Ivan Natividad: A chance to see life inside the ‘burn box’ | TheUnion.com

Ivan Natividad: A chance to see life inside the ‘burn box’

Knowledge of fire activity is an important tool firefighters take with them when entering a burning building or fighting a wildland fire, including Grass Valley Fire Department's firefighters, who use thier "burn box" for regional training.
Elias Funez/efunez@theunion.com |

“Are you nervous?” Grass Valley Fire Captain Christopher Armstrong asked before leading us into a 40-by-10-foot building, hosting a live fire inside.

“More anxious and excited,” I responded.

That was a lie. I was nervous, and a little scared to be honest.

Over the past year I had visited Grass Valley’s Fire Station 2 several times, participating in trainings in order to get a behind-the-scenes look at what our local firefighters go through in their daily preparations to protect us.

I had simulated fighting a wildland fire, drove a 40,000 pound fire engine through a cone course, lugged around a 100-foot python of a hose with 84 pounds-per-square-inch of water pressure spewing from its head, and scaled a 105-foot aerial ladder.

But nothing like being exposed to a real live fire.

Nevertheless, with my adrenaline pumping and a 40-pound air tank strapped to my back, Capt. Armstrong led me, and The Union’s Multimedia Journalist Elias Funez, into what our firefighters call the “burn box” to see a real fire up close and personal.

Preparing for the real thing

Dubbed “The Union incident,” preparation for the training was very thorough and organized with a lengthy report handed out to all of the fire fighters involved prior to the simulation.

For Elias and I, preparation for the live fire training started back in January when Grass Valley Fire Chief Mark Buttron and Firefighter Dillon Coward fitted us for our Self Contained Breathing Apparatus, also known as SCBA.

The mask straps to your face so tight that no air particulates can enter anywhere besides the opening where the air tank connects, pulling back the skin on your face akin to what I imagine a face lift feels like.

Coward, who is the only member of our local fire department trained in conducting SCBA testing, then led me through a series of exercises to make sure the mask was fitted well enough for me to use during a live fire.

With the mask strapped on I was made to do minor calisthenics like touching my toes and moving my neck and face around. I was also given a very abstract passage to read in order to test whether or not I could speak with the mask on.

Following the tests, Chief Buttron let me hook the air tank to the mask in order to simulate what we would be wearing the day of the training.

I laughed to myself thinking about how much breathing into the mask made me feel like Darth Vader.

The 40 to 50 pound air tank holds 45 minutes of air, which translates anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes of breathable air, depending on your physical fitness. At 6’0 and 260 pounds, I knew that would be 15 minutes or less for me as I can’t even go up and down my driveway to put the trash out without huffing like crazy.

Ancillary to the SCBA, the day of the training we wore thickly-padded, fire retardant turnout gear, much denser than the nomex suit worn for wildland fires. The boots we wore were bulky and bouncy, but not as malleable as your normal hiking boot. Over our SCBA mask we sported a black ski mask covering our face and neck, under a bulky helmet made to protect our heads from falling debris.

The firefighters took all of the gear very seriously as we put it on, explaining all of the mechanisms and what they do. For instance a loud beeping sound radiates from the SCBA tank when you don’t move for a certain amount of time. This sound lets other firefighters know that something has happened to you and you are not moving anymore, or possibly dead.

It was a sobering thought.

The burn box

According to Capt. Armstrong, death during a live structure fire is typically caused by the heat. Breathing in super heated air and gases causes the tissues in the lungs to swell, filling the lungs with water.

“It’s almost more like a drowning,” he added.

In the burn box, the firefighters lit a steel trash can filled with lumber pallets and placed it in a corner of the building sheeted with Oriented Strand Board to simulate what most homes and buildings are made with nowadays.

“The fire service has to change its tactics as society changes what they put in their homes,” Armstrong said. “If we go and try to fight today’s fire the same way we would have in a building that was constructed and furnished in the 1980s we wouldn’t be as successful.”

