I’ve been working as a Resident Firefighter with the Cordelia Fire Protection District for close to 3 months now and thanks to the dry brush (and possibly some careless vagabonds) got to fight my first fire. To be realistic, and to be fair to firefighters around the world, it wasn’t much of a fire by the time we got to it, but it was my first… and it will always be special to me. (Isn’t that sweet)
Back at the station, where the beginning of my “first” was just getting started, we had finished dinner and was finally taking a load off after a day of pack tests, station cleaning, equipment maintenance and other typical station duties. The radio started blaring and station after station was getting called to a fire on Cordelia Road. I couldn’t believe we hadn’t been called to it! Cordelia is not a big city and we’re one of the CFD’s two stations.
Finally, just when I was starting to wonder if we’d be a part of it, we became a part of it. I’m still fairly new to the Cordelia FD, but I’m not the official “new guy” now that Jimmy Alvarez came on board three weeks ago. He and I were pretty excited as it was both of our first fires. We were led by company officer, Engineer Billy Untalan and more experienced firefighter, Anthony Capella.
What amazed me the most was that as Alvarez and I stood there with our Polaski and McCloud, expecting to begin digging and shoveling every hotspot we saw, Engineer Untalan turned to us as we stood at the edge of a burning and smoking creek looking down at the flaming grass and litter, and told us to take the nozzle. I was thrilled, and took it before Jimmy got a chance.
There weren’t any gigantic, blazing, out of control fires to put out, but there were a good number of smaller ones and plenty of glowing embers everywhere. Some of the trees even had branches of burning leaves and these were of course a lot of fun to shoot down. I sprayed water at everything I could adjusting my nozzle at times for better reach or for a wider, wetter spray for soaking closer fires.
The interesting thing was the obvious odor of man-made items burning. The ravine that this fire happened in was two things among other: 1) A home to the homeless as there were a number of chairs, tents and sleeping bags set up in particular area, and 2) an unofficial junkyard. The local homeless who inhabited this brushland, probably had no hesitation about using it as a trashcan as well as sleeping quarters. Also, I imagine that even members of the general public used this conveniently inconspicuous area as an easy way to throw out large unneeded items. It was night so it was hard to see exactly what was down there, but there seemed to be plenty of old bottles, a bicycle, some old crates, plywood and possibly some old carpet. One of the lessons I learned on this fire, was ALWAYS have a working flashlight on hand, and preferably attached to your helmet or turnouts.
Inhaling the smoke from this burning litter was horrible. It smells like poison. All I could think of was my Capt. McCumber who taught my Fire 101 class and how he frequently told us that most firefighters die within a few years of retirement from cancers usually brought on by the gases of burning chemicals. Suddenly his words were so true. I tried to not breath it in, but when you’re working hard and the smoke is everywhere, there’s just no escaping it.
If you’re wondering why I wasn’t wearing breathing apparatus, it’s because you don’t wear your SCBA on wildland fires.
Getting back to the story, I was spraying everything glowing or burning that I could see when suddenly there was an explosion just down the slope where I was standing. It was bright, white and violent, and I knew immediately that it was probably magnesium or a similar flammable metal. I wasn’t sure if there was a specific protocol to be followed, like using a class D extinguishing agent, so I focused the stream on other hot spots while Alvarez notified Engineer Untulan.
Billy came over, took the nozzle shot a bit of water on it, and sure enough it popped with white light. He then surprised me by completely dousing it, obviously causing some serious chemical reactions, and eventually leading to a brilliant explosion of white light. After that, it fizzled out pretty quickly. It is worth noting that there was nobody else around and the metal itself (I still don’t know exactly what it was) was a pretty safe distance down this slope and ahead of us.
At this point Jimmy took over the nozzle and I began….