Estero Fire Rescue burns house

Structure donated for training, experience for firefighters

By DENISE L. SCOTT, dscott@news-press.com



A lone house in a 10-acre field off Block Lane in Estero went up in smoke Wednesday to make way for a new gated community.

The fire was intentional, but it wasn’t an illegal effort to cash in on insurance. Randy Wilkerson, president of Design Builders of S.W. Florida Inc. in Naples, donated the house to Estero Fire Rescue for training purposes.

“We’ve done it several times in the past,” Wilkerson said, noting that he donated a structure to the San Carlos fire department about eight months ago. “It’s excellent training for the fire department. They don’t get the opportunity too often.”

Wilkerson said it’s a win-win situation — firefighters get training, and he has fewer materials to haul away to make room for 32 new homes in the Estero Palms development.

Construction of four model homes will begin next month and be completed by December.

The development will eventually feature 16 houses on 9,000-square-foot lots, a lake and a walkway into Estero Community Park, a portion of which will be available for public use.

“They’re saving money on demolition by donating it to us to use for training exercises,” Estero Fire Marshal Michael Cato said.

Cato said this is the first structure donated in the two years he’s been with the department. “It doesn’t come around too often,” he said. “We don’t have any burn training facilities here.”

Estero’s planned fire training facility, which will include a burn building, won’t be up and running for several years. “The only other option is to go to another training site,” Cato said. “There’s one in Sarasota.”

This donation allowed Estero Fire Rescue, along with San Carlos Park, Bonita Springs and Iona McGregor fire departments to take part in training without leaving the area.

About 35 firefighters and six officers gathered outside the tan brick-covered house along the narrow gravel and dirt lane near Estero High School. Donning full fire gear, their safety equipment emitted as many rings, chirps and bleeps as a video arcade.

“There’s a lot of safety involved,” Cato said. “When you’ve got this many people here, you’ve got to keep track of everybody.”

About four times the number of firefighters than would respond to a typical house fire came to this training. To stay organized, Estero firefighter EMT Nathan Williams maintained an accountability board, rotating name tags of all participants to show whether they were on teams in the building, waiting as backup or resting.

“I make sure they stay in order so we don’t lose anybody,” Williams said. “Every 20 minutes they report in and tell me their group is OK.”

Individual fires were set in each wood-framed room of the empty house using wood palettes and fuel so that teams of three to five firefighters could practice battling the blazes.

“As the house gets exposed to the heat more and more, it’s going to burn better,” Cato said as the first wisps of smoke escaped from a broken window at about 9:45 a.m. He didn’t expect large exterior flames until the afternoon.

As the fires progressed, the smoke thickened, blowing in the breeze and clinging to everyone in its path. Two firefighters disappeared behind a thick gray cloud as they checked the attic from a roof-top vantage point.

“There’s smoke in there chief,” one firefighter called out from the ground, eliciting a few chuckles.

Because it was a controlled environment and the firefighters knew the layout ahead of time, it didn’t elicit the same Adrenaline rush of the unknown in a real call.

But the flames and dangers were still real.

“When we came in, they were allowing the fire to build up in the back corner of the bedroom,” said Estero Lt. Michael Davis, 31, after his three-member team came out of the house. “It’s a chance to observe fire behavior, how the flames travel, how the smoke and heat build up.”

While inside, Davis’ team encountered drywall falling from the ceiling.

“It’s very real life,” he said. “You don’t run fires every day. You forget some of the basics — and the basics are what keep us alive.”