My Firefighter Days: When we were allowed to burn houses

While travelling around Kenya and staying on an amazing farm near Nakuru and the famous Lake Nakuru National Park, I came across this 2.5m high charcoal kiln. It is said that memories are unlocked by smells and the thick smoky smell inside the unlit kiln immediately took me back to my volunteer firefighter years in eastern Canada. One of those memories was of training initiatives where we actually burned houses. Yes.

(Using extraordinary heat, wood is transformed into charcoal in many parts of Africa and is then sold and used for cooking or heating.)

Wait, are firefighters allowed to burn stuff? Sometimes, yes!

Back in my day as a volunteer firefighter in eastern Canada, a property owner could receive a tax credit for allowing a fire department to do a controlled burn of an old structure the owner was taking down. This allowed fire departments to practice strategies and equipment, and especially for newer recruits to experience, learn, and understand heat, flames, smoke, steam, and fire movement, and extinguishing structure fires.

We also received donations of unrepairable cars so that we could practice using our cutting and spreading extrication tools and equipment. That was important to learn, practice, and keep skills sharp during motor vehicle accidents.

Time to invite some friends!

Any fire department has a certain region of responsibility. Logically, each region therefore has neighbouring regions and their respective fire department. Fire departments from neighbouring regions therefore work together and help each other through Mutual-Aid Agreements: I will help you and you will help me. Many regions can end up sending crews and trucks to help in the event of complex incidents such as a large complicated structure fire.

A nighttime fire in -10C is not a good time to learn how to work together so a controlled burn is a good opportunity for two or more fire departments to work together and practice working together. Firefighters, drivers, and officers from different departments get to practice working together.

First: The preparedness

Before any matches were struck, we had a couple of pumpers on site, a tanker truck was on standby, and hoses were laid. The last thing we wanted was for any controlled burn to get out of hand. We only used one part of the structure at a time, which usually consisted of one room.

Time to strike a match

Houses burn, scarily quickly. In Canada, older houses usually have hyper dry wood frames with air gaps behind the walls. Modern houses have so many flammable materials and contents that they also go up quickly, too. It’s for this reason that you need to get out immediately of burning structure.

It really didn’t take much to ignite a section of wall.

What was it like to sit inside a burning house and do nothing?

In full protective gear, I still remember the sounds, temperature layers, sensations, and boost in confidence. My first time inside a controlled house burn was a surreal experience. I sat inside a room with about 4 colleagues and the other end of the room was lit. Bit by bit, the flames gathered momentum and started searching for more and more of the wall to climb. The wall caught and the heat started to build up.

Contrary to our training and normal mandate to respond and help the homeowner, we just sat there. Like scuba divers deep under water, we inhaled fresh air from the air tanks on our backs. Our helmet, Nomex balaclava hood, air mask, multi-layered turnout gear (bunker gear) jacket and pants, gloves, and boots meant that no skin faced the rapidly increasing heat and the layers provided a degree of insulation from that heat.

One of the Captains instructed us to raise a hand and feel the temperature layers above our head. As you know, heat and toxic smoke rise and the further upwards away from the floor you get, the dramatically higher the temperatures and more toxic the air, hence why you are advised to stay low to the floor when fleeing a burning or smoke-filled structure.

There was a dramatic difference in heat the higher you raised your hand. Near floor level, the temperature was fine. By 1m it was quite hot and then by 1.5m (the height of an average person trying to walk in a crouched position), the heat was unbearable. Imagine how more toxic that air was also becoming for a regular person or a fire fighter with a now empty air tank and 20m in distance to get out of the structure. Stay extremely low if you are in a smoke/fire environment!

Fire and heat rise and the fire spread is predictably far more vertical than horizontal.

Fire has a predictable element

Not surprisingly, the flames, smoke and heat increased as minutes passed. The flames moved mostly vertically towards the ceiling and then spread in very direction at the ceiling.

This is when things get a bit dangerous in an enclosed roomfire as the heat layers start to heat up more and more surfaces and combustible materials, and get them all ready to ignite in a flashover large-scale ignition.

Time to cool down the situation

Well before the situation reached that dangerous flashover point, the Captain instructed the two firefighters holding a charged line (hose pressurized with water) to give some bursts of water and we watched the reaction on the flames, heat, and smoke.

Burn, spray, repeat: Keeping skills sharp

Rookies took turns experiencing the burning environments and then working the nozzle or backing up the lead firefighter. Crews tested our different spray patterns to see the effects and impacts on the flames. Veterans also took their turn to keep skills fresh.

Why the veterans? Many months can go by between structure fires and it is important for the veteran firefighters to also keep their skills sharp for when they face their next big incident.

It’s important to test the equipment, especially newer gear

Equipment needs to be used so we can ensure it is working properly and newer gear can also be incorporated into the controlled burn to learn how to use it and make sure it works.

Firefighting learning cycles

All firefighters go through a learning curve in both the theory and practice, and then the real thing, and then the variations of the real thing as each structure fire is different.

With time, practice, mentorship from others, and experience, one’s comfort level increases and one day you realise that you are also mentoring others and instilling that comfort level with the newer firefighters.

The brick and earth construction of this kiln means that it can be re-used and re-used.
The interior smelled like my turnout gear after a long structure fire incident.

We are all Better Preparedness

Being better prepared is all about learning, practicing and improving, and seeing how others approach and deal with situations. Here at Better Preparedness, it’s about you. You are your hero. My hope through these episodes and articles is to for you to take the proactive approach and find those opportunities to be better prepared, many of those opportunities will be ones you identify based on your circumstances and environments.

Keep in touch and leave a comment below. What is a preparedness area you could improve this year, or even today?

Take the opportunity to understand your house’s systems.

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