'This is only a test...'

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Once it got started, there was no going back. At 10 a.m. sharp, Jason Tindall thrust a lit flare into a pile of tree branches, igniting the fuel in a room that had once served as a kitchen.

As he moved into the next room to ignite the next pile of kindling, the flames in kitchen were already spilling over onto the ceiling. A choking cloud of smoke was billowing through the doorway with the fire roaring out of control.

By 10:05 a.m., half the house was already engulfed with flames shooting more than 30 feet into the air. Fire fighters took careful aim and began spraying water to keep the blaze contained.

Jason Tindall ignites tree limbs and other kindling as the fire department prepared for Saturday's live-fire exercise. It took less than an hour for the flames to consume the home on North 3rd East Street.

The fire raged on...

Just one hour earlier, city fire fighters were going over their battle plans. The mood in the room quickly turned to business as the strategy session spelled out the details of Saturday's exercise.

It culminated nearly six months of training inside a home on North 3rd East Street that continued up until Thursday evening. During that time, the single-story building had served as a hands-on training site for dozens of different scenarios.

Firefighters Danny Downen and Else Guillen concentrate their containment efforts on the north side of the house to keep the flames from spreading to an neighboring house during Saturday's live-fire exercise.

Some of the training involved "cold fire" situations in which smoke generators were used to replicate conditions inside the structure. By January, the training had ramped up to scenarios where the department's training officers set small-scale fires inside the structure.

There was no question that Saturday's exercise would be the last one inside the house.

"This is going to the ground. That's a fact," Fire Capt. Mark Moore told the firefighters during Saturday's briefing.

Youngsters react as they begin to see smoke and flames rising from the burning structure.

Pointing to a map of the home and surrounding neighborhood, Moore went step by step through the plan. Everything focused on details, ensuring everything went according to plan.

The goal was to direct the flow of the flames, starting on the south side of the house and causing them to move toward to the north.

Referring to the map once again, he showed the places where crews had already cut holes in the roof and walls. The goal was to keep the walls on the north side of the house standing as long as possible, allowing it to collapse in on itself.

Knowing they would let the house burn to the ground, the purpose of the exercise focused on containing the flames to the structure itself.

Nothing was left to chance -- not even the weather as fire chief Alan Bermensolo reviewed the forecast that morning. While the winds were in their favor -- out of the northwest at 11 miles per hour, the department had every right to remain on guard. Another house was just 15 feet to the north with a motel and private business located not much further away.

It didn't stop there. The department also needed to keep its eyes on the school district building and neighboring bank across the street, both of which had wooden shingles on their roofs.

Pointing to the map on the wall of the department's briefing room, Moore highlighted the position of every truck when they arrived on scene. He made it clear that the department's sole ladder truck would continue to spray water over the neighboring house to keep the wood shingles and siding from igniting from the heat and burning embers.

However, the firefighters were concerned with the power lines running along a back alley behind the house, which could sag and then snap due to the intense heat from the fire. However, Moore emphasized that the crews would point their fire hoses away from these lines, which was expected to minimize the risk associated with a downed powerline.

There was little fanfare as the department's fire vehicles drove to the scene of the scheduled fire. Some of the crews rolled out the hoses and charged them with water while others took up position around the building. Everything remained on schedule as Corbus set the first fire, which rapidly spread from one room to the next.

Dozens of people gathered in the bank parking lot across the street to watch the training exercise. Among them were youngsters like Charles and Courtney Folgleman.

Others like Tom Westall admit they were caught off guard by the live-fire training event.

"I saw the smoke and came running," Westall said.

As the heat from the flames reached a blistering 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, the flames took their toll on the structure. Within 10 minutes, the roof was already beginning to sag and collapsed just two minutes later.

At 10:13 a.m., crews were focused on beating back the flames shooting from an upper-floor window, which began rolling toward the adjacent house. A ladder truck sprayed water from overhead while a team on the ground hit the flames directly.

The heat from the fire remained intense as the flames consumed what little remained of the original structure. It caused some of the spectators to remark at how hot it was all the way to their seats.

"You could roast marshmallows in that," said Elaina Gooding as the youngster watched the house burn.

Her brother, David, admitted that it wouldn't take much to also toast bread in the fire.

There was nothing left of the main structure to indicate that it was originally a house just 40 minutes after the fire began. Only a chimney and a small section of a wall on the northwest corner were still standing.

At 11:52 a.m., firefighters pushed over the last wall on the north side of the house, leaving a small portion of the front wall still standing.

The fire acted exactly as expected, Bermensolo said. It was a textbook training scenario with no problems reported.

The only consequence related to the fire was the black ash that fell on cars parked at the Sunset Bar near the house, the fire chief added. Following the fire, crews with the city fire department washed down the vehicles as well as the parking lot of the local business.