Practice burn today will be learning opportunity for firefighters, public

WILLMAR -- Firefighters and local residents will have a learning experience this morning when Willmar Fire Department members conduct a training burn in a rundown house near downtown.

WILLMAR -- Firefighters and local residents will have a learning experience this morning when Willmar Fire Department members conduct a training burn in a rundown house near downtown.

"We encourage people to stop by and take a look and see what we're doing,'' said Willmar Fire Chief Marv Calvin. "It's a learning experience. You can learn what your fire department does, where your tax dollars are going.''

Firefighters will receive their assignments at 7 a.m., and then proceed with trucks and other equipment to the house at 125 Benson Ave. S.E.

If you plan to watch, don't expect the structure to go up in flames right away. That will happen later in the morning. Instead, firefighters will practice finding and extinguishing fires while avoiding injury or death in a dangerous environment.

Calvin said instructors have been working on training plans since the house became available about three weeks ago.


"We don't just go in and burn the house, contrary to what some people think,'' he said.

Two fires will be started and put out in the upstairs bedroom area. Then two or three fires will be started and extinguished downstairs.

The practice burn provides a taste of the real thing. The rooms are full of heat and smoke, just like an actual house fire. Firefighters are crouched down on their hands and knees.

"When we go into a house fire, we generally have smoke from the ceiling to the floor. The temperature at the ceiling can be 1800 degrees. We teach them to feel for the heat and listen for the crackling of the fire and make sure you're in the right spot,'' said Calvin.

"And that's what we want our firefighters to do when there's a fire. We don't want them rushing in and saying let's put wet stuff on red stuff just because it's there. That might not be the right place to put it.''

Firefighters will be dressed in full turn-out gear with coats, pants, boots, gloves, hoods, helmets and air packs. They have two handheld thermal-imaging cameras, which let firefighters see the heat through the smoke. The hottest area shows up as the lightest area on the camera.

The camera, strapped to the gear, is helpful, but firefighters are taught not to rely on it.

"They still have to use their regular traditional methods because if the camera quits working, they still have to be able to find their way out,'' said Calvin. "They keep a hand on a wall, they stay on a hose line or rope ... because if that piece of equipment stops working, which it can, they may not be able to find their way out.''


They'll also practice a new air supply and personnel management system called Ondeck, in which fire crews rotate in and out of a structure every 12 minutes instead of every 20 to 30 minutes. The system prevents a firefighter from using all the air in a self-contained breathing apparatus.

"If the air is gone and you're in a hostile environment, it's a bad day for somebody. We don't want that to happen in Willmar,'' said Calvin.

Firefighters effectively used the system for the first time on the Nov. 18 fire at Kandi Steel in south Willmar.

"We didn't see any extension (enlargement) of the fire once we got on scene, which is good,'' said Calvin.

Afterward the practice, firefighters will tear down the plaster and sheetrock, open the walls, spread about 30 bales of straw around the interior and burn down the house.

Calvin estimates the city saves $500 to $700 per firefighter compared with the cost of sending a firefighter to school. Firefighters also receive up to four hours of training per week at the local fire station.

The house was bought by the City Council in September as a way to remove a blighted piece of property near downtown. The house was later offered to the fire department.

This will be Willmar's third practice burn this year. Earlier, firefighters burned the garage at the former Custom Printing shop on South First Street.


Last year, firefighters burned half a dozen houses. The department is always looking for houses that provide a training opportunity, said Calvin.

"We want to get as much training as we can, but we want to do it safely,'' he said. "We have to stay current in the National Fire Protection Association standards, and Minnesota OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) also has standards to be firefighters. This meets that requirement for live fire training.''

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