Using fire as an educational tool

Photo of a house fully engulfed in flames, mostly destroyed, with a firefighter at far right training a stream of water on the blaze.

The best family-friendly event held this weekend in my community wasn’t found on any event calendar. It was in the news section of the newspapers under such tantalizing headlines as “Live fire training planned.”

At 10 a.m., a cadre of fire engines converged on a barren wasteland — a former field populated by natural grasses and wildflowers, where generations of kids grew up knowing what it was like to have open space near their homes.

Today, it’s a pending subdivision. The roads and sidewalks are built, and the rest of the land has been cleared to naked soil. Except… for a single two-story redwood house.

The developer was unsuccessful at finding someone willing to accept and move the building, so it was offered to our fire department for training purposes. I assume there’s a hefty tax break involved, because used redwood timber is valuable.

Prior to today, the home was stripped of all interior niceties, and I could be wrong, but I believe it was also moved to a safer location on the property.

Over the course of the next 3-and-a-half hours, firefighters performed seven types of training drills… setting a fire inside, then extinguishing it again and again until each room was deemed structurally unsafe. They wrung every ounce of value out of the structure.

Photo of flames shooting out a window of the house. Several firefighters stand outside watching. Three firefighters hold a hose as they walk into the building.

Here's one of the early training drills. Three firefighters at center are entering the building with a hose.

From our vantage point, we saw smoke, sometimes flames out the windows, and firefighters marching inside with hose-in-hand. As they got things under control, the thick brown smoke turned white. We heard the spray of the water and occasional breaking glass. After each drill, an industrial fan was placed in a doorway to shoot lingering smoke out the windows.

We watched with interest, inspecting the fire truck with its two bulging hoses hooked into it… talking about what happens if you park your car next to a fire hydrant… noting the protective garments worn underneath the more commonly seen firefighter outfits… talking about the purpose of the oxygen tanks and masks, and the yellow reflective strips covering the outfits… talking about how quickly fire spreads, that you must get out fast and get to a neighbor’s house to call 9-1-1.

I was hoping to see the female firefighter I documented in a photo in my 2,100 word masterpiece that no one read from three years ago, How to Raise your Children to be the Type of Adults You Want Them to Be.

(Save yourself 30 minutes and just look at this photo.)

We didn’t see one female firefighter. We saw two, and I pointed them out to my 6-year-old daughter.

Whenever possible, I show my daughter women working in occupations historically filled by men. You know the message: you can grow up to be anything you want to be. She knows it’s not entirely true though.

She is disappointed that women might not compete head-to-head with men in international football in her lifetime, and asks why there has never been a woman president. It makes for a long history lesson, but at least I can point out other countries have female heads of state.

And, she sure as hell knows she can be tough and brave enough to engage a fire and get an incapacitated victim to safety.

Today she met Kirsten. It’s Kirsten’s first live fire as a recent addition to the force, and she agreed to pose for a photo at my daughter’s request.

On the left, my daughter stands next to a giant wheel of a special wildland fire truck. At right, my daughter poses with Kirsten, a firefighter.

At left, my daughter demonstrates how big the tires are on a wildland fire truck. At right, she poses with Kirsten the firefighter. Whoops, regular readers may notice this is my daughter's first photo since Mom cut off the shoulder-length hair.

If this fire training was a popular event for the general public, we probably would have found ourselves standing behind a security fence to keep the masses out of the way. Truth be told, only a handful of people watched who were not friends or family of the firefighters. We stood among the firefighters who were waiting for their turn in the training, and other firefighters who showed up just to be there. We could engage any of them in conversation.

My family watched for an hour. After lunch, and a nap for my son, we returned at 1 p.m. when the training was nearly completed and the real fun was to begin. They let the building burn to the ground.

Another photo of the house fully engulfed in flames.

Here's the last remnants of the roof caving in.

Photo of the house fully engulfed in flames.

In a moment of reflection, my daughter said the fire was sad because this had been someone's home. I agreed that any children who grew up in the home would be surprised and saddened if they visited the area and found their old stomping grounds replaced by a subdivision of cookie-cutter new houses. But, I also reminded her that her home was once a field or forest, too.

The scene was exactly what you would expect it to be, a fireball with the building’s blackened skeleton slowly falling in onto itself. The only surprising aspect was the heat, like standing next to a camp fire except the camp fire is across the street and another 100 feet from the sidewalk.

(For context, although this event took place in mid-July, our normal summer temperature on the northern coast of California is 65 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s perhaps why this sort of planned fire was possible during the summer.)

There was a light breeze lifting the smoke up and away, never giving my asthmatic wife a problem, although I hear the wind currents brought it back down on K-Mart and McDonald’s patrons a few blocks away. Tsk. Tsk.

I highly recommend attending a live fire training. They don’t come along too often, but will be mentioned in newspapers to alert people who have breathing problems. Or, call your fire department to ask how many times a year the opportunity comes up, and then periodically call back to check.

Photo of the house fully engulfed in flames as firefighters train a stream of water on the ground next to it.

Firefighter Kirsten using a fire hose.

See related:

  1. Four Book Reviews: Firefighter Stories
  2. Discuss: Teaching Classic Gender Roles
  3. Fire Safety: Angel Safe Emergency Child Carrier

Update: Here’s someone’s video of the final blaze, shot from the other side of the house, across a roadway, via our local newspaper blog.


4 Responses to “Using fire as an educational tool”

  1. observer says:

    aj, you are so lucky to be able to show your kids such a wonderful learning oppertunity. while the fire station is a good field trip. seeing the drills and a real fire are memories that will last a life time, and a good way to teach fire safty. i wish they did thise where i live

    July 17th, 2010 at 8:27 pm

  2. AJ says:

    Are you sure your fire department doesn’t do live fire training? It’s a rare event here, but seems to happen about once a year, maybe less.

    July 17th, 2010 at 10:01 pm

  3. Melissa says:

    What a great experience for your family! I’m glad you’re spreading the word about how interesting and rich with real-life learning applications this event can be.

    I was touched to read about how empathetic your daughter felt for people whose homes are damaged like this, and impressed by how you provide her with examples of women workers in fields typically dominated by men.

    I’ve taken my students on field trips when demolitions are scheduled to take place, but never thought to look for something like this. Thanks for the tip!

    July 19th, 2010 at 2:47 pm

  4. observer says:

    yes i am sure they do not do live fire training. i live in a small town and if they do it they would have to go elsewhere. the department is not very big.

    July 31st, 2010 at 1:34 pm

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