As the fire blazed we sat less than 10 feet away with Capt. Armstrong as he described the behavior of the fire and what it was doing. With 21 years of experience, Armstrong is a lead instructor for fire behavior at Sierra College, so we were able to learn a lot about what the fire was doing and even witnessed the fire roll across the ceiling.

As we sat there looking up at the fire it was all really exciting. Elias, though, pointed out the comical nature of seeing firefighter Coward just nonchalantly laying there leaning on his elbow next to the fire as we sat there in amazement.

While this particular training is only conducted quarterly, for them it was another day, another fire.

As for the temperature of the building, the upper part of the structure was clocked around 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, while the lower level was anywhere from 200 to 300 degrees. Capt. Armstrong had a camera we were able to look through that showed the different levels of heat in the area surrounding the fire.

After exiting the burn box, they immediately put us back in, this time with a fully loaded fire hose. Elias and I each took turns dragging the head of the hose in to simulate spraying the fire.

After that third time in and out, I was admittedly spent, but went in two more times with Capt. Orion and an intern and was able to learn more about the science around fire behavior and the affects toxic chemicals can have on the atmosphere of a fire.

“Our training focuses on the new and also career individual who already has some experience,” Armstrong said. “There’s a lot of science in it and it’s important to know the dynamics that have changed with building construction over the years.”

buildings new and old

For Capt. Armstrong, the biggest thing that’s changed in fire service over the years is what people have put in their homes.

“The chemicals that are being released in today’s fire are a lot more toxic and flammable,” he says.

According to Armstrong, a structure fire that may have taken 30 minutes to spread now may only take five minutes due to much of the petroleum-based products used in our everyday household appliances.

“The fire retardant in your couch or carpet, the engineered lumber, the plastics in your TV or your kid’s home kitchen,” he said. “Those are the things that are releasing the heavy toxins into the atmosphere.”

Due to the changes in construction, Armstrong says working smoking detectors are very important to allow residents and fire crews to be notified early on when a fire has ignited.

“During a fire, if they’re in a bedroom or a room with no escape point, for the residents we want them to just close the door, the reason being that it controls the amount of oxygen that is getting into the fire, keeping it smaller and preventing it to build to a point where it can flash,” he added. “This gives time to find a window or exit point to get low and go.”

Real risks

After completing the training I took off some of the gear and felt like I had just come out of a swimming pool as I was so soaked with sweat from the heat.

Capt. Armstrong then proceeded to give us a laundry list of things we had to do in order to stay hydrated and clean from all of the toxins we were exposed to.

He then handed us what looked like a wet wipe and ordered us to use it to wipe our face, neck, arms, legs, arm pits and groin area. Despite having all that gear on, studies have shown that the smoke and toxins still find a way to seep into the skin and stay there for up to two weeks.

Armstrong then showed us a photo of a firefighter who was still sweating dark soot from his pores a week after fighting a fire in Ventura.

“Also, cancer has become a bigger issue for the fire service when we talk about work related illnesses and injuries due to these petroleum based products,” he added. “Depending on the studies you look at, there’s a 30 to 40 percent increase amongst the general population for cancer in this profession.”

According to the National Fire protection Association, firefighters have also seen a 14 percent increase in cancer-related deaths, compared to the general population in the U.S.

Armstrong says as a younger firefighter cancer wasn’t really discussed often, and he has seen some of his previous mentors pass away from the disease admitting “we could do more things as a profession to curb those risks … But as a result your seeing a much more aggressive decontamination process,” he said, referring to steps Grass Valley’s department have taken in purchasing the toxin wipes and changes in gear maintenance and hygiene procedures.

“It’s something I think about, and my wife will say she still smells the smoke in my hair after two weeks,” he added. “… But, you knew what you were getting into when you took the job.”

To contact Digital Editor Ivan Natividad, email inatividad@theunion.com or call 530-477-4242.

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