Reporter's notebook: A day at a controlled burn

Published on Wed, May 7, 2014 by Brandy Kiger Shreve

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Editor’s Note: Brandy attended a controlled burn on Kline Road on April 12, 2014, where Northwest Fire and Rescue (NWFR) allowed her to participate in the event. This is her firsthand account. 

I couldn’t get my gloves on. 

Tugging at them repeatedly, wiggling my fingers and trying to get the liner to slide back in the deep leather pockets, I felt the heat rise on my face from embarrassment and panic while the flames raged in the building next to me.

“I had this down yesterday in practice,” I laughed nervously, my voice robotic and stiff through the amplifier attached to my breathing mask. “But the liner won’t go back in.”

Some of the firefighters around me looked concerned, unsure of whether I was actually ready to go in the building as I fiddled with my mask and gloves.

I wondered that myself, but I adjusted the GoPro camera strapped to my chest and told myself it was just the fresh wasp sting I had acquired spreading across my face that was throwing me off. I turned the camera on and tried to force the lining into place in a last ditch effort to save face. 

Finally, NWFR Chief Henry Hollander noticed my dilemma and came to my rescue, commandeering a pair of gloves from a firefighter nearby for me to use on this phase of the controlled burn.

“Put those other ones in your pocket for safekeeping,” he said, waving at the defective pair and helping me slide on the new ones. “Most of us carry two pairs of gloves because they can get like this. The trick is to wait until you’re ready to go in to put your gloves on. Otherwise, your hands get sweaty and the liner pulls out when you take them on and off.”

Though I had attended many controlled burns, this was my first time actually participating in one, and being allowed in to the burning buildings. To prepare I had attended a training at the fire station where I learned to don my gear and use the SCBA mask and breathing apparatus, as well as to recognize when I might be in danger and need help. 

Hollander gave me the rundown of his plan for me and what I should expect when inside. “Your camera might fog up when we hit the heat,” he said. “Just so you know.”

The firefighters had warned me I would sweat more than I ever had before once inside the fire, but forgot to mention how hot the oversized firefighter turnout I was wearing would be outside on a day that was 65 degrees and sunny. I was wearing my husband’s moisture-wicking running shirt, but could still feel the beads of sweat rolling down my back. 

“Some of these guys go through three or four shirts during a training day,” Hollander told me later. “We just try to keep them as hydrated as possible.”

I guzzled the bottle of water that the onsite medic had pushed into my hands and watched the first crew knock down the fire stretching from the shed next door with a heavy foam that turned everything and everyone it touched a snowy white. 

When a firefighter lugged a propane tank and blowtorch inside, Hollander waved for me to follow him. The floors of the small mobile home sagged under our weight, the stained carpets tattered and torn from years of abuse. As I walked across the porch, my oversized boots clunked awkwardly and I was a bit worried I might trip, so I tried to move slowly and deliberately, which made every step feel like a gross exaggeration. The firefighters that had outfitted me had said I would look like a little girl wearing her dad’s clothes when they put me in this getup, and from the feel of it, they were right. 

Noonchester had explained their plan for the training earlier in the morning, telling everyone on site that if the house caught, they were just to let it burn. “This was a drug acquisition by the sheriff,” Noonchester said. “There are a lot of people who are ready to see this house gone.” 

The man and woman who had lived there had been arrested on drug-related charges, he said. “There’s no telling what went on here,” he said, noting the double locks on the bedroom doors. He said they had also found chemicals when they cleared the structure for the burn. “It’s a sad place.”

In the back bedroom, a room no more than 12x12’, he set fire to some wooden palettes in the corner of the room. The blowtorch hissed as the flames grabbed hold of the kindling and crawled their way up the wall. I hunkered down in the corner,
Hollander stood beside me, giving me the play by play. “It’s going to get real black up there,” he said, motioning to the top of the room where the clouds of smoke billowed and puffed against the eaves. “And every foot you go is a 100-degree temperature change.”

He had me stand to feel the difference in temperature from my kneeling position and the top of the room, and the blast of heat hit me hard in the face. I quickly crouched back down and watched the flame grow taller and arc across the room. 

The first team came in, and we edged out of the room behind them, watching as they analyzed the fire and made a plan to extinguish. It was four minutes into the blaze and the smoke and heat became so intense that the room darkened and I couldn’t be sure if I was passing out or simply being blinded by the smoke. I knelt and found my vision clearer, so I pressed through the heat, shaking my pack every so often so the alarm attached to my belt would register that I was still alive and moving.

Then the crashing came. Axes broke through the ceiling, allowing the smoke to escape and clear the room so the firefighters could move in. I started to follow, eager to capture the firefighters vanquishing the fire, but the wall of heat pushed back against me and I saw my camera quit. I watched for another 30 seconds and then signaled that I was ready to go.

Hollander walked me outside, and I shrugged off my air pack, mask and turnout, and went from overheated to chilled in a matter of moments as a breeze cut through my sweat-soaked T-shirt. Within two minutes of my exit, the firefighters battling the blaze inside had cleared the building and exited as well.

Hollander tossed me the plastic Honeywell thermostat that had been hanging on the wall above my head inside the home. It now looked less like a thermostat and more like a Salvador Dali painting. “Keep it as a souvenir,” he said.

I turned it over in my hands, impressed by how the waves of heat had melted the casing, and thought to myself it was a  very good thing I had finally gotten my gloves on.