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Burning is for learning at Tacoma Fire practice

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Tacoma Fire Department firefighters took advantage of the increasingly rare opportunity to conduct live fire training at a property in Fife.

Live fire training opportunities are getting harder to come by these days because of increasing environmental demands concerning smoke emissions that require the property owner to remove all plastics, furniture, roofing and insulation before allowing firefighters to set their house on fire.

“There was a grocery list of things that we had to do,” said homeowner John Salamone.

His wife’s family had owned the house and operated a family farm on the property along Pacific Highway for decades. But the 1920s property was showing its age and had become a residential dot in a heavily commercial strip. It had been vacant for three years so selling it made sense. The buildings had to go one way or another, so he let firefighters do a little training by burning the houses to the ground rather than face the cost of tearing them down.

Tacoma Fire appreciated the offer.

“It’s just a great opportunity,” said Tacoma Fire Battalion Chief Todd Magliocca, noting that about a dozen new hires got to hone their skills on attacking fires and watching how fire moves from room to room in a less clinical setting than what is found at the fire academy. “We got a lot out of this. It really keeps us on our toes.”

Live fire training allows firefighters to practice interior fire attack, hose handling, observing fire behavior and recovering trapped firefighters in “real life” conditions while still being observed by training and safety officers.

“They get continuous feedback on how they are doing,” Training Captain Lee Law said.

The training was coordinated by Tacoma Fire and the City of Fife. It was originally scheduled for earlier this month, but was delayed until after the U.S. Open to avoid a scene of black smoke billowing into the air for two days as tourists drive along nearby Interstate 5.

Such training is becoming increasingly important because modern residential designs and furniture are speeding up the spread of fire when they occur. Modern “open” floor plans and vaulted ceilings, for example, means fewer doors and lower ceilings that would otherwise slow down the spread of flames in “legacy” floor plans. The rise of plastic-based furniture also makes the smoke more toxic that wood fires.

The rise of high-energy efficient insulation also makes how firefighters attack fires more critical since a fire in a virtually air-tight, modern home might stay small – until someone fuels the flames by opening an outside door.

“If you add air without adding water, you are going to get a blowback,” said Gig Harbor Firefighter Scott Corrigan, who attended the live burn to share the latest studies regarding fire behavior.

Fires in older building with eight-foot ceilings filled with natural woods might take 30 minutes to become fully involved, while that time cuts by more than half with higher ceilings and plastic furniture.

The training during the live burns provides firefighters with a primer of things to come during this extremely dry summer, particularly during Independence Day weekend.

The addition of fireworks, despite being illegal in Tacoma for 20 years, into a hot July 4 weekend on ground that hasn’t seen any appreciable rainfall for more than a month could mean firefighters will be busy.

“Frankly, it is all weather dependent,” Tacoma Fire spokesman Joe Meinecke said.

Crews responded to 19 fireworks related fires last year and 16 in 2013. The hot summer in 2009 spiked those statistics with a record 58 fires.