I’m not much of a pyromaniac, but I admit it — I like a good fire.
Growing up, I wasn’t one of those kids who yearned to don fire gear and save folks from burning buildings. I think my dream was to play middle infield for the Baltimore Orioles or the Seattle Mariners.
But firefighter as a career? It was in my top five, for sure.
I guess that’s why, donning a 40-pound air tank and thick, protective gear like the rest of these guys, I’m eager to get a fire going. Literally.
Clallam County Fire District 3’s new tool is a so-called “burn box,” or “burn trailer,” that can simulate structure fires up to 1,700 degrees. I decided I had to know what that might feel like — minus any injuries — so I joined assistant chief Ben Andrews, volunteer leader Steve Chinn and a slew of other District 3 folks at Fairview Elementary last week for burn training.
Heavy on the shoulers First off, the gear is uncomfortably heavy. At first, when Andrews and firefighter/paramedic Ron Whitney outfitted me with what firefighters call “bunker gear,” I thought, “Yeah, this is OK. As long as I don’t have to move.”
Furthermore, breathing becomes a little interesting. Having never been scuba diving or involved with any HAZMAT-related activities, I’d never breathed from an air tank. There’s a moment I thought the air wasn’t going to be there, and if you don’t really breathe in, it isn’t. But when you do get that first, cool breath, it’s a kind of shock to the system.
On a rather soupy (rainy) Thursday afternoon, I threw on my bunker gear and tried to look inconspicuous among all these full-time firefighters and trainers. They tossed around numbers concerning temperatures, BTU outputs, FTA and Iowa approaches to structure fires, and a whole lot of other things I barely caught on to.
Where there’s smoke … After nearly an hour, instructor John Tanaka asked the rather anxious crowd if they were ready to “light it up.” Their cheers reminded me a bit of a rock concert. I guess I’m not the only one who likes to play with fire.
As for the fire simulations, three things really stood out to me. One, the amount of smoke around is disarming and kind of disturbing. Within a few seconds, a raging fire was sending thick rolls of charcoal-colored smoke out of the approach box, the cargo trailer-shaped structure that leads into the burn box.
I’ve always heard smoke is as dangerous as fire itself, perhaps more so. Now I’m convinced. Second, these guys know their stuff. Well before they got close to the fire, District 3’s crew had an idea of what kind of temperatures were inside just looking at the small windows on the burn box. Andrews said you can tell by the reactions of moisture on the window panes in a structure just how hot a fire is, what stage it’s at and whether there’s anyone inside that’s still alive.
Third, the fires were hot but I was stunned at how incredibly comfortable I was — well, as much as I could be with a 40-pound air tank on me. These suits are so well-made that I could hardly feel much heat at all. Only when I took off my gloves to get a picture did I get a sense of how truly hot that burn box is.
Frankly, I was glad to get the gear off and get behind my comfortable desk at the Gazette office. It made for an interesting afternoon, but I can’t see doing that for a career.
Fortunately, as I noted to some of the firefighters at the training, there are better people who already are doing the job.
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