July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:24 PM
"A fire in a corner of the old house starts up slowly, filling the top half of the room with black, opaque smoke and unbearable heat. Below, as if someone drew a line separating smoke from clear air, the room is cooler and you can still see across it.The men and women crawl on their hands and knees, trying to keep below what they call the thermal line. Weighted down by 60 pounds of protective clothing and breathing apparatus, the firefighters calmly observe the enemy.In a split second, the room becomes a hundred times more dangerous, and probably that much hotter, as the fire shoots out in all directions. It spills like a liquid across the ceiling and is above and behind the firefighters before they can react.Firefighters from Central Whidbey Island Fire and Rescue, along with a few from neighboring districts, got a chance to battle live fire from the inside during a practice fire on Ebeys Prairie Saturday morning. Long-time resident Freeman Boyer donated an abandoned two-story house for the firefighters to train in.A group of volunteers, including a News-Times reporter and two fire department medical-only volunteers, went inside the burning building to observe fire behavior and watch the firefighters work.Chief Joe Biller said training like that is invaluable to the 50 or so firefighters, who are almost all volunteers and are responsible for handling all types of emergencies in 50 square miles of Central Whidbey.The district firefighters respond to about 20 fires a year, Biller said. They are usually able to contain a blaze quickly, preventing it from spreading to other parts of the building. And they almost always go into the fire, fighting it from the inside out.Except for training drills, the firefighters never get a chance to observe a structure fire from the beginning.From the start, the inside of a house on fire is an alien, unpredictable world. The curtains and wallpaper burn first as the doors bubble. The air literally starts on fire as the gases built up on the ceiling reach their flashpoint. Pockets of rolling flames balance in mid-air, disappearing and reappearing randomly across the room.The man with the hose waits until the fire is just about on top of him, until people are screaming get out, get out at the top of their lungs in the 800 degree heat, to finally let the water loose.He sprays it across the ceiling, like hes taught, so the water drops on the fire from above. Every corner of the house instantly fills with a mixture of smoke and steam so thick that it blots out the world. The firefighters crawl towards a fire they cannot see, moving by touch and the feeling of heat through a toxic environment.The protective gear that separates the men and women from the heat and poison keeps them alive. They are each equipped with rubber boots with steel toes and shanks; pants and a coat made from a non-flammable, insulated material; a hood and helmet; and an air mask that hooks to a steel tank of compressed air. No skin or even a strand of hair can be exposed.It takes stamina, strength and training to fight fires, chainsaw holes in roofs and walls, climb ladders, and save lives while wearing the heavy, bulky gear. Yet the outfit protects from fire so well, Biller said, that its sometimes difficult for a firefighter to gauge just how dangerous a fire is from inside the clothing. A 200-degree shift in heat feels like a hot summer day.Thats why, he said, its more important than ever for firefighters to understand the nature of fires, to look for the signs, and to know when to get out.And thats also why about 25 men and women spent a windy Saturday morning lighting a house on fire and then taking turns putting it out. At the end, the firefighters let the flames win. After protecting nearby buildings and a power pole with tarps and water, they watched as the fire poked holes in the roof, shattered the windows and collapsed the structure."