Firefighters burn to learn

"The small crowd of neighbors could feel the intensity of the house fire from half a block away, where bits of soot rained down. They could see the heat as it blurred everything around the edges of the blaze.About 20 men from the Oak Harbor Fire Department took turns walking or crawling into a Dock Street house Monday night during a practice burn exercise, knocking back the fire, then letting it start up again, over and over.In the end, the house near downtown Oak Harbor burnt to the ground. But soon a small park will rise from the ashes.Lt. Mike Buxton said the house fire was a rare but valuable training exercise for the department. For some of the firefighters it was their first chance to see a house fire from the inside out, which can be a real learning experience.It's the best way to learn about fire behavior, he said. In a real house a fire travels different.Buxton said New Leaf, a non-profit organization that helps disabled and able-bodied people enter the workforce, donated the condemned house to the fire department for training exercises.New Leaf plans to build a small park for its employees at the site.Over the last year, he said the department has used the house to practice search and rescue, ventilation tactics and emergency bailouts - which basically means jumping out a window.At the live fire exercise Monday, the firefighters were suited in insulated clothing from head to toe, with breathing masks and air tanks. Even so, veteran firefighter Bob Wallin said going into a burning house is warm business.It's a lot of work, he said. You get hot and tired.Once inside the smoke-filled environment, he said firefighters have to learn to rely on their senses. You listen for the crackle of the fire, Wallin said. And never lose track of the walls.Fortunately, fires like this are rare. Mike Hammer, a Mount Vernon firefighter who volunteers in Oak Harbor, said almost all fires are caught in their early stages nowadays because of detectors, alarms and modern fire codes.But since firefighters rarely get the chance to tackle three-alarm fires - and gain the experience they need for the big ones - that's why training exercises like Monday's are so important, Hammer said."

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