Training Session Shows Fire Is Deadly Serious

Front Page / Mar. 22, 2006 11:00pm EST

By Emily Marshia

Training Session Shows

Fire Is Deadly Serious

By Emily Marshia

A recent lesson learned: fire is fire, whether it is rural or urban, planned or unplanned, contained or out of control.

It's a Sunday, and the Chelsea Volunteer Fire Department is participating in a training exercise involving the planned burn of a trailer on the Button farm. The air temperature is a raw five degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind whipping up the valley pushes the wind chill well below zero. The crew meets for a hearty homemade breakfast at the fire station before taking to the elements.

The fire is underway, smoke billowing from the empty window holes, four fire trucks line the road, and the First Branch ambulance sits nearby.

A few dozen men scurry about in smoke-stained protective gear, their whiskers crusty with frozen droplets from their breath, their steps heavy and deliberate in their thick, yellow rubber boots. There is a calmness that speaks to the non-emergency nature of the gathering, but the calls for water, requests for fresh air tanks, and status checks on hoses are all business.

There are 13 Chelsea department members on the scene, along with two high school students who are cadets. Williamstown, Washington, Tunbridge, and Vershire have also sent members for training and backup. There is a sense of camaraderie between the departments, as they often assist each other. Members of different departments share drinking water from their trucks and assist one another in changing air tanks as if they work together daily. Town lines are seamless, distinguished only by different colored gear and lettering denoting each town.

In the last few days, all the furniture had been removed from the trailer, along with all appliances and accelerant sources. The tin was removed from the roof and windows were removed to allow plenty of ventilation. Small fires were started in each room around 8 a.m. and the fire was allowed to grow for some time.

Into the Building

Teams of three enter the building to find the fire and knock it down with water. Each time, a backup team stands by outside with a second water hose. The fire is allowed to escalate and produces heavy, brownish-gray smoke. From outside the building, it becomes instantly obvious when the firefighters hit the fire with water because the smoke changes color, becoming pure, fluffy white.

This is actually now steam. One gallon of water produces 1,700 gallons of steam as it expands from the heat of the fire. The teams quickly exit after this transition because the smoke and steam practically eliminate all visibility, despite their air masks.

The steam dissipates and the fire rekindles. Gusts of wind spread the fire from one end of the trailer to the other in a flash. Even those standing outside lose all sight of the building for several minutes as the smoke swirls. Flames roll and thicken, gathering oxygen and lapping out the windows. The fire rumbles as it curls back on itself, grabbing at the walls, deepening its orange and black curves, stretching long arms out the windows while painting burned messages through the outer walls.

Suddenly shots of water droplets blast out the windows as another team stops the fire's insurgence. Several feet away from the building, the water freezes instantly to whatever it lands upon. Inside, the steam overpowers the smoke as another team practices its techniques.

The fire does not always announce itself politely. Often it lingers in ceilings or along framing, resting and waiting for a surge of oxygen to give it strength. Each team has varying levels of experience, so the repetition is good because each time can be different. The situation is relatively controlled in that ample ventilation was created before the fire ever ignited, much different than at an actual fire, where creating holes in the roof and knocking out windows might be the first trips into the building.

There is some lag time, as the firefighters manning the water supply are experiencing some freeze ups. The training hits pause as the backup water supply is readied. Even though this is a training session, safety precautions are carried out with precision.

During this time as the fire builds, the fire fighters walk around the perimeter of the building, observing the behavior of the flames inside. The fire is allowed to build to a greater extreme prior to the last training hit. It gathers volume as it works its way from the ceiling down the walls creating a dense smoke layer below it.

Getting Acquainted

A small group gathers in front of the picture window at the front of the trailer, witnessing the physical characteristics of the fire from an up close and personal point of view. When the flames extend out the window, the last team enters and drowns out the fire one last time. The smoke is thick enough to slice and blinding too.

Now the fire is allowed to completely engulf the structure. The departments monitor its progress and help it fall to one side. There is a well house only a few feet behind the building so two water hoses are used to soak the space between to save the well house from the fire. By 1:30 pm, the building is flattened. The fire fighters secure the scene before returning home for a Sunday afternoon with their families.

Volunteer fire departments are the norm in Vermont. The majority of our central Vermont towns are fortunate enough to have dedicated men and women who live and work locally and can respond quickly when needed. Though these firefighters are volunteers, the fires they face can be as dangerous and unpredictable as those in cities.

Fire is a living, breathing creature, according to a line in a movie some years ago. It seemed dramatic at the time, but observing fire up close, and the skill required to evaluate and tackle it, fosters a new appreciation for the dance of unpredictable flame and the men and women who take the lead in fighting it when it surfaces in our home towns.

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