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‘A very perishable skill’

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Morgan Rothborne / Mail TribuneA Jackson County District 5 firefighter adjusts his helmet during a Learn to Burn off of Dead Indian Memorial Road on Saturday.
Burn to Learn exercise gives firefighting recruits preparation for what’s to come

Harry Fischer’s once proud sprawling Tudor revival house was consumed by flames on Saturday for a pair of purposes — to clear the land for the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy, and to ensure that the next generation of firefighters at Jackson County Fire District 5 are the best they can be.

Fire District Five tested 20 new recruits at a “Burn to Learn“ on the house — itself a part of the newest SOLC acquisition, which will become the Harry and Marylyn Fischer Preserve at Pompadour Bluff.

“It’s a very perishable skill,” Chief Charles Hanley said of firefighting. “You have to do it over and over.”

Over the course of the last week, rookie and veteran firefighters got that chance, using the house to practice a variety of critical skills as fire season approaches.

“There’s not enough water, fire season’s longer, resources are stretched thin, there’s more fire activity, and fires are larger,” Hanley said.

“The additional firefighters will increase our rate of attack, it allows us to get to fires faster; keep small fires small,” he added.

The Burn to Learn exercise on the property off Dead Indian Memorial Road in Ashland on Saturday was a “laboratory,” according to the chief, describing the event as a kind of final exam for the first new recruits for the district since 2015.

There are 21 new recruits for District 5, although one was not able to participate due to an injury.

The new recruits worked with eight instructors and three chief officers over the course of the last week on various exercises at the Fischer house.

Morgan Rothborne / Mail TribuneNew recruits for District 5 practice using the hose as they put out spot fires on a Burn to Learn training exercise.

All the carpet and the wallpaper were removed, to protect the lungs of the firefighters and the quality of the air in the surrounding area. The SOLC had already removed Fischer’s furniture and possessions.

Drywall and a few doors were installed in the house, to create an ideal environment for their laboratory setting. With the additional doors, instructors could control air flow and thereby, fire behavior.

“We did a lot of training during the week on the house,” said Dave Meads, District 5’s recruit training officer. “Ventilation training, cutting holes in the roof to let smoke and hot gases out, forcible entry, and ladders.”

Saturday was the big test for the new recruits ... and it was pass/fail.

“Everyone performed as I had hoped.” Meads said of the new recruits.

In a prepared room, crew members built a set with hay and pallets, a designated ignition officer lit the set while a back up crew watched to make sure the fire didn’t grow beyond the size needed for the exercise.

Teams of new recruits practiced moving into a smoke-filled house laden down with equipment and oxygen tanks, carrying heavy hoses up stairs and around corners into the room, then putting the fire out.

“Visibility is low, it’s hot,” Meads said of the conditions the new recruits were experiencing during the drills, many of them for the first time.

“We didn’t let the fire build up too much, but it’s going down the floor and up the ceiling.”

Morgan Rothborne / Mail TribuneDistrict Five firefighters watch for spot fires on a Burn to Learn training exercise.

These recruits have just completed three months of a training called Firefighter Curriculum One.

“To make sure we hit all the marks we added agency training; confined space, water rescue, that’s above and beyond,” Meads said.

District 5 has also increased its required wildland fire training from 80 hours to over 200.

Some of these recruits are moving from wildland fire into structural firefighting, some came from different districts ... and some have never been firefighters before.

Fire District 5 has been understaffed for a long time, Hanley said. Recruiting new firefighters is difficult because of the financially draining time-consuming process required to become a firefighter.

This kind of training usually ends in being a volunteer or a student intern. From there, the department would pay for a college program, such as the fire science program at Rogue Community College.

But while the student intern went to school, they worked for little or no pay for the fire district. At the end of college, a few could hope to be offered a paying job as a fully-fledged structural firefighter.

High time commitment with no guaranteed financial return scared away potential firefighters for years. Now, after the devastating fire season of 2020, there are new programs to help pay for the next generation of firefighters.

The Oregon legislative session passed bill HB 2373 in 2021, establishing money for the creation of the Oregon Firefighter Apprenticeship program. In the same year, the Department of Homeland Security appropriated money to FEMA, which created The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grants.

Fire District 5 applied for and received money through both of these programs, enabling them to offer a salary and benefits to new recruits for the first time.

The new recruits were joined at the Burn to Learn by firefighters from the City of Jacksonville fire department and some crews from Cal Fire.

Fire District 5 has a mutual assistance agreement with the Siskiyou County Fire Department. The agreement seeks to not only take advantage of additional firefighters in a position to help each other, but to prevent fires from spreading from one community to another.

After a long day of crews cycling out of the Fischers’ house, setting small fires, letting the smoke curl white and then black out the upstairs windows before putting them out again, as dusk came on it was time to let the old house go.

Firefighters worked together to pull back all their hoses, first aid equipment, ladders and oxygen tanks. Then teams carefully laid hoses in a barrier around the house. Three water tanks were waiting on the hillside nearby, to keep the fire from spreading to the land beyond the house.

Firefighters gathered outside the French doors on the first floor. An ignition engineer went in and lit the fire. They all watched quietly from the backyard as the fire spread.

Within 15 minutes the fire moved upstairs, and across the side of the house. Even without the customary fuel like furniture and papers or carpet and mattresses the fire ate up the house quickly. Windows shattered as if the work was being done by invisible cat burglars.

The smoke curled off the chimney and turned black, turning on itself like a tornado and raining down black chunks of burnt remnants the size of grapes but as thin as paper.

Here, the new recruits had another chance to practice a different kind of hose work. Instructors stood by as they pointed their hoses at the dead tree out front and across the lawn, putting out spot fires. Firefighters passed the lawn throughout the fire, calling out spot fires and directing the hoses.

In the end, the house was a pile of white ash and the land was quiet, the empty lot is ready to begin its new life as a piece of Southern Oregon’s natural beauty.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne