Firefighters allow Gateway area houses to go up in flames

See exactly why our fine crews from Portland Fire & Rescue SET these fires, and then watched these structures burn to the ground …

It’s a curious sight – a house aflame, and firefighters watching the blaze.  These firefighters are not firebugs, though; they’re participating in a training exercise.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Most folks agree – Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) is perhaps the finest emergency service provider in the nation.

But many people who drove along NE 102nd Avenue, about a block north of E. Burnside, wondered why firefighters appeared to be just “standing around”, watching one house after another burn to the ground.

At one of these fires, on March 3, East Portland News stopped by the scene to inquire.

PF&R Lt. Jim Sestric says these “Burn to Learn” exercises provide trainee firefighters with evaluable experiences.

“This is actually a training exercise,” explained PF&R Lt. Jim Sestric. “It’s part of our ‘Burn to learn’ program, in which owners donate usually-uninhabitable houses or other structures for us to use for training purposes.”

Hidden behind a row of fire trucks and engines, what passersby didn’t see was both trainees and more seasoned firefighters entering the burning structures, Sestric said. “When firefighters go into a real house [on fire], they see and experience real fire behavior – but, in these exercises, in a somewhat-controlled setting.”

Actually practicing firefighting techniques inside a burning wooden structure is more realistic than even the best simulation the Fire Bureau can provide its firefighting trainees.

It’s true, Sestric continued, that at the Parkrose Station 2 training facility on NE Sandy Boulevard, the Bureau has a “burn room” and “burn tower” used for live-fire training exercises.

“The ‘burn room’ provides a similar experience, but it is different from a real, burning house,” Sestric assured. “The fire’s behavior is different. The ‘burn room’ is lined with bricks. It gets so hot it will radiate heat! But in [wood] frame structures like these, it is different. This is the closest thing we can get to a real structure fire – as far as ‘training burns’ go.”

During a “Burn to Learn” drill, trainees learn the limitations of their gear – awareness that can save their lives when fighting an out-of-control blaze.

Dressed in their full gear, these PF&R trainees pause for a crew photo during the exercise.

The Bureau “rotates in” regular crews from stations around the city to practice cutting roof ventilation holes and to practice attacking a fire, Sestric said. These exercises are vital to helping their trainees learn both how to do their job – and be safe.

“Part of this is learning the limitations of your gear in a real fire,” the lieutenant said.  “At this exercise, we have all the same assignments as you’d have at a real fire scene.  We have a backup team, a rescue team; we have some firefighters go up onto the roof to cut ventilation holes, to relieve the smoke and gases. And, they’re learning to work together as a team.”

Once the drills are over, Sestric concluded, crews practice defensive firefighting techniques, making sure the burning building doesn’t ignite unintended fires. And, the remaining charred debris is more economical for the property owner to remove than the original structure. “It’s something that works out well for everyone.”

After training opportunities have been exhausted, firefighters simply allow the structure to burn down into cinders.

© 2012 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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