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Central Point students planning their escape

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WHITE CITY — On Thursday morning, Jackson County Fire District No. 3 public information officer Ashley Blakely stands with a group of young students at the fire district’s White City headquarters, posing hypotheticals and what-ifs.

What’s your home escape plan if a fire breaks out? Why do you get low and crawl if there’s smoke? What should you do if your bedroom is on the second story?

Nearby, the fire district’s simulation house awaits, filling up with fake smoke. A troupe of dressed-for-fall Jewett Elementary third-graders is here to learn about house-fire escape plans, yes, but they’re also here to put what they’ve learned into practice by giving a simulated escape a go.

The answers to Blakely’s questions vary. One talks excitedly — and in jest — of an elaborate, stuntman-approved escape plan involving a graceful jump through the window to a trampoline that waits below. Other answers are quieter, more serious.

No matter the escape plan agreed upon in case of a house fire, Blakely says — excepting the more “Mission: Impossible”-inspired trampoline-and-window-jump schemes — you should know it, practice it, have it down to a muscle-memory protocol for when the real thing happens.

“Just like you guys have spelling words and you have math problems,” Blakely tells the students. “You practice, practice, practice so you know what to do when the big test comes.”

This talk and the simulation to follow are part of National Fire Prevention Week, observed Oct. 6-12 in the U.S. All seven days are dedicated to teaching people young and old about how to stay safe in case of fire. It’s been around since 1925, since former President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed the week, according to the National Fire Protection Association website.

That makes it “the longest-running public health observance in our country,” the site says.

The 2019 message is, “Not every hero wears a cape, plan your escape.” Components of that curriculum include heeding smoke alarms, always knowing two ways out of every bedroom, getting low to the ground when there is smoke to reduce inhalation, proper evacuation and having a designated meeting place once the structure has been evacuated safely.

“It’s really vital that these students go home and talk to their parents about it,” Blakely says. “So it doesn’t just end here today, that it continues throughout the year. And hopefully it’s practiced throughout the year.”

When the initial talk outside concludes, students walk to the simulation house, a $250,000 structure built in 2016 to give district firefighters hands-on training through realistic scenarios. Simulated smoke drifts from the doors and windows.

Inside, light from heat lamps refracts red in the clouds, doing a good imitation of flames. Students begin to crawl from one end of the house to the other.

“Army crawl! Everybody army crawl!” one student yells.

An open window is their designated escape hatch, a mattress cushioning the 4-foot drop as the students exit.

“It was like you were in a real house with smoke,” says 8-year-old Madeline Williams. “It actually smelled like smoke.”

“I liked that we were able to crawl through the window,” says Timothy Stevens, 8, adding he learned that once you’re out, you’re out. Don’t go back inside, even for a favorite toy.

Both Williams and Stevens say they plan to impart their new wisdom to their younger siblings. Their parents are a different story.

“I think they might already know about it a little,” Stevens says, smiling.

Starting the conversation about house fire escape plans with your children is important, Blakely says. This is what a smoke alarm sounds like. These are the signs of a fire. And this is how to get out of the house quickly if one ignites.

“Some of those very elementary, easy, kind of simple-to-understand steps can be done at a very, very young age,” Blakely says.

Having this knowledge is even more important in 2019 than it was a few decades ago. Home fires burn faster and fiercer now. A test from safety certification company Underwriters Laboratories compared interiors of modern and “legacy” homes. The fire in the modern test house got out of control and spread much faster, video from the test shows. Within five minutes of ignition, smoke from the modern home fire smothers the interior in darkness. The same conditions take about 20 minutes to obtain in the legacy test home.

“Traditional furnishings used to be made up of wood, cotton and wool,” says Susan McKelvey, communications manager for the National Fire Protection Association. “So they burned very differently from today’s home furnishings, which are often made with synthetic materials like acrylic, nylon, polyester and rayon.”

Those materials burn hotter and burn more quickly, McKelvey adds. Modern home design also plays a part.

“The trend has been in the past several years that homes are built with lots of wide open spaces. Great rooms have been popular, high ceilings, cathedral ceilings. That’s a perfect breeding ground for fires to grow and spread quickly.”

Reach web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanPfeil.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Jackson County Fire District 3 fire & safety specialist Ashley Blakely talks with students about being properly informed on steps of escaping a house fire.
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