photo by Jerry Baldock
photo by Jerry Baldock

"Train like you fight; fight like you train" is an axiom from the military to the martial arts community to the fire service. The more realistically you train, the better you will perform when it's all on the line. Sisters-area firefighters got two days of invaluable experience fighting fire during a "burn to learn" exercise over the weekend.

The exercise - which consumed two houses located at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Larch Street - involved firefighters from Sisters-Camp Sherman Rural Fire Protection District, Black Butte Ranch, and Cloverdale Fire District. It simulated a "room and contents" fire.

Developer Paul Holstege approached the Sisters fire district with the opportunity.

"We knew we had to demo

them and somebody said, 'why don't you talk to the fire district about doing a burn,'" he said. From his perspective, the idea was appealing because, "the bottom line is there's less stuff to haul off."

Incident Commander Tim Craig, deputy chief in Sisters, said that the district jumped at the opportunity, which doesn't come around all that often. Craig believes that such exercises are superior to training in a simulator or steel container mock-up.

"There are other ways," he said. "But this is the best way in my opinion, because we're putting fire in an actual house." With simulators, "you don't get the same type of hose movement and that sort of thing..."

The training is valuable for veterans and greenhorns alike.

"We don't get a lot of working structure fires, so some of our volunteers could go years without seeing an active fire," Craig said. "So getting them exposed to this on a regular basis is really important."

Sisters Fire Chief Roger Johnson concurred on the superiority of training in a real house versus a purpose-built training facility.

"The fire's trying to get into the attic and we're trying to keep it out of the attic, so there's a lot of realistic (elements) you don't get in a built environment," he said.

Multiple teams of firefighters were run through multiple "sets" before the fire was allowed to consume each building - one on Saturday and one on Sunday.

Trainees confirmed the value of the realistic training.

Volunteer Sisters firefighter Mike Terwilliger - a physical therapist by trade - was on his first operation. He rotated through different positions on the hose, from the nozzle to second and third in line, where he could see flames roll over his head.

Working the nozzle was "difficult because it's such a small space and so much pressure coming out of the hose. You have to be careful."

He said that conditions were "warmer than expected; smokier than expected. The videos just don't do it justice."

He also noted that using the breathing apparatus is very different when you're in the thick of a firefight than when you're in a calm practice environment.

Ben Duda has fought wildfire with the Oregon Department of Forestry for a couple of decades. He started volunteering with the local fire department, and this was his first structure-fire training.

"I've always had a lot of respect for these guys (structure firefighters)," he said. "And over the last few months, it's tripled."

Fighting fire in a dark, smoky structure is very different from wildland firefighting, which is, as Duda noted, "100 percent ventilated." Heat builds up quickly in a confined space.

"We're on our hands and knees; we're shoulder-to-shoulder with the partner you've been training with," he said.

He noted that there are bits and pieces of the training that he will take back to his wildland firefighting crews, who often have to interface with structure protection crews on wildfires that threaten communities.

Duda was impressed with the level of coordination and communication among and within each of the departments involved in the exercise - coordination that is crucial when confronting the real thing.

"Knowing all the pieces are in place (is) amazing," Duda said. "It makes the undoable doable, it seems like."

The pieces are not just the men and women on the hose. There are lots of supervisory eyes on the exercise making sure that everyone is accounted for and that safety protocols are being observed. And the comfort of the firefighters is also taken into account. The all-day exercise was supported by volunteers from the Sisters Fire Corps, who provided lunches, water and other support.

"They're just incredibly dedicated community members," Craig said. "Without them, this would be a much more difficult operation."

Safety of firefighters and the community is the paramount concern in planning such an operation. Weeks of planning and preparation went into the exercise. Chief Johnson noted that there is an extensive procedure involved in making sure hazardous materials are out of the building and to get it cleared to burn. Careful planning and organization ensures that the training environment stays safe, even though it involves fire, smoke and a structure that is being deliberately weakened.

"There's zero tolerance for death and injury in training," Deputy Chief Craig emphasized. "Zero tolerance. And there's a high risk of injury and death any time you're dealing with fire, so it's very stressful."

That said, though, it was clear on the scene that firefighters from students to veterans were having a great time honing their skills in an environment that is as close to the real thing as they can safely get.