Live-fire training vital for district

Frank Mestemacher, left, and Jeremy Hines spray trees near a burning house during a firefighting drill on Sills Road Saturday morning. - Matt Johnson
Frank Mestemacher, left, and Jeremy Hines spray trees near a burning house during a firefighting drill on Sills Road Saturday morning.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

Though it seems antithetical to their mission, firefighters with Fire Protection District 3 purposely burned down their eighth house of the year Saturday.

It was of course a training exercise. Firefighters attacked the fire at a Sills Road house donated to the department for training, using it as preparation for the real fires they see only rarely. Some of the skills they used, such as attacking a fire from the interior of the house, come into play only rarely at South Whidbey house fires.

But they are necessary, said FD3 Assistant Chief Paul Busch, and need to be well honed if the district’s volunteers ever need to use them.

“The basic skills will always be there,” he said.

Even as the districts awaits the delivery of a compressed air foam firetruck, which promises to give firefighters a safer, more effective method of fire suppression at some structure fires, the volunteers spent the morning charging into flames with a high-pressure fire hose as their weapon. Volunteer Susan Marchese and her company of firefighters learned a dangerous lesson about super-heated steam while fighting a house fire. While inside, water sprayed from a hose burst into a hot steam cloud. The resulting blast forced Marchese’s crew to the floor and seared and bubbled their fireproof helmets. Afterwards, firefighter Ken Starkweather toyed with the idea of giving Marchese the nickname “Bubbles.”

“She doesn’t want that nickname, but I think it’s a good one,” he said.

Bush said the 28 firefighters who entered the burning house got a training opportunity that does not come along often. The house, which was built of solid cedar planks and logs, burned hot and burned for hours. Because most houses are usually fully engulfed in flames, the district rarely sends volunteers inside to battle the flames. Saturday was the practice they needed.

“Very seldom do we get a chance to do an interior attack,” he said.

Danielle and Norm Bodine donated the house to the district for their training exercise. The couple had planned to tear the house down and rebuild anyway.

“I think it’s a good exercise,” said Danielle Bodine as she took pictures of Saturday’s action.

About 20 homeowners have offered to donate their homes for training exercises this year. About a dozen were turned away when their homes did not meet the district’s standards for training. Busch said homeowners who are doing a teardown benefit from having their homes burned because the disposal cost of a burned house is thousands of dollars less than unburned.

The fire district removes hazardous materials such as tar shingles, plastic and rubber from houses before they burn them. It also notifies the Northwest Air Pollution Authority of the burns.

District officials expect the new compressed air foam truck to give them greater ability to fight fires from outside buildings. However, Busch said, because conventional fire trucks will typically beat the CAF truck to a fire scene, interior firefighting with conventional water hoses will still be a needed skill.

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