Dispatchers, Reporter Participate in Wash. Live Burn

The fire burned intensely enough that it couldn’t fit in the building, so after it grew taller than the wall, it curled over at the ceiling, making a 12-foot flame in an 8-foot room.

About 60 firefighters from Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue, Kittitas Fire Department and Fire District 1 in Thorp participated in a practice fire on Idaho Avenue on Saturday, to either shake off some of the rust through training or, in the case of the 15 new faces, get an idea of what it is like to fight a structure fire. The old house was donated to the fire department.

I was invited to observe. My handler, Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue firefighter Calder Russell, and I sat on our knees against a wall and watched the fire grow. He pointed out the small fingers of flame that would sometimes dart out along the ceiling, seemingly disconnected from the larger blaze the firefighters built out of pallets and wet straw against a wall.

As the fire produced more smoke, we could see the haze thicken and stop at an invisible ceiling of clear air about a foot beneath the real ceiling. As the air in a room heats up, the smoke can reveal layers of different temperatures, Russell said.

He had me pull off enough glove to expose the skin on my wrist. I held it to the ground and it felt about as warm as the wood floor of a gutted house in winter ought to feel. But as I lifted my wrist higher, it got hotter.

That’s why firefighters were purposely setting fire to piles of scrap wood in an empty building: to see how live fires work in real homes.

Capstone for recruits

KVFR Deputy Chief Rich Elliott said the practice fires are the capstone of the recruit classes for new firefighters. The department also has a policy of periodically putting every firefighter through a live fire drill for practice.

Mike Long, a volunteer with the Kittitas Fire Department and KVFR, said he appreciates the effort the different agencies put into coordinating training opportunities.

“You get a hands-on chance to learn the job in a controlled situation,” he said, adding, “We don’t get structure fires that often … they say loss of memory is half the battle.”

Before anyone put on an oxygen tank and mask or started fighting fires in the building, KVFR Capt. Joe Delvo took groups of firefighters in through the house to see its layout.

“Once we get in here and everybody’s doing the Darth Vader thing you won’t be able to hear me,” he said.

Delvo told the group to pay attention to the way fire behaves, and to be aware of how it grows. In a burning building, a fire can double in size every 1 to 2 minutes, he said.

It’s worth keeping in mind when you think about the time between when the dispatcher calls you, how long it takes to get to a call and when you finally come through the door, he said.

Keep an eye on the hose and your partner for a frame of reference in the smoke, he said, and “don’t start freelancing.”

He added that even with all the smoke from the burning pallets and wet hay, the conditions inside the house would be substantially better than any real fire.

“Today is all about learning,” he said. “Just be thinking: watch, observe.”


The firefighters organized into teams to fill jobs responders might perform on a fire.

One team did the initial attack on the fire and moved into the building with tools and hoses. A backup team watched out for the group ahead and helped feed the hose forward. Another team worked large fans to move the smoke around. Other firefighters monitored the fire from the outside to make sure it didn’t spread beyond the building.

A fifth group was the rapid intervention team, which stands by to pull personnel out should something go wrong inside.

The sixth group switched out equipment and air bottles and kept track of firefighters’ health, making sure they didn’t succumb to dehydration or other issues.

“We know, statistically, 50 percent of firefighters show up to fires clinically dehydrated,” Elliott said.

Like most other workplaces, Elliott said, firefighters drink coffee, which adds to the problem.

“We try to manage that and get people to drink fluids and drink the right kids of fluids,” he said.

Putting it out

Later, back inside the building with Russell, we watched as one of the attack teams dealt with a fire.

A straight stream of water shot from the hose they carried, and broke out a window next to the fire. When they put a stream to the fire, the cooler water disrupted the balance of hot air we could see above, and it felt like the heat dropped through the room.

Water expands 1,800 times in volume when it turns to steam, Elliott said.

That transfer of wetter, cooler air and steam can put out fires in other rooms from where it is sprayed, he said.

“We put out attic fires with steam all the time,” he said. “If you converted 50 gallons of water into steam, you’ve absorbed a tremendous amount of energy. It takes a lot of energy to heat water. That’s why your dad always told you to take short showers.”

KVFR has training props made from metal containers or the hulks of old cars, but buildings provide much more realistic training opportunities.

The pacing is substantially slower and fire activity much more tame than a real fire, Russell said, but it’s still good training.

“This is the closest thing to actually being in a real fire,” he said. “Being able to burn, see the paint drip and stuff, that’s valuable.”

Working on basics

Rachel Carlson, a volunteer for Fire District 1, completed the recruit class, but had to wait until Saturday for a practice fire.

The burn, she said, was a good chance to work on the basics with a safety net.

The training included fire behavior and different spray patterns as they work in a practical setting, not just theoretically, she said.

She saw, “how everything works together, your tools, your breathing apparatus, getting around corners.”

Not everyone at the training was a firefighter. Grace Laux and Julie Berthelote are dispatchers, and they said they were glad to see what’s going on from the other end of the radio, and to put names to faces.

“It gives us a good understanding of what they’re going through,” Berthelote said.

Berthelote, Laux and I only had a few turns inside the home so firefighters could get more training time, but there was a good reason to stick around.

Once the practice fires started, there are only so many times the fires can be lit, put out, and re-lit. When all those chances were exhausted, firefighters burned down the building.

When the smoke started to pick up, neighbors started coming by to see the show.

“We’re not leaving till that sucker’s down,” Laux said.

Copyright 2013 Daily Record (Ellensburg, WA)Distributed by Newsbank, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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