Crews burn house to the ground

A Central Whidbey Firefighter lit a house he used to live in on fire Monday night.

Firefighter Derek LaFontaine purposefully set a mobile home ablaze because he had something to prove — that his crews know what they are doing. The fire was part of a training exercise meant to give firefighters experience with a live fire, something some of them had never seen.

“It’s not too often when a homeowner can light his own house,” LaFontaine said, smiling.

The drill gave crews a chance to refresh themselves on techniques and an opportunity to quell nerves about fighting the real thing.

“For some of the guys, this is the first time they’ve been in a real house,” firefighter Jerry Helm said. “There’s not much more hands-on that you can get.”

The first crew was poised at the door, hose in hand, charged with water, long before LaFontaine ignited what was his bedroom for seven months. Their air tanks chirped incessantly, a way of articulating the fact that they should be fighting a fire, not letting it burn.

The first team of four firefighters charged in, unleashing a torrent of water — not on the flames, but on a window. They shattered it and sent a stream of water out the side of the doublewide to vent the smoke. When they turned their attention to the flames, the house sucked in clean oxygen through the window like a deep-sea diver.

The temperature on the floor of the home quickly reached 500 degrees, but as each crew rushed in, the flames kept growing. Soon, smoke was pouring from the seams where roof meets walls.

Perhaps the hardest thing for the crews to battle was their instincts. Every time the fire neared death, supervisors would yell to allow it to get going again.

“Let’s get some fire in there,” Capt. Robert Spinner shouted over the crackle of flames and hiss of smoke escaping the building.

Chief Joe Biller said that the real-world training is invaluable. It also tests the dedication of the men and women who volunteer their time to keep the island safe.

“The good news is, they’ll go home sweaty, but if we get a call, they’ll pop right up,” Biller said.

Helm said that crews get to train in a specialized room the department has, but that is no substitution for the real thing.

“You can drill in a building you know,” Helm said. “But after a while, it gets kind of redundant.”

Any homeowner who wishes to see their house ablaze can donate it to the fire department. But departments do have rules.

“Our determination is based upon how much training value a structure has,” Biller said.

The building must also be free of hazardous materials, such as asbestos. Departments generally will not burn open buildings such as carports because they offer little training value, Biller said.

Aside from a good show, a homeowner can also write off the home as a charitable donation, he said.

It takes a temperature of 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit to melt aluminum. The siding of the mobile home was doing more than melting. It was combusting.

Eventually the flames won, claiming the entire structure as its prize.

Smiles adorned the blackened faces of the 20 or so firefighters as they posed for a group shot in front of the inferno. Unfortunately, nobody brought any hot dogs.

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