Firefighters intentionally torch house!

Find out why both the homeowners and Portland Fire & Rescue crews walked away from this fire – it burned the home down to the ground – with a big smile …

Portland Fire & Rescue recruits learn to deal with thick, dark smoke that is generated by typical house fires.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Portland Fire & Rescue is so good at putting out fires that we seldom see flames, even though we promptly travel to document their actions. Usually, all we see is smoke and steam arising from the part of the building that was once aflame.

So, when we were invited to watch firefighters set a home ablaze, we eagerly accepted.

“This old farmhouse has been here since about the 1930s,” said PF&R Battalion Chief Chris Babcock, has he led us into the property at NE 148th Avenue and NE Sacramento Street, just east of Margaret Scott Elementary School.

PF&R Battalion Chief Chris Babcock is one of many experienced firefighters who help train recruits at these “Burn to Learn” live-fire exercises.

‘Burn to Learn’ endangers no students
Babcock said Reynolds School District purchased the property and the house several years ago: “It’s been unoccupied for the last five or six years. This has made it an ‘attractive nuisance’ in the neighborhood. So, we’re helping them demolish the structure, while we conduct ‘Burn to Learn’ exercises that will provide live-fire training – in a real residential structure, instead of our burn rooms – for newly-hired firefighter recruits.”

Although all three shifts – a total of 18 recruits – were “in school” at this Burn to Learn exercise, no children were in the area, because the exercise was scheduled on an April morning when school was not in session at Scott Elementary, Babcock pointed out.

“Because of improvements in our training methods, better equipment, and having enough personnel on duty, we don’t have very many fires that grow big, like we used to have, years ago,” Babcock pointed out. “We really work to keep the fires small. So, this provides a priceless training opportunity for recruits to learn to work safely around live fire.”

While one team of rookie firefighters trains in the burning house, other teams observe, and learn, from outside the structure.

Older home provides safety training
One of the problems firefighters encounter in older homes, Babcock told us, is that it is impossible to know what kinds of construction methods were used when they were built, and later, remodeled. “Many old structures, like these, don’t have proper fire blocking. This house has definitely been altered, and added onto, over the years. This creates safety issues for firefighters.”

Part of the training began before they lit the first match, the Battalion Chief explained. Firefighters carefully examined the structure, and made sure safety provisions were put into play. And, the recruits were carefully supervised by experienced career firefighters.

“For example, a bedroom on the south side of the house is a ‘safe room’ that’s been coated with fire-stopping foam. We’ve also opened up the side of the house there, so they can escape. And, we have a ladder attached to a second-story window to practice – or to be used for – rapid evacuation. The structure has a narrow staircase. We take safety seriously, both in training, and in a working fire.”

It looks as this fire has been put out – only smoke and steam rise through the opening in the roof.

Realistic training rapidly increases skills
Throughout the morning, trainers set fires; many of them produced voluminous thick, dark smoke. With their team leaders, they made entry, used their equipment to locate the fire, and search for “victims” to rescue, while extinguishing the blaze.

This kind of training gives recruits experience they can’t get out of a book, stated PF&R Training Staff Lt. Jerry Bartolome. “It allows them to observe fire behavior and smoke conditions in a burning structure. And, firefighters are able to learn the limits of their equipment and practice tactics in a controlled environment.”

FIRE! This Truck 13 firefighter knows the fire that flared up from this roof ventilation hole is very real – and is to be respected.

Firefighting veterans get specialized training
Later in the morning, firefighters scrambled up ladders to the top of the second-story roof, and worked to extinguish a fire that had been set in the attic. Flames leaped from the holes they cut in the roof, driving them back until they could douse them with water.

“We have Truck 13’s crew here from Lloyd Center – they are our emergency ventilation crew,” Babcock said. “They’re professional firefighters; they’re here to practice roof ventilation tactics.”

In total, about forty firefighters were on hand during the drills.

“When we’re done, we’ll give the house a proper ‘Viking sendoff’,” Babcock said. By the time they left the site, later in the afternoon, all that remained was the foundation, and wet ashes.

© 2010 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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