It was a day to remember for Hillsboro City Council members Megan Braze and Steve HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - Nathan Leek (left), a fire training officer with the Hillsboro Fire Department, pauses for a photo with Hillsboro City Council members Megan Braze and Steve Callaway on Saturday afternoon after they experienced what it is like to be in a burning building. In all, the two council members spent about an hour in live-fire training at an all-day burn-to-learn exercise at the corner of 43rd Avenue and East Main Street.

On Saturday, while residents of the neighborhood pulled up lawn chairs to watch the action, Callaway and Braze went in with other firefighters on a live-fire, “burn-to-learn” training opportunity near the corner of 43rd Avenue and East Main Street.

Every once in a while, a condemned house is donated to the Hillsboro Fire Department, and firefighters stage training exercises in a burning structure under real-time conditions. Having a flaming house to experience and train in is extremely valuable for firefighters, who learn about fire behavior, smoke conditions, tactics for extinguishing specific types of fires, the capabilities of their equipment under a variety of conditions — and even how they react as individuals to the heat and sense of danger.

“It’s really important for all of our guys to get actual hands-on training,” said Bruce Montgomery, the Hillsboro Fire Department’s public information officer. “We’re always looking for houses to train in. A lot goes into it.”

“Where else can you get this type of training?” added fire training officer Nathan HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - The Hillsboro Fire Departments Nathan Leek (right) gives a final briefing to council members Megan Braze and Steve Callaway just before the trio entered a burning building on Saturday to get an unique, closeup look at the departments operations.

Fire crews, including three new recruits, started the day at 9 a.m. with briefings at the site, and then training officers went into the two buildings — a two-story house and a two-story storage shed — and set small fires using flares and bales of hay.

Braze and Callaway spent a total of about an hour, in three separate stints, inside the burning structures on Saturday.

It was a challenge on a human level.

“It was scarier than I expect ed,” said Braze. “There was fire and a layer of smoke above us, and I couldn’t see. I was a little claustrophobic.”

Leek, who escorted the two council members into the burning structures and stayed right by their side, praised them for volunteering to take part in the training. He explained that being inside a burning house — even under mostly controlled conditions — can quickly take away a person’s normal sense of security.

“It’s a strange environment, to give up that control we are so used to needing,” Leek explained, “but they were perfect; calm, cool and collected.”

Braze, however, didn’t hesitate to reveal how she felt to be in a smoke-filled hallway with flames shooting over her head.

“It was terrifying,” said Braze. “I learned a lot about what it’s like to be a firefighter, and have more respect for them. I was ready to run out of there screaming.”

“I was surprised by how much the gear weighed,” Callaway added. “You put on the turnouts, the mask, the air tank and helmet — it not only weighs a lot, but is very confining.”

Storm Smith, the fire department’s prevention and education division manager, said members of the Hillsboro City Council have an open invitation to participate in these training exercises to help them learn more about the city’s emergency operations and the type of work firefighters do.

“The primary purpose of inviting the council members was to allow them to sample just some of the physical and mental stresses firefighters experience in a residential fire; familiarize them with the personal protective equipment and its limitations; and to understand why we deploy our resources in the manner we do,” explained Smith.

“I’m really glad I had the opportunity,” Braze said. “I was really impressed to know what they go through; to see all the equipment and what it all does; and to know, so this is why we spend X amount of money on gear, and why it is really needed.”

Montgomery noted that it is relatively rare for the department to obtain a house for training.

“Probably about three times a year we have an opportunity for live structure fire training,” he said.

In all, a total of 18 separate fires were lit as firefighters practiced in different scenarios — upstairs, downstairs, hallways, bedrooms, etc.

Callaway said he was struck by the gravity of the Hillsboro Fire Department’s work.

“There is a seriousness they bring to everything they do — even the training exercises,” said Callaway, “and you realize the level of expertise and professionalism.”

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