Saturday, January 17, 2009

The third time's a charm

Seems like it usually happens- the coldest day of the year, and a structure fire.

The day started out as planned. My daughter had a chiropractor's appointment. Midway through her adjustment, the tones hit.

I can tell almost immediately what kind of call it's going to be. If the first thing I hear after the alert is the ambulance tones, it's an EMS call. If it's the siren tones, it's probably an MVA. But this time, it was the siren tone, followed by another tone...

This is not a good sound.
A structure fire, reported by the neighbors across the street. This means it has likely been going for a while.
And crap, I'm out of position. A good 12-15 minutes away.

I pay at the desk, and go to the car to gear up. My daughter races to the car as soon as her appointment is done, just in time for me to hop in and drive. She's a good sport, and hops out of the car at the intersection closest to our house, so I don't have to detour to drop her off.

I can see the mutual aid engine coming up the road, and turn ahead of them. About half a mile ahead of me, I see our engine heading away from the station. I know that I'll end up passing it- contrary to popular belief, fire engines don't go that fast; they're too heavy. At least ours is- it doubles as a tanker, with around 2000 gallons of water.

As it heads up the hill towards the structure, I'm able to pass, and get to the scene ahead of it. I pull up past the fire, to leave room for more apparatus, hop out of my car, grab my camera, and start shooting as I walk back to the scene. The next 6 hours are alternated between working on water supply, as interim safety officer, accountability, running messages for the IC, moving hoses, trying to keep things (including firefighters) from freezing up, and taking pictures, some for the investigation.

It was a balmy zero degrees or so.

This is what I saw walking back to the scene. Flames shooting out of the front of the structure; heavy smoke.

As I got closer, I could see the attack team out front.

Another shot of the attack. And that's my kid on the left. He was home, so got there before I did. He's backing up one of our newest members, who is at his first structure fire.

Now my pal sj has arrived on scene, and is backing up the attack. In front of them, to the left of the house, is what remains of the trailer where the fire started. Right. I know. You can't see the trailer. There's not much left.

Now a shot of the team in the back of the house, trying to get water up into the attic floor. More about that later.
Check out the names of the guys from the nearby career company assisting us. Cook and Baker. Kind of funny, if you look at it right.
I went to high school with Baker. Small world.

So here's the deal.
The fire is up in the space between the ceiling of the lower floor, and the floor of the attic. Stubbornly hiding from us. Fire is like that. We had to get an excavator from the town highway department to come and remove most of the roof, to dig into that attic floor and expose the fire.

It worked.
As soon as the attic floor was opened up, heavy fire.
One of the mutual aid companies has a ladder truck, and we doused the top of the house from the top of the aerial.

Were given the word from the chief to pack up after about six hours in the bitter cold. Most of the hoses and some of the pump valves had long since frozen up.

I learned why so many volunteer firefighters drive pickup trucks.
To haul the frozen hoses back after calls like this. There's no way to pack them back on the apparatus.

Everyone heads back to the station, for hot chocolate and a lot of laying out hoses to thaw. Put the apparatus back in service as best we could, hindered by a lack of usable hoses- and our fuel tanks had both frozen up. Oh- and the dry hydrant at the town pond was also frozen, so they had to head down into the nearby town that has hydrants to refill the water tanks. Our tiny town doesn't have a hydrant system, and uses tanker shuttles and a portable pond for water supply.

Headed for home, tired and cold.
Tried to catch up with the stuff I had intended to do all day.
Hit the sack, ready for a nice long sleep, at about 1am.

At 2:37, the tones went off again.
A rekindle.
This sounds like somehow, a new fire has started, but the truth is that the first fire apparently was never really out.
Should have had that excavator take the entire roof off. I, being a lowly relatively new company member, with no seniority or status of any kind, was not privy to the decision about what to have the excavator do or not do. So I don't know why or how things were decided. I don't know how the decision is made to call the fire "out" and return everyone to service, either.
Sometimes, mistakes are made.

This was one of those times.

It being o'dark thirty, and knowing the rekindle had to be reported by a neighbor, told me that it was probably going pretty good. Had to have been for anyone to notice at that time of night.

We headed out the door for the station, and our hopefully somewhat dryer gear. Not in such a hurry this time- nothing left to save, really, and no one in the house, so no life safety issues.

Arrived on scene to this:

Pretty- if it's not your house.
The fire had now dropped down from the ceiling into the lower part of the house, and was really cooking by the time we got there. Enough so that we barely noticed the now -6 degrees.

For a while, anyway.

Another view, moments later, as the fire continues to grow.

We were there ahead of any water supply, so I took some pictures while waiting for the apparatus to get there.
Spent the next couple of hours working on water supply, so no more picture taking.

Instead, I got to play in the water.
I was in charge of the valve for filling the tank from the supply tanker. No pond in the night- ours wasn't repacked, and besides, the apparatus it travels on was out of service. So we filled directly from another tanker.

