Howard Lake-Waverly Herald, Aug. 9, 1999

When you're hot, you're hot

By Andrea Vargo

Some ancient instinct moved inside my mind, as the fire boiled and rolled, almost in slow motion, in the upper half of the kitchen.

Two green spots glowed where the sink faucets were. There seemed to be a hypnotic fascination with the fire, drawing me closer.

My safety net to keep me out of trouble was the Howard Lake Fire Department. The fire was set in the old Clem Crowley house as a training exercise, recently.

It's not every day a person gets invited to a fire, but the department extended an invitation for me to do just that.

Not only could I watch and learn about how fires burn and how to put them out, but the firemen offered to put me in one of their protective suits and let me go inside the building.

"This is a really cool idea," I thought. But cool was the last thing it was.

Not only does the suit keep the heat from the fire out, it keeps the body heat in, explained Fire Chief Joe Drusch.

Next, we had to find a suit that fit me. I'm 5 feet 3 inches tall and a bit wide.

Finally, two people squished me into a pair of pants with boots attached (size 10 boots).

Then came the jacket, head and neck cover, helmet, and face mask for the air tank.

Someone mentioned the similarity with getting their kids ready to go outside in the winter, with snowsuits and all.

I held out my arms, and someone pushed gloves on my hands.

If I had fallen over, there is no way I could have gotten up.

Did I mention I'm claustrophobic?

The guys gave me some time to practice breathing through my mask before I got dressed, and I thought I could stay a short time inside all this paraphernalia, so they decided to go ahead and take me into the building.

By the way, safety was always a big concern, and the fire department had to get permission from the chief instructor from Willmar to allow me into the building.

Several fires had already been started and extinguished in what is called a level-one burn.

Now, mounds of paper and cardboard, bales of straw, and old pallets would help make a nice hot fire to burn the building to the ground. Accelerants, such as gasoline, are prohibited.

As we moved up the steps and into the building, three or four firemen stayed close to me for my own safety.

Ahead of me, the fireman with the propane torch touched off the paper. I started to raise my camera to take a picture, when this panicky, crawly feeling struck my mind.

My motion to exit was taken seriously by the men around me, and they hustled me out of the building. Knowing my situation, they proceeded to rip everything off my face and head as quickly as they could.

Drusch said, "If any of us were totally honest, we all felt the same way the first time in."

"So this is what it is like," I thought.

Just the experience of having all the gear on was more than I could handle. The straps for the air tank were tight around my chest, and I was firmly zipped and Velcroed into the suit. The suit becomes its own little world.

Add a blazing inferno, and this is not something the average person can do without a lot of excellent training and personal fortitude.

How a fire burns

The heat from a home fire can range from 100 degrees on the floor to 1,200 degrees at ceiling height, said Assistant Fire Chief Dennis Bobrowske.

As the fire gets hotter, the gasses rise to the ceiling and burn.

In fact, there is a definite line that you can see, where it is clear and where there is fire and smoke.

That is why people are told to get down on the floor, since that is where the only oxygen is, said Bobrowske.

An old house like the Crowley's old farmhouse is stick-built with no fire stops, explained Drusch.

Fire can travel up the walls, over the attic, and down the other side without any way to stop it, he said.

Hollow-core doors burn quickly, and lead paint, glues and all the by-products in building supplies create fumes that are dangerous. Firefighters need their air tanks.

The tanks contain about 15 to 20 minutes of air, and bells go off about five minutes before the tanks get empty.

This gives the firefighter time to get out of the building and smoke before he or she runs out of air.

Yes, Howard Lake has a woman firefighter, Diane Warnke. She does everything the men do and is respected by the other firefighters, said Drusch.

The Crowley's house will be burned so that it falls into the basement. This will be make it easier to clean up. The owners want to build a new house on the same spot.

Bobrowske said when the whole house is burned, water will contain the heat and flames on the outside, while the inside burns out.

Then, when the inside is burned and the roof starts to collapse, it will take the walls in with it, and there will be very little mess outside of the basement. That is, when everything goes well.

The Crowley's house burns like it is supposed to burn.

Defeating the blaze

Said one of the instructors, "I can put out a fire real quick, but it takes me all day to start one."

Bob Lindahl, fire coordinator for Ridgewater College at the Willmar and Hutchinson campuses, said this is his twelfth training burn since March 1.

He and other instructors supervise the burning of old buildings as training exercises for firefighters.

Before a burn, there is a whole packet of information that needs to be filled out, and there are permits that need to be obtained from local authorities and the Department of Natural Resources, he said.

There is not so much difference between putting out a fire to save a home and burning a house for a learning experience except in the end result.

In one instance, the firefighters try to put out the fire and save as much as they can. In the case of a training burn, teaching safety and firefighting tecniques are paramount.

Trying to save a home and cause the least amount of damage is just part of the fire picture.

When the firefighters arrive at the scene of a fire, the officer in charge assesses the situation, Lindahl said.

He will walk around the building to try to determine the source of the fire.

Gas and electricity will be cut off to the structure.

A three-man crew will be sent into the building, unless the whole structure is involved with all the windows gone and flames shooting out.

A back-up crew is ready to go in if it is needed, he said.

When the crew enters the building, the firefighters look for the source of the fire and use the water to push the fire back to its origin.

Lindahl said the fire will literally spread around you if the flames are hit in the middle.

Water can be banked off the ceiling onto the fire, said Drusch. This takes the fire down and takes the heat off the ceiling.

It is actually steam that puts out fire, not water, said firefighter and Ambulance Director Tom Diers.

"Joe (Drusch) and I used to go in and pour the water on and we were steam burned on the shoulders all the time," Diers said.

Techniques are better now and the firefighters have learned how to clear a building of smoke with huge fans blowing out of the house.

Less water is used, more effectively.

"You can put out a lot of fire with a little water, (if you know how)," said Lindahl.

Hydro-venting is used a lot now, said fire chief Drusch. Water from the hose is turned to a spray that fits the size of a window, and as the water exits the window, it pulls the heat, gases, and smoke with it.

This makes it easier to find the source of the fire and address that problem in a more efficient manner, he said.

During one of the level one practice burns that only involved one room, hydro-venting was attempted.

"When we hydro-vented the room, the fire broke and came up and over the ceiling. There were a couple of rookies in there, and they experienced the heat and unpredictability of a fire," Drusch said.

The firefighting team was joined that Saturday by some of the Cokato Fire Department people, and everything was set up for safety.

Two hoses run from each truck, one for inside the building and one for a back-up outside. Then two more hoses are on the perimeter of the house, in case something goes wrong, said Drusch.

One of the outside hoses protects an outbuilding and a propane tank, while another mists an old oak tree and the side of the house adjacent to the tree, whenever the flames and heat started to build up.

Glass melts. Asphalt shingles become liquid fire that run down a valley and drip off the edge of the roof.

The house is consumed by the fire, and the crew has a good training experience.

Lindahl commented on what he called a "well-trained group that works together well."

Said Lindahl, "When you meet your volunteer firefighters on the street, you should shake their hands and tell them how proud you are of them."

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