News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Region's firefighters burn to learn

Drivers passing by the Sisters District Ranger Station on Saturday, December 30 felt a certain amount of anxiety as thick smoke and fire arose from one of the several buildings on the District's campus. The obsolete building, once used as a dormitory, was in the way of the new 14,000-square-foot headquarters building to be constructed this year.

Rather than demolish it, the Forest Service donated it to Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire District (SCSFD) for a live fire training exercise, a rare opportunity for firefighters to gain real word experience. That the structure, about 1,400 sq. ft., also had a basement was a bonus, there being so few in the area.

It was a day-long exercise involving some 50 firefighters and instructors from departments in Sun River, Bend, Portland, Black Butte Ranch and Jefferson County. A second training day was conducted on the same site on Saturday, January 6. The effort was organized by SCSFD under the direction of Deputy Chief Tim Craig with a major assist from Jason Ellison, Deputy Chief of Black Butte Ranch Fire District.

While the major goal was to acquaint newer and younger firefighters with live action fire the event was equally important for those personnel qualifying as instructors. Teachers teaching teachers if you will.

After a thorough briefing and safety review at the Community Hall, personnel headed for the scene leaving behind adequate crews who could respond to calls. The morning was devoted to smoke. Thick with varying velocity.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) most fire deaths are the result of smoke inhalation rather than burns. NFPA notes that every 20 seconds somewhere in the United States a fire department is responding to a fire. Once a minute, a fire is occurring in a home or other building that most likely has occupants. Fire experts find that most fires today occur in a person's home or vehicle and generally involve one or two victims.

A fully-developed indoor fire can reach or exceed temperatures of 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. Even one breath of this very hot air can be lethal. Inhaling superheated gases can burn your respiratory tract whether or not the gases present are toxic. Those who suffer burns are at even greater risk as burn victims often have injuries to their lungs from inhaling hot smoke. Over 50 percent of people with severe burns and smoke inhalation die.

Tyler Wallace, a young firefighter from SCSFD, was one of those making his first live fire event.

"We have hours and hours of classroom training. We work hard on learning about smoke behavior, but it was nothing like going into that building filled with smoke. There was no light at all. Totally dark. It was like being blind," Wallace told The Nugget, as he exited from the building.

Trainers and stagers create the smoke by burning hay bales in a burn barrel.

Zack Oubelqasse, another young firefighter from the Black Butte Ranch team, was also making his first live fire entry.

"It's everything we learned in the classroom right before our eyes. Suddenly it all came to life," he said.

He and Wallace admitted that there was a certain thrill to being that close, both using the word "fun" in their description of the day's activities. Both took their work seriously, but allowed that the day provided a good deal of personal satisfaction.

Like everybody on scene, the pair had trained in Conex boxes, specially designed steel structures that resemble ocean shipping containers.

"They are a good training tool and make for a reasonable facsimile of a burning building, but they are nothing like a real wooden structure," Craig said.

The morning gave way to the afternoon's main event - igniting the structure. Fueled with wooden pallets and a few dead Christmas trees, the building was soon bursting with flames. The flames could have been quickly extinguished, however the building was allowed to burn to the ground.

Ellison explained that it's essential for firefighters to observe closely and understand fire behavior. Fire behavior can be characterized as the manner in which a fire reacts to the interaction of fuel, weather, and topography - the "fire behavior triangle." The four main parameters used to describe fire behavior include: rate of spread, fireline intensity, flame length, and flame height.

All on hand expressed satisfaction with the day's yield. It was all repeated again last Saturday with a second, smaller building about 200 yards from the first. It too stood in the way of the new construction and had a basement.

That building had been the offices of the Forest Service's fire team - an irony not lost on the gathered firefighters.


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