Close Calls:Firefighter Trapped in Marijuana-Grow "Fortress" Part 1

We all train for that “worst day,” and that day can end up being many things to many people. The non-breathing child, the crash with entrapment, the call where you work on someone in front of their family, a terrorist event – the list of what we...


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We were yelling for Firefighter Makos with no response. We were taking on a lot of heat, and I knew that Firefighter Makos was in trouble. The entrance to the attic brought us to the center of the attic and we were not on a wall. Firefighter Makos was off the line, on low air and possibly burnt. I was able to hold the line and spread out on my stomach, sweeping with my tool and my feet. I felt something with my foot and kicked Firefighter Makos. I told him it was me and he grabbed me and I was able to get him out. Firefighter Makos bailed out head first down the stairs and was assisted by the backup crew to the exterior B-side entrance/exit. I informed the IC that Firefighter Makos was in distress and needed EMS and I followed him to the exterior B-side exit.

Firefighter Makos was disrobed of his structural firefighting gear, which he had been wearing appropriately, and burns were noted on the back of his head, neck and shoulders. The pump operator informed me that he witnessed a change in smoke conditions followed by a fireball like a “blow torch” coming from the attic just prior to us exiting the building. Firefighter Makos was transported to the emergency room, where he received care for burns and smoke inhalation. He was treated for second-degree burns and carbon monoxide in his bloodstream.

I received first-degree burns, which did not require medical attention, to my neck and shoulders and was able to resume firefighting activities. I was wearing full turnout gear when I received the burns.

A vent hole was cut on the roof and backup crews were attacking the fire from the second floor and attic. The seat of the fire was found in the walls on the second-story kitchen on the B/C corner. The fire and smoke spread from the add-on kitchen, which had a separate roof that led to the main attic space. The fire was extinguished and overhaul began.

After the seat of the fire was knocked down, we continued to search and overhaul. It was at this stage that I noticed that the bedroom doors were all locked and reinforced. We forced entry into the bedrooms and found marijuana plants in various stages of growth. Several of the bedrooms were untouched by fire and had hundreds of plants being grown by a hydroponics system. The rooms were equipped with an extensive grow-lamp system and a special heating, moisture and venting system had been constructed. All the windows were boxed in from the interior of the rooms, as not to show light through them. The house was made to appear lived in, as air conditioners were placed in the windows.

Pockets of fire were difficult to find and the last of the fire was found inside of a refrigerator, where fertilizers were being stored. We did not know what kind of chemicals might be inside the house and suspected fertilizer products with the possibility of a meth lab. The district hazmat team was deployed to the scene and found the burning chemicals to be large amounts of fertilizer. The air was metered and deemed free of organophosphates or chemicals from a meth operation.

A post-fire inspection found the cause to be electrical, due to the illegal wiring for the elaborate grow system. The fire started in the walls on the B-side rear kitchen and extended into the ceiling and attic.

This fire showed us that you just truly never know what conditions you could run into. From the outside, the house appeared to be just another normal residence, when in reality it was deceiving. The smoke had nowhere to escape because the windows were all cased in, and forcible entry was more difficult because the doors were reinforced. The smoke buildup was compounded by the fact that the only place it had to go was to the attic and the enormous amount of heat and gas buildup combined with ventilation probably caused the smoke to ignite.

Looking back, I realize it would have been a good decision to relay to the IC that we were doing a search for Firefighter Makos prior to re-entering the attic. The IC would have known the situation and began preparing a rapid intervention team. Instead, my instincts took over and I went rushing back into the room without letting the IC know that we had a firefighter missing. For all I knew, Firefighter Makos could have gotten by the crews unnoticed and was outside for rehab.

Furthermore, I would have taken some more time sweeping with the thermal imager. I started looking prematurely as I was going up the stairs and probably missed seeing Firefighter Makos on the ground. My quick reaction ended up with a positive outcome, but it certainly could have had negative implications if I got myself and others in a bad situation because IC was not even aware that we were searching for a missing firefighter or that we had a change in conditions.