Painting a fiery picture |

Painting a fiery picture

Photo for The Union by John Hart
John Hart | The Union

There’s a fine art to simulating a car fire — if the intent is to train even the greenest, most inexperienced firefighter in how to safely and effectively extinguish the blaze.

“We paint the picture (with liquid propane) — and as they extinguish the fire, the picture changes,” said Absolute Safety Training’s Janice Smith. “The event happens just like it would in the real world.”

It’s a process honed through years of experience, which becomes clear as the trainer walked pairs of Tahoe National Forest seasonal firefighters through two simulations Wednesday morning — extinguishing a vehicle fire and a dumpster fire.

Before the firefighters even donned their gear — including the self-contained breathing apparatus — the trainers demonstrated the proper techniques for putting out those types of fires, as well as the safety concerns a layman might not even consider.

“You see how they come in at a 45-degree angle?” Battalion Chief Robert Noxon pointed out as the trainers hauled hose to the car. “That’s because in newer vehicles, bumpers are no longer attached to the frame.”

Typically, they now are attached to shock absorbers, he said.

“They tend to explode and blow the bumpers off the vehicle,” Noxon said, adding that a firefighter standing directly in front of a vehicle would then be in the line of fire.

Fighting a dumpster fire is also more complex — and more dangerous — than it might initially appear.

Because people tend to dump any number of random items, including toxic chemicals, dumpsters “are probably the scariest thing out there,” Noxon said.

As the trainers worked with the first pair of firefighters undergoing their annual preparedness review, they showed them how to first bounce the cold water off the pavement onto the hot dumpster to cool it down and avoid potential explosions.

They had them switch to a fog pattern with the hose, then flip open the dumpster lids and effectively douse the flames within.

The preparedness review for the seasonal firefighters has three segments, Noxon said, starting with a simulated wildland fire and then moving on to the types of fires they might encounter at the interface of urban and forested areas.

“We have a lot of dumpsters in campgrounds,” Noxon pointed out. “You never know what you’ll find. This allows the crews to become proficient.”

Because the simulations are conducted annually, it allows the firefighters to gain more knowledge every time, Smith said.

The firefighters “have to stay on their toes,” she said.

“It’s the beginning of fire season, and we have a lot to do to get the firefighters up to date, to give them that tool box to use throughout the season.”

The Tahoe National Forest employs roughly 200 firefighters, covering everything from engine crews to hot shot crews to lookout to prevention to helitack crew members, said spokeswoman Ann Westling.

“The Forest Service has wildland firefighters, who primarily respond to fires in the middle of a forest by building lines, dropping water or retardant,” she said.

“But we also have less common situations, like vehicle or dumpster fires, so we need to be prepared for those situations, as well. They don’t do that every day, and that’s why that training is so important for them.”

Westling said there is no such thing as a normal year for fires in the Tahoe National Forest, which covers 1.2 million acres of land. Of that, 840,000 acres belong to the U.S. Forest Service, and the rest is privately owned,

“In general, land within the Tahoe National Forest boundary, we have fire suppression responsibility for,” she said, adding that its firefighters also respond to many mutual aid incidents.

“Last year, there were 52 human-caused fires and 32 lightning-caused fires for a very small number of 32 total acres,” Westling said.

“It was a quiet year. But in 2008, 23,500 acres burned. It varies every year.”

To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email or call 530-477-4229.

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