SURFSIDE — Mike Karvia burned down his old office to provide training for Pacific County Fire District No.1 on Saturday Nov. 9.
Karvia, assistant chief of training for the fire district, said the building held a lot of good memories for him. It was burned down as part of a rare training opportunity for the local fire district.
The building, at 31505 G St., was donated to the department by the Surfside Homeowners Association. It used to be half-pumphouse and half-office for the association’s water superintendent; a position once held by Karvia.
“Using it as an acquired training burn was quite an experience,” Karvia said.
Each year, property owners will offer the fire department buildings that can be burned to practice fighting a real fire. Karvia turns down more buildings than he accepts. But acquired structure burns are some of the most helpful types of training firefighters can get, Karvia said.
Structure burns are becoming more rare in Southwest Washington, said Mike Shults, compliance coordinator for the Olympic Region Clean Air Agency. The agency grants permits for training burns for Callam, Grays Harbor, Jefferson, Mason, Pacific and Thurston counties. In 2010, fire departments in these counties applied for 23 training burn permit applications. In 2018, there were about 11 applications submitted to the clean air agency. And not all of those applications resulted in a training burn.
Between new training centers for fire departments and an increased awareness about air quality, fire departments seem to be more selective about what buildings are burned down for training, Shults said. But it is still a great tool.
“From what I hear from the departments, there is nothing better than putting a hose on a real live fire,” Shults said.
Skills trainingThe first half of the day was spent with the building unlit, which gave firefighters a chance to take some time while learning new skills, Karvia said. The department practiced breaking through a cement wall, cutting through a garage door and carving out vents in the roof.
Karvia worked on the roof with volunteer firefighter Tyler Reynolds and career firefighter Natasha Luce. He showed them how to cut between the rafters and while letting the roof support the saw so the weight didn’t exhaust them. The cuts in the ceiling allow for smoke and flammable gases to escape during a blaze.
When vents need to be made during a live fire, firefighters go up in pairs. The first one up uses the axe to find where to step.
“Once we get off the ladder, the moment we get off the ladder, we’re sounding every single time we take a step,” Luce said.
They are careful not to step on areas not supported by the rafters. Once they find somewhere bouncy, they start to cut, Luce said.
Before a building is burned, the fire department notifies the community about the scheduled demolition, Shults said. Air contaminants, such as asbestos, must be removed from the building prior to it being set on fire, Shults said. Burns aren’t usually approved if it is near an elderly living facility or a hospital. There is a spike in air pollution when a burn occurs and it can be dangerous for people with compromised breathing, he said.
Often when a community is given a heads up, they appreciate it and are excited to see their fire department in action, Shults said.
After the morning of cutting into the building is over, the firefighters got to take a break and eat some taco soup. Lani Karvia, the Pacific County Fire District No. 1 public education coordinator prepared soup and cornbread muffins that went alongside them. While the fighters ate, EMS volunteers like Brittany Taylor were there to take blood pressures and make sure everyone was hydrated.
People had started to gather around the building to watch and try some of the food. Some of the kids who came got hot chocolate as they stood waiting for the burn to begin. Mike Karvia said he liked that the burn can be a community event.
No accelerants are used to start the burn. Just a bale of hay and some pallets. The fighters put on their oxygen tanks and head into the fire with hoses to practice aiming the nozzles. As each jet of water tames the flames, a new set of pallets are added, causing sprays of sparks each time. Using a thermal imaging camera, Assistant Chief of Administration Brad Weatherby measured the fire at about 1000 degrees.
After the firefighters had a chance to practice on the flames, the building was left to be engulfed. Watching the fire behavior was another training opportunity, Karvia said. He pointed to how the roof was beginning to sag in some areas. The fire reached its growth stage and then its decay stage and the building’s blue exterior began to disappear. All the while Karvia was careful not to stop looking for ways the situation might go out of control.
“We cannot let our guard down,” Karvia said. “We’re in a high state of alert.”
The crowd of onlookers took photos as the smoke above grew darker. The weather couldn’t have been better, Karvia said.
He’d almost cancelled because it hadn’t rained in the days ahead. But a solid drizzle began Friday night, and the wind was blowing the smoke out to sea, Karvia said.
By the time the blue walls of the building disappeared, leaving behind a smoldering skeleton, it was about 2 p.m. Sweaty and tired, Karvia was happy with how the training went. He said he measures the success of a training burn in two ways.
“No one got hurt,” Karvia said. “And we burned down the right place.”