are three phases of fires – the “incipient,” initial phase, with temperatures up to 1,000 degrees, followed by the steady, “free-burning” stage, which climbs even hotter – 1,300 degrees. “One breath can sear the lungs,” she said. Then there’s the slow, smoldering phase, when there’s no oxygen left to feed the flames.
As the new recruits, after three months of classwork, prepare to join Bend’s 56 career firefighters, one key element – working together as a team – is stressed over and over. Orange vests at the drill indicate who is in the role of incident commander, safety officer and public information officer, among others.
“It’s not Hollywood,” which often depicts sheets of orange flame roiling at all times, the fire inspector said. Usually, Lovisco said, “It’s black. It is so black, you have no perception of what’s up and what’s down. By the time you see a glow, it’s much too hot” to approach without protective gear – and even that can fail to cope with the intensity of the flames.
New Bend firefighters Frank Iovino, 33, and Troy Stevens, 32, aren’t new to firefighting, having worked in La Pine previously. After a stint in the smoky home, Iovino said there weren’t any surprises: “It was a good refresher.” Stevens said he came to Bend for a “better opportunity for advancement,” and because he lives in the city.
Stevens said many members of the public have an inaccurate image of “firefighters sitting around the station.” In reality, he said, there’s a lot to do between alarms, from checking and inspecting apparatus to working on physical fitness, a crucial thing for firefighters weighed down with hundreds of pounds of gear.
Fourth-generation firefighter: `My dad was always my hero’
As we all learned in heartbreaking ways from the New York City tragedy, firefighting often is a family affair. On hand Saturday was Jeff Jenson, 26, a fourth-generation firefighter whose father, Don, is a deputy fire chief, overseeing operations.
“I grew up in the fire department,” the younger Jenson said. “I grew up playing with fire engines. My dad was always my hero.”
While the repeated interior burns melted the snow off the old home’s roof, Stevens got a bit of ribbing for his partly melted face mask – until he noticed that Capt. Steve O’Malley, helping train the recruits, suffered a similar bit of meltdown on his air tank’s gauge.
“The idea was to watch the fire behavior,” O’Malley said. “How much heat is comfortable? Sometimes, brand-new firefighters – these guys aren’t brand new – panic when it gets too hot.”
Crews erected two large portable tanks to hold water trucked in from a Tumalo fire hydrant, since none are nearby. The Crooked River Ranch crew, led by Chief Patrick Reitz, brought along their $18,500 “thermal imager,” which helps find hot spots in walls (and can help find people trapped by thick smoke).
Former Sunriver Fire Chief Era Horton, now regional training officer for the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, said there’s a lot to do on the checklist for live-fire drills, such as notifying the state Department of Environmental Quality. Mark Ayers, on hand from the DPSST’s Salem headquarters, had nothing but praise for how well the Bend drill was planned and coordinated.
Aptly-named firefighter says trip into burning home was `awesome!’
Lovisco said many people offer up homes for such “burn to learn” exercises, but one key is a location far enough from neighbors to eliminate or minimize the danger to others.
After venturing inside the burning home, Redmond fire volunteer Deb Blais offered a broad grin and said, “That was awesome!” (Yes, her name rhymes with blaze – and yet, she said she’s the first firefighter in her family).
“I’m a wildland firefighter, so fire behavior is way different when outdoors,” said Blais, 32, assistant superintendent with the Redmond Hotshots crew. “Everything’s enclosed – I’m used to standing in the wide open spaces.” Still, she said she might aim more toward the structural side of firefighting in the future.
Around 2:30 p.m., after various exterior attacks were tested, the work began in earnest on bringing the old home down to smoking rubble.
“That’s flashover – when everything in the room ignites at once,” Lovisco said, pointing to the roiling red inside a downstairs window frame.
One of the Bend volunteers who spent three days getting the house ready to burn was Steve Stenkamp, a Bend High shop and drafting teacher who’s also a former city councilor, one of the fabled “Men Without Ties.”
“I’ve got the best of both worlds,” Stenkamp said. “I get to work with a great group of kids, and with these guys, too.”
Old house didn’t seem to want to say goodbye
Close to a half-hour into the all-out burn effort, only a few flames were showing outside, and firefighters were dragging in tree branches as added kindling. Several onlookers said the old home was showing a lot more persistence than they expected.
Finally, around 2:50 p.m., flames began to erupt from the roof and all of the windows. “It won’t take long now,” one firefighter said.
After some quick team poses for photos out front, everyone began to move back as the flames roared bright yellow and orange and the heat became quite intense. Black, billowing clouds of smoke carried bits of roof insulation onto the snow and across the road.
After the second floor collapsed, and the walls fell, Horton had to admit: “This was a well-built old house.” Today’s homes, constructed with more lightweight building material, would have collapsed much quicker, he explained.
Adjacent neighbors were advised of the exercise ahead of time, as was Deschutes County 911, in case anyone seeing the plume of smoke called in an alarm. A few residents who drove by or stood watching the house burn said it had been vacant for some time and, while a sad passing, it was time for it to go.
But “the old O’Neil place,” as a few old-timers called it, didn’t go down without a fight – a lot of fights. And the lessons it helped to teach could save lives and property, on dozens of fires to come.