Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue crews hone skills while burning down donated home
by: Jonathan House, TVF&R firefighter Todd Herrington picks up tools during a practice burn in Tigard on Thursday.

Firefighters with Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue are usually seen putting out fires, not starting them.

But fire district crews let a house in the 13000 block of 76th Avenue in Tigard burn to the ground Thursday, May 31, as part of a rare training opportunity for firefighters.

The home, owned by the late manufacturer and land owner Fred Fields for decades, was donated to the fire district several weeks ago. For nearly a month, fire crews used the vacant house to conduct search and rescue exercises, said TVF and R spokesman Brian Barker.

'It's a great opportunity, and we try to make the most of it,' Barker said.

Thursday morning about 30 firefighters gathered outside the house for more training as crews lit small fires inside various rooms of the structure. They broke up into teams with a mix of new recruits and experienced veterans. Firefighters worked to extinguish the small fires while using air packs and large hoses.

After running the scenario several times, they lit one last blaze at the end of the day and let the brick and wood structure burn to its foundation. Smoke and flames billowed from the remains for about three hours, drawing crowds of neighbors who wanted to get a closer look. Meanwhile, crews kept a watchful eye on the final fire's progress.

'Fred was a big believer in education, and we are continuing to put his money where his mouth is,' said Richard Canaday, a spokesman for Fred Fields' trust and estate. 'This is the sort of thing he would have liked to have seen and we were glad to make that happen.'

'Cooks from the inside'

Barker said it was the training fires earlier in the day that were what firefighters experience most often within the district's service area.

'That's the most common fire we see, and the most deadly,' Barker said. 'You will roll up onto a fire and see a little smoke coming out of the house. There isn't much outside, but you open the door and inside it's completely charged with toxic smoke and heat. It cooks from the inside.'

Those types of fires are extremely dangerous, Barker said, with a single breath of smoke capable of incapacitating someone.

'When you are in a burning house that is charged with smoke, often the smoke is so thick and dark you can barely see the hand in front of your face,' he said.

In those situations, fire crews stay low to the ground, often crawling on hands and knees down dark hallways, feeling along the walls until they reach the room with the fire, Barker said. Then they work together to extinguish it.

Training burns in homes slated for demolition are rare for these firefighters, Barker said. The last time a home was donated to the fire district was in 2010.

However, all TVF and R firefighters go through live fire training every year at the agency's training facility on Southwest Tonquin Road in Sherwood. There, fires are lit in large shipping containers, and crews are able to practice their skills.

Having the opportunity to experience the real thing is important, Barker added.

'Through (TVF and R's) great fire prevention efforts, we have done a good job of reducing the amount of fires that we have,' he said, 'but that means firefighters don't get into a burning building as often as they used to. And, it is really important that firefighters know what that situation is like - so when the real thing happens, it is practiced and internalized, and you know what to do.'

Charred remains

Firefighters continually sprayed water on the house Thursday to keep the fire from spreading to nearby trees or grasses.

As the house gave way, parts of the fire burned bright green as various metals melted within the walls. After about three hours, a few columns of brick were all that remained. Charred wood and metal lay in black smoldering heaps.

A fire like this would normally be devastating, Barker noted.

'When you realize that you are not watching all of someone's possessions burn, it's OK to have a smile on your face at the end of the day,' he said of crews' reaction to the events of the day. 'Typically, it's a tragedy for someone, but in this case, it's a good training opportunity.'

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