The Ottumwa Courier

August 15, 2013

Flaming house trains firefighters for real-life situations

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — Ottumwa firefighters purposely set a house on fire.

The controlled blaze was one of two house fires the department is allowed to perform per year, a training opportunity for eight Ottumwa firefighters and two Wapello County Rural firefighters.

Bill Trout, assistant fire chief, oversaw the training exercise Thursday morning at a 628-square-foot house — what Fire Chief Tony Miller called "dainty" — that sits at the corner of Harding Street and Hammond Avenue.

"We do one every chance we get," Trout said. "We love doing this because we can do training that's more realistic with a live fire."

They placed piles of dampened hay throughout the home, which they then lit on fire. Within the hour, smoke was billowing out of every window and door and flames began to shoot out of the basement.

"This one, a friend of mine asked if it would be possible for us to burn it," he said. "He had just bought the property and was going to tear it down anyway."

Controlled house fires give firefighters a chance to battle a blaze in a relatively safe situation. Two newer OFD firefighters, who have worked for the department less than a year, were able to practice operating every angle of the fire before they're called to a real house fire.

"This is so when the real thing comes in, they know what to do without being told what to do," Trout said. "It's not as dangerous as a real house fire because we know the layout and where the fire is, whereas when we show up to a real fire, we're going into the darkness, into the unknown."

Ottumwa's record number of structure fires this year had nothing to do with the training exercise, he said. The firefighters want to do as many of these controlled house fires as they can. Firefighters have battled 31 structure fires so far this year, inching closer and closer to the total of 34 structure fires the city saw in all of 2012.

Homeowners actually call the OFD several times a year asking if the department would use their home as a controlled house fire so they don't have to tear it down themselves, Miller said.

"But then you get out there to inspect it and sometimes the house is only like 20 feet from the house next door," Miller said.

Thankfully, the home they burned Thursday sat well away from its neighbors, some of whom came out to watch the blaze.

Another problem the department encounters is asbestos. According to Iowa DNR regulations, all houses must be cleared of asbestos before they can be used as a controlled house fire. That cost falls on the homeowner, not the city, Miller said.

Firefighters were on scene through mid-afternoon Thursday, though Trout said the flames in the basement would likely still brew for another day, though they would be contained to the basement only, not a threat to the rest of the neighborhood.