Most of my time as a firefighter was spent on wildfires. I worked for the Division of Forestry which in my second year became the Department of Forestry and which in more recent years has been branded as CalFire. They obviously employed some sort of marketing guru to raise their profile for the purposes of union bargaining. It is after all harder for the decision-makers to say no to requests for raises and budget increases when a brand is valued. CalFire sounds less like a government agency and more like, well a TV show.
Anyway, I digress… Oh yes, wild fires. Well we did respond to structure fires if they posed a threat to the forest which was most of the time since we lived in the forest.
It was our goal to arrive at the structure fires before the local fire department whenever we could. It was a matter of pride to be there first, to be quicker on the draw so to speak. The local fire department was mostly volunteer – I was also a volunteer – and there were about four or so paid positions.
One day the alarm went off at the station and we all scrambled to the engine as the engineer was pulling it out of its bay. Off we blazed south on the highway scattering traffic to the sides of the highway like a big red snowplow. A house was on fire south of town which meant that our station was closer than the fire department’s station. Their station was north a mile or two. That meant we were going to get there first in. That meant that if entry was going to be made, we were going to have to do it. My adrenaline was pumping because I was the senior firefighter on duty that day, that meant I was on the nozzle.
We rarely got to make entrance on a burning building for two reasons. First of all most of the houses in the area were north of us meaning that the fire department usually got there before we did unless it was night time; and second, most houses that caught fire which we were called to were fully involved and therefore could not be entered into by anyone. All we could do was protect neighboring structures and the forest.
So down the highway we go lights flashing and siren singing. The house is right on the highway and thick black smoke is billowing out from under the eaves but no flames are visible. The fire so far appears to be contained to the attic. As we drive up we spot a hydrant and run a line to it. We all jump off the truck and the captain is barking orders. The owners are nervously standing off to the side hoping we can save their home for them. He enters the house to look inside but sees no flame.
We lay some hose and the engineer starts the pump to begin spraying the roof to cool it down. The captain yells at me and another guy to put on Scott air tanks and to get a ladder and climb up in the attic with a live line. Now Scott air tanks in those days were steel tanks like a SCUBA divers use. They were heavy. They weren’t like the ones I lifted recently at a fair that are made of some sort of composite materials. The new ones are as light as a feather – firefighters such wimps these days (Ha!).
The Scotts were stored in a side compartment on the engine and we’d reach in, grab it and raise it over our heads then hook our arms through the shoulder straps and allow it to slide down our backs into position and buckle a waist band. We put on the clear face-covering mask pulling the rubber bands to create a seal around our faces. Then we stretched the rubber corrugated hose with one hand and covered the end with the other end and inhaled deeply to test for leaks in the hose before we connected it to the regulator. No problem, we were ready to attack the fire from the inside.
Meanwhile the smoke was continuing to build so my partner grabbed a short ladder and I took the nozzle, and we charged into the house and down the central hallway. We found the attic entry and my partner wedged the ladder up into it. I pulled the hose up the ladder and climbed into the darkness. It was a tight squeeze with the Scott on my back but I managed to get through. Black smoke filled the space. I crawled forward dragging the hose along and I felt my partner tap my leg to let me know he was now inside and behind me. We could not see each other. We dragged the hose forward but saw nothing. The smoke was too thick to even see my hand pressed against my face mask. It was hot but there weren’t any flames, no light of any kind.
We had practiced for this of course. In the station, the captain would cover the inside of a Scott mask with tin foil making the inside dark. One of the crew would lay down somewhere inside the barracks as a mock victim and two of us wearing Scotts would have to crawl through searching the entire building to find him. I think we called it a pattern search. Basically that meant that we followed the walls on the perimeter of the building. One man would crawl keeping contact with the wall with one hand and with the other firefighter with his other hand. The other firefighter on the inside would sweep the inside of the room as far as he could reach without breaking contact with the outside guy. We’d reach under tables and beds until we found the firefighter and then we’d have to carry him out.
I learned on this fire that you truly are blind in that kind of smoke so the tin foil exercise was realistic. The smoke creates a light eating soup full of tar and toxic fumes. All you have for security is your Scott, your partner and that hose. You have to trust that your captain will pull you back before it’s too late.
As I was crawling forward trying to find the flames and staying balanced on the rafters so I wouldn’t come crashing through the ceiling, I saw a dim blueish light in the distance. I didn’t know that the firefighters outside were preparing to ventilate the attic. They had used saw to cut a square hole in the side of the house, now only about eight feet from me. They placed a powerful fan in the hole we called a smoke ejector and flipped the switch drawing all the smoke out in what seemed like an instant. Suddenly I could see the entire attic but no flames.
I was covered in sticky black soot and sticky tar-covered spider webs were plastered against my Scott mask. Since there was no fire in the attic and no flames showing themselves inside the house we had a mystery on our hands – where was the fire?
My partner and I backed out of the attic and down inside the house pulling out the hose as we went. Another crew was in the process of tearing out the ceiling in the kitchen below which the fire seemed to be located. It turned out that the kitchen was an addition and the old roof line was concealed inside the ceiling. The fire was burning in that concealed space sparked by substandard wiring. We tore out the ceiling and put out the fire. It was a heck of a mess in there when we were done. We dragged all the burned and smoldering debris out into the yard and hosed it all down to a soggy cooling pile while the poor family looked on. That was the day we all learned about the value of building inspectors and permits.
To be continued…