It’s not often a newspaper reporter knows about a house fire in advance. Even more rare? When an assistant fire chief is the one telling the reporter when and where the fire is going to happen.
This was the case on Tuesday, June 5, as North Whatcom Fire and Rescue (NWFR) crews spent most of the day honing their firefighting skills during the controlled burn of an abandoned house on Portal Way, just north of Birch Bay Square. NWFR assistant chief John Swobody said between 30 and 40 part-paid and volunteer fires participated in the day-long controlled burn.
Swobody said live practices are rare, and NWFR crews are lucky if they get do conduct one or two per year. He said their rarity is due to the scarcity of usable houses and the amount of paperwork and preparation that goes into planning a controlled burn.
The June 5 controlled burn took three months to plan, Swobody said. In addition to getting the OK from a number of county and state agencies, NWFR officials have to make sure the house’s ownership paperwork is in order. A local resident donated his old house to NWFR for this controlled burn.
NWFR fire chief Ron Anderson said NWFR more frequently train at the district’s practice burn towers, but there’s no replacement for gaining experience from a training exercise at an actual house. He said no other types of training better prepare firefighters for the unexpected conditions at real fires than controlled burns at abandoned structures.
Fire stations in the area of the controlled burn are put on call to answer real emergencies so the training is not interrupted, Anderson explained. He said the controlled burn would go on as normal through most emergencies and would only be cut short for large-scale structure fires.