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Volunteer firefighters go 'face to flame' with heat and smoke in training burn

March 9, 2011

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Volunteer firefighters train water on the fire.

A dozen new volunteer firefighters got a taste of smoke and fire on Saturday. Hood River Fire Department held a practice burn at 12th and Pacific, and invited their counterparts from Odell, Cascade Locks, Parkdale and West Side to participate. It took from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. to gradually burn the house down. By 1:30 p.m. it was mostly destroyed, in an impressive conflagration at one of Hood River's busiest intersections. Directed by Capt. Clayton McCrea, firefighters set and then doused fires inside rooms in order to see, face-to-flame, the ways heat and smoke behave in enclosed spaces, and how flames react when exposed to water and changes in oxygen levels. The event provided a bit of spectator sport for folks parked across 12th Street in the Walgreens parking lot, who watched teams of firefighters go in five at a time. Pallets and other old lumber were carried in and combined with hay and woodchips to make fires. Next team, new room, ignite and repeat. When the house finally "went up," the spectators had to hurriedly close car windows when a plume of dark smoke rose from the house. Two minutes later, the flames caught onto gases inside the house, and flames and white or clear smoke replaced the black plume. "Getting into the buildings and fighting the actual fire: There is no better training for it," said Hood River Chief Devon Wells. "Training like this is few and far between. You can't replace hands-on fire training with computer animation or classroom study," he said. Firefighters joked with each other about "How many firefighters does it take to set a fire?" When the interior training was done and it was time to torch the house for good, McCrea and company had some trouble getting it started. They piled as much dry debris as they could downstairs and exposed to a few long blasts with a propane torch. After repeated hose attacks, "It's saturated down there," Capt Dave Smith said. "Now it's going!" someone called as a 6-foot tower of blame burst out the back door. From there, crews focused on wetting down the front of the house to protect overhanging power lines. Wells gave thanks to building owner Henry Fisher, who offered the house to the department, and he praised the work of McCrea. "Clay put in a lot of time and effort in making this run smoothly," Wells said. "We had folks from other agencies tell us it was one of the most smooth-run burn-to-learns they've ever been to," Wells said. The training was particularly valuable to the volunteers who had just finished state fire academy and got to see hands-on firefighting and fire behavior, according to Wells. "It will help them prepare for a real event," he said. In case of a real fire in the city, West Side Fire Department remained on standby, along with Mid-Columbia Fire and Rescue from The Dalles. (Pine Grove firefighters were busy at the same time with their annual fundraiser auction.) The property where the house stood will become part of the new home of Columbia Gorge Family Medicine, which plans to move this fall to its new facility, from June and 10th streets. Construction crews have begun preparing the property for the project, and have been waiting for the house to be burned, according to Fire Marshal Peter Mackwell. The contractors had one week from the practice burn to clear debris, which they began doing on Sunday morning.

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