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I come from a family of firefighters and this year would mark my fifth year in the fire service. I started out in the fire service as a junior firefighter for a volunteer fire company. I worked my way into a firefighter position on my 18th birthday. Since the day I started in the fire service, I have diligently strived to be better. I took fire classes while still in high school while balancing multiple part-time jobs, classes, softball and track teams and Future Farmers of America activities. The fire service was what I lived for, it was my everything, and I couldn’t wait to graduate from high school and start my career.
That wish came true in the May 2012. I was hired as an intern firefighter/EMT with a combination department in Wisconsin. I also was hired as an adjunct fire instructor for Southwest Wisconsin Technical College, specializing in the instruction of firefighter survival and rapid intervention. Besides the local level, I am also a Wisconsin Advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) Everyone Goes Home Program.
“A good day for firefighter training”
On Oct. 27, 2012, my department was invited to attend a multi-department live-fire training burn in an acquired structure. It was a two-story, ordinary construction building. Our burn room was in the garage, which was three feet below the foundation of the house.
It was right after lunch, when some of the instructors asked us if we wanted to go in for the last burn. Who would turn that down? We grabbed our gear and went to the Charlie side of the house. We had already done a walk-through that morning.
We were standing on the back porch doing gear checks and bleeding the hoseline. Everyone was ready. I was on a four-person crew. The nozzleman was in front of me, I was second on the line, making me the officer of the crew, the third person on the line was my best friend and one more person made up the crew.
Right before we made entry, the third man asked me if he could do the radio report to command. I said sure and let him do it. He called command and we made entry. To our right, there was a small rekindle from a previous burn. I told my nozzleman to put it out and he did. We then turned to our left and opened the door to the burn room. The first thing I did was look at the crib in the corner. It looked fine. I know I will sound complacent when I say this, but it looked like any other fire I had fought before. I am by no means a veteran or senior firefighter, but I would not have sent my crew in that room if it didn’t look like it did. I do not consider myself an experienced firefighter, but it was a fightable fire (at least it appeared that way).
My nozzleman and I entered the room and sat down approximately six feet away from the crib. I then looked behind me to make sure my third and fourth crew members were there, but they weren’t. The first thing I thought was that the instructors were just messing with me, seeing what I would do if they pulled my crew members away. So I yelled my third man’s name three times.
I remember looking back at the open door, seeing the light, expecting them to show up. Hoping they were coming. My nozzleman, who was new to our department and a less-experienced firefighter, was getting anxious. I could easily tell. He said, “Candace, what do I do, what do I do?” I told him that we were fine; I was just trying to find our third and fourth crew members.
I then looked back again toward the door, still waiting for the arrival of my third and fourth crew members. Still nothing. I yelled his name again, three more times. This time louder and now I am starting to get anxious. My nozzleman kept saying over and over again, “Candace, what do I do, what do I do?”
Again, I said were OK, keep calm. I told him to open the bale; he did and hit the fire, which wasn’t even into the rollover stage. I looked back one last time for my third and fourth crew members, yelling his name three more times, and that’s when the smoke that was above our heads dropped to the floor.
“The blackest smoke I had ever seen”
It was the blackest smoke I have ever seen in my life. With the smoke it brought the heat. Unbearable heat. I knew something was going horribly wrong and I knew we needed to leave.
I quickly stuck one hand out on the right side of our hoseline, swept within arm’s length, then stuck a leg out on the left side of the hoseline and swept, searching for my best friends. The first thing that started to burn was my ears. It was like someone was taking knives, stabbing my body over and over again.