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TVF&R puts recruits through paces as donated house burns down to the ground

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue firefighters take turns practicing on the fire hose during a controlled house burn near Cedar Mill Bible Church on Thursday. A house burning to the ground on an unseasonably warm spring day doesn’t typically evoke smiling faces — especially from those donning several pounds of protective firefighter gear.

For Dacia Grayber, however, the test burn last Thursday at Cedar Mill Bible Church marked a golden opportunity toward becoming a full-fledged firefighter with Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue. She was one of 15 trainees who watched, listened, responded and learned as the one-story aqua-blue house — a donation to the agency from the church — was purposefully set afire.

“All 15 of us had a chance behind the nozzle, attacking the seat of the fire,” Grayber said. “That kind of training, you just can’t replicate.”

With bright sunshine and temperatures in the low-to-mid 80s, neighbors, curious passersby and personnel of the church at 12208 N.W. Cornell Road gathered to take in the training exercise from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Veteran training officers set a series of fires inside the structure to demonstrate fire behavior and let recruits practice searching for victims in a hot, smoky environment while they kept busy extinguishing the flames.

After the training rotations, firefighters set a final fire and allowed the home to burn to the ground. As the resulting thick, black smoke and flames reached for the sky, a combination of nearly 50 recruits and experienced firefighters aimed their hoses in and around the house.

“It gives recruits a real sense of tactics,” said Cassandra Ulven, TVF&R spokeswoman of the realistic drill. “They’re performing multiple operations at the same time, such as search techniques and the interior fire attack.”

One lesson demonstrated was the transition from attacking the fire to a defensive approach, which involves fighting the fire from the outside while protecting nearby structures — in this case, a large, metal garage and neighboring houses belonging to the church — from fire exposure.

On this summer-like day, personnel had to be particularly cautious about the additional heat the fire generated.

“The air temperature is something to be concerned about,” Ulven said, noting the heat-bearing qualities of firefighters’ “turnout” jackets. “It gets very hot inside the turnouts and keeps the body heat in. If you add high temperatures, you’re increasing your chances of dehydration and fatigue.”

Autumn Tamura, a Cedar Mill resident and former volunteer firefighter with the Elsie Vine Maple Rural Fire District west of Hillsboro, was beckoned by the billowing smoke.

“I thought, ‘Holy Cow! That’s really close to home,’” she said of her 88th Avenue residence. “I could see it from clear up there.”

Drawn to the camaraderie and community connection of being a volunteer responder, she took some time off following surgery about a year ago. She hopes to get involved again as a volunteer near her new residence.

“It’s tough to be on this side,” she said while watching the blaze from a safe distance. “Because I want to go play.”

Cedar Mill Bible Church bought the 1930s-vintage house from a neighbor who moved away nearly two years ago, and donated it to TVF&R for the exercise.

“We knew they’d love using it for this purpose, so we thought we’d help ‘em out,” said Ted Bernick, facilities manager for the church. “We had several people look at it to see if we could remodel, but it would cost far more than what it was worth. We have to pay to haul the debris away. With this, there’s less to haul away, so we’re saving money.”

When the rubble is cleared, the church plans to create a grassy park for the enjoyment of its members as well as neighbors looking for a place to stretch out.

“The house was beyond fixing,” said Josh Son, worship pastor at the church. “So we thought we’d bless the community with a grassy area to enjoy, instead of it being an eyesore.”

Now in week 14 of the 17-week TVF&R Training Academy program, Grayber, a former volunteer firefighter in Bellingham, Wash., said she’s more excited than ever about being part of a professional firefighting force.

“For me, there is no other job,” the former kindergarten teacher said. “It’s an opportunity to be really engaged in the community that most people don’t get a chance to experience.”

As the force of pressurized water crumbled what was left of the house’s charred walls and the towering flames subsided, Grayber — even while sweating in her turnout jacket 20 feet away — remained all smiles.

“It’s an unbelievable amount of work. Physically, it’s very demanding. It takes everything you’ve got,” she said. “It’s taken a lot out of everybody. But that’s what we’re trained for.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue recruits gained valuable experience attacking a fire in a donated house.

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