It takes a special kind of person to become a volunteer firefighter. There is no monetary reward for this work and the training can be time-consuming and grueling. And yet these volunteers take considerable pride in making their communities better and safer places to live.
That dedication was evident last weekend when 20 firefighters from three different area departments came together for a unique training session when they burned down the “old Lundberg place,” a farmhouse located on Crystal Lake Road.
“These sessions really teach us a lot,” said Jeremy Shaltis, a volunteer member of the Pine Lake Fire Department. “We don’t get a lot of these types of opportunities.”
While all volunteer firefighters take many hours of classes to learn about the different aspects of firefighting, actually entering a burning building under controlled conditions is a rare learning experience. First, a building has to be donated and then approved by the DNR to be burned. Harmful substances, such as asbestos, also have to be removed. “We don’t get very many of these donated houses,” said Jeremy. “So we feel really fortunate when we do.”
Last Saturday morning, volunteers from the Pine Lake, Stella and Pelican fire departments met first at the Pine Lake station. Firefighters just don’t descend on a donated building and torch it. They develop a detailed plan on how best to use this resource and that plan was determined at this initial meeting.
After that, the group drove to the site in various vehicles, including their fire trucks. They even set up “drop tanks,” which are large, yellow canvas containers filled with water. “We use these when we are fighting a fire and the trucks have to go get more water,” said Jeremy. “These practice burns are also good opportunities to use equipment that we might not have had out for a while. It’s good for us and it’s good for the equipment.”
This practice burn was very well detailed before any fire was set. The dwelling had an upstairs, a main floor and a basement, and the upstairs and main levels were the targets for the practice burns. Wooden pallets and bales of straw were placed in certain areas of the house so fires could be set more easily.
The participants were divided into four teams of four firefighters each. Not all firefighters elected to go into the building while it was on fire, but those volunteers had other important jobs such as maintaining the hoses or manning the staging area. “Another advantage to working with firefighters from other departments is that we get to see what equipment they have and we get a sense of how they work,” said Jeremy.
Only four firefighters entered the building at any one time carrying a hose. They would go into a designated section of the structure, start a fire and then “knock it down.” The other teams would be situated at each corner of the house, hoses at the ready, in case there were problems inside. All the while, radio contact would be maintained with the firefighters. “That’s another important aspect of these drills,” said Jeremy. “They really teach you how to keep in communication with your team. That’s so important when you are fighting a real fire.”
When each team emerged after their drill, all the volunteers were soot-laden and weary-looking. “It really gets hot fast,” said one volunteer. “It’s amazing to watch that process. That’s something we don’t get to see normally when we are called to a fire. Most are already underway.”
Each team got a chance to enter the building at least twice throughout the morning and then the entire structure was set on fire. “I think it is really important to see that process,” said Jeremy. “Just watching a building burn teaches you a lot.”
It took about 30 minutes for “the old Lundberg place” to burn completely down. Firefighters ringed it during this time, shooting long sprays of water from their hoses as the fire burned, so the walls would fall into the basement. “We really feel very fortunate we got the chance to have this opportunity,” said Jeremy. “I’m sure everyone that participated, including myself, learned a lot.”