Controlled burn sharpens skills for local firefighters

Firefighters ignite, then douse vacant structure during training exercise

Correspondent photo / Sean Barron Firefighters Ian Vandegrift and Michael Gensamer, who represent the Canfield and Ellsworth fire departments, respectively, aim a large hose at flames that engulfed the former pumpkin building at the Canfield Fairgrounds. The simulation was part of a controlled burn Saturday to give firefighters from several departments an opportunity to keep their skills sharp.

CANFIELD – Perhaps Ian Vandegrift’s penchant for understatement is as sharp as the flames were hot.

“It’s a little bit of heat, that’s all,” Vandegrift, a firefighter with the Canfield Fire Department, said.

In actuality, intense heat emanating from the fire could be felt a few hundred feet in all directions from the vacant pumpkin barn in the Canfield Fairgrounds that had intentionally been set on fire during a controlled burn and training exercise for firefighters Saturday morning.

Vandegrift, who has served two of his eight years as a firefighter with the Canfield Fire Department, was among those representing several departments who were tasked with setting fire to the vacant one-story structure, then using their skills to extinguish the flames in a safe and controlled manner.

On the scene were firefighters from Berlin, Green and Beaver townships, along with those representing the Poland, North Jackson and Ellsworth departments.

“We (also) have cadets here, and this is a good opportunity for them to learn what’s entailed with this type of operation,” Josh Grossman, a firefighter with Canfield, said. “You never know when we might be in an emergency operation.”

Last month, firefighters conducted a similar controlled burn operation at a vacant Canfield home near Leffingwell Road and state Route 46, Grossman said.

The main purpose of Saturday’s fire simulation was to keep the firefighters’ basic and advanced skills sharp so that “when that call does come in, we’re ready for it,” he added.

On Saturday, that goal was in evidence, as dozens of firefighters surrounded the condemned building before smoke was seen billowing from three square holes in the roof and, a short time later, accompanied by flames shooting through the openings through which oxygen fed the conflagration. Several firefighters manned large hoses on all sides of the building as a tower truck doused the flames from about 100 feet in the air.

Vandegrift and several other firefighters, including Bryce Fisher and Ricky Anstine from Jackson Township, hosed the flames from the front of the barn. In addition, Vandegrift and Michael Gensamer of Ellsworth sprayed a neighboring building to protect it from the flames and intense heat.

Also from Ellsworth were four junior firefighters ages 16 to 18 who received an educational, up-close look at firefighting techniques.

“They’re getting some real-world experience as they get ready to start their schooling,” Jillian Smith, Ellsworth’s assistant fire chief, said.

Saturday’s burn was a defensive operation, meaning that conditions were deemed too dangerous for firefighters to enter the pumpkin barn, so they fought the flames from the outside, Smith noted. By contrast, an offensive attack is an operation in which it’s determined to be safe enough to allow firefighters to enter a structure and work inside, she said.

Smith, who began her firefighting career in 2013, added that she hopes the primary takeaway from the controlled burn was to demonstrate the science of fire behavior.

For example, a lot can be gleaned merely by the color and thickness of smoke, which often is white or light gray at the beginning before turning brown, black and thicker as the fire advances, she explained.

“All of this tells us what’s going on inside,” Smith said.

In addition, smoke typically moves faster as heat builds and a result can be fire whirls, which resemble small vortices as oxygen is fed and they create their own wind. Occasional small such whirls could be seen in Saturday’s burn exercise.

So-called fire tornadoes are often associated with wildfires and form as smoke rises then condenses in the upper atmosphere and forms an ice-topped cloud over the fire, which stretches the underlying air column, concentrating the rotation near the surface and accelerating wind speed.

Saturday’s controlled burn was valuable also because it provided an opportunity for firefighters to meet and collaborate with, as well as learn from, one another, Smith said.

Regardless of how well trained they may be, firefighters are continually challenged with new situations that often call for thinking and planning in the moment, she continued.

“You learn something every time, absolutely,” Smith added.

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