When it comes to training for structure fires, there is nothing like the real thing — but it’s hard to come by. Fire departments today don’t get enough live fire experience, said Capt. Randy Meers of the North County Fire Protection District. “We have training towers, but that doesn’t give you the feeling of what it’s like moving through a house with flames and smoke.”
The next best thing is a controlled burn in a vacant building, often a house already slated for demolition by the property owner. It’s a chance most fire departments are lucky to get even once a year.
Vista resident Mike McReynolds donated a single-story farmhouse that the North County Fire Protection District burned this week in Fallbrook.
“It was a natural for me to offer the house for training,” said McReynolds, who is on the board of the Vista Fire Protection District and is the father of a North County Fire Protection District captain. The district serves Fallbrook, Bonsall and De Luz.
But it takes more than a willing property owner and an eager fire department to put together a training burn.
The house has to fit the bill — free of asbestos and other hazardous materials; far enough from other buildings that there’s no significant risk of the fire spreading; ramshackle enough that a property owner wants to get rid of it; yet sufficiently sturdy to withstand flames long enough for firefighters to get some real experience.
Departments actually “rehab” houses that are about to be burned. They break out glass and board up windows. They replace drywall and floors that have been ripped out, and install “prop” furniture made of wood and paper.
They’ll even rebuild parts of the house to get the most burn for their buck.
The rehab costs vary, but Meers said $8,000 was the ballpark for most burns he’s worked on. He said the McReynolds house burn may cost more because the training exercise lasted a week rather than a few days.
The cost to prepare a house is prohibitive in some cases, Meers said.
“There are some houses we just can’t do,” he said.
There also are environmental concerns. Burns can be held only on days with low fire risk, and they must be approved by the regional air quality authority.
For the McReynolds burn, the department had to make sure that run-off and debris from the fire didn’t make its way into a stream on the property.
There are alternatives to live fire training, and local departments do use them.
In 2001, San Marcos became home to the only five-story, state-of-the-art firefighter training tower south of Los Angeles.
Tower walls can be reconfigured, sections of roof can be removed, and a 60,000-gallon tank holds recycled water.
“It’s a wonderful facility to have,” said San Marcos Fire Battalion Chief Rick Vogt. “But it doesn’t burn down. It doesn’t collapse.”
So last year, despite having the training tower, San Marcos firefighters practiced their skills on two condemned city-owned buildings on Richmar Avenue.
“If firefighters never spend time in a burning structure, they would never see and hear the signs of imminent collapse,” Vogt said. “Those are mental images they need.”
Live burns also give firefighters the chance to try out new tools, such as flame-retardant foams and gels, or the thermal imaging cameras used in Fallbrook this week.
The firefighters aren’t the only ones who benefit.
The more firefighters burn, the less a property owner has to pay to remove demolition debris from a site. And for those willing to brave the paperwork, there may be tax benefits for making a “non-cash charitable contribution.”
“It’s very little hassle,” McReynolds said of the donation process. “But I would have done it even if was a big hassle, because of the benefits to the Fire Department.”