Trouble is that in the cold, nothing was connecting right, and everything was icy and slippery. When the tank was full, water would spray between where I was, and the valve I needed to close, so I had to reach through a substantial shower to get it closed, getting soaked in the process. I was an icicle. Crunchy. Crackly. Kind of impressive. It's too bad I'm the one with the camera. Not.

You have to imagine it- I was covered in ice, the truck was covered in ice, the ground was covered in ice, the hose was covered in ice, the valve was covered in ice. Even the ice was covered in ice. My gloves were frozen into the claws of the zombie creature from the deep, and anything I touched, I immediately froze to. It was amusing, in a middle-of-the-nightmare sort of way.

After a couple of hours alternating between waiting, and getting soaked, we were released to go home. Still a fair amount of steam coming off the top of that house. I wasn't convinced the fire was really, really out. But it's not my call.

When I got to my car, I couldn't get in- nothing would bend. I had to break some of the ice first. And then, when I got back to the station, I couldn't get my turnout coat off- the latches were iced over. I had to pour warm water on them to free them up.

Got home around 5:30-ish. Too late to go to bed, or not?
Ended up trying to catch a nap, at least, but couldn't get warm enough to actually sleep.

We got up on the early side, planning to head down to a pancake breakfast sponsored by another nearby fire company. I decided that we should drive past that house again, just to see if it had "rekindled again," rather than get to breakfast and end up toned out, and being 20 minutes away.

As we got near the house, we could see smoke in the air. Great.
It was mostly white... could be steam... but in the middle there... looks a little darker.

I parked the car, and walked around the back of the house to get a look up into what was left of that ceiling. Before I got around the back, I could hear the fire crackling.

Sure enough, there it was, flames a couple of feet high, right in that spot in the ceiling that had given us the most trouble before.

Went back to the car. "I got your good news, and your bad news... We won't be having pancakes. But it's small, and we may be able to handle it with the mini-pumper."

I pulled out my cell phone. I don't have a portable radio. Called one of the assistant chiefs, whose number I have. No answer. Tried another one. No answer. Tried the chief chief. No answer.

Meanwhile, we're headed back to the station, about a mile away. If we act fast, and get our mini-pumper up here, we can probably get that out before it gets going, and maybe most of the company can sleep in.

It was not to be.

As we were headed back up the hill, having gotten hold of a couple of the assistant chiefs (I was talking on the phone while gearing up), who suggested an "investigation" rather than toning the whole company, one of the assistant chiefs from our sister company radioed in that he was on scene, and reported the rekindle, and had dispatch wake everyone up.

We arrived on scene a minute later, and had the fire knocked down as soon as we got the preconnect pulled.

But it was still smoldering up there in that ceiling- we just couldn't tell where, exactly, it was coming from, and whether it was actually a "hot spot" or just evaporating water. It had risen to a high of -2 degrees, so anything even remotely warm was giving off "steam."

We got some more manpower on scene, and some guys went inside (no more ceiling over most of it to worry about collapsing) to pull what they could, and get water up inside there.

Should have taken down the entire roof, I tell you. Would probably have gotten a good night's sleep.

Went back to the station after a couple of hours.

Too late for pancakes.

I had to cancel a couple of lessons, but had classes to teach in the afternoon. So off I went to teach them, having spent about 11 of the past 24 hours in the subzero cold, some of that soaking wet besides, and about an hour and a half sleeping.

A little punchy, maybe, but I made it through.
Both classes went very well.

On the way home, I drove past the scene again, just so I'd know.

Not a wisp of anything.

The third time's a charm, I guess.
Cross your fingers for me, okay?

The good news: the people were not home at the time of the fire, and their dog and cats made it out safely. As long as that happens, and no one is injured, I'm good with it.


Lori Skoog said...

I can't imagine being soaked and frozen at -6. You must be one tough cookie!!! We average Joes do not realize what it takes to do what you do. Thanks!

CoyoteFe said...

Egad, Hilinda. That's pretty impressive service (not to mention tenacity) you got going there. Thank you.

And, (sigh) OK - I'll stop whining about my piddly 4 degree discomfort. Dry. In a coat sans ice and hoses and such.

Also, you write laugh-out-loud funny.

Ginny said...

Amazing post, Linda. The immediacy of it, the personal view that you bring to the hard job of fighting fires (including the support roles like the one you have) is what blogging is all about.

Well done.

By the way, I used to use this same theme for a previous blog of mine, might still have some nifty CSS tricks for spiffing up images and such. Let me know if you want me to dig into my files.

My main blog is still at but I have a couple of Blogger blogs for commenting and stashing news and photos.

GreenJello said...

Oh, brrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!!!!!!!!

I'm glad the owners weren't home, but that would not be a fun thing to come home to. :(