Smoke filled the old home quickly, pouring out from cracked window seals, rusty air conditioner units and a hole in the roof where a downed tree lay.
Firefighters didn’t know what they might encounter inside: A dying resident? Flames in the attic or down below, eating away at the floor?
So they crawled in gingerly, three on a hose line.
The hose would not only help put out the fire, it could lead them out — the couplings indicating the direction back toward the truck even if they couldn’t see more than a few inches in front of their face shields.
They “sounded the floor” as they crept, striking the wooden boards hard to test its integrity, knowing firefighters have died falling through holes.
Luckily, all of this was just a drill, the smoke produced by a machine and trash bags taped to the windows to block the light.
On Saturday, the Hellsgate Fire Department got a golden opportunity to train in a real home, without the danger of a genuine fire.
The Town of Star Valley last year purchased the abandoned, rambling ranch home off Highway 260 with plans to fix it up and make it a new town hall. An inspection showed so many structural problems the council decided to just tear it down.
But before the bulldozers knocked it down, Hellsgate asked for a chance to use it for training.
“This gives us the blacked out environment, the smoky environment that makes it more realistic for their training because part of being a firefighter is overcoming your fear of claustrophobia, becoming comfortable with your equipment, how it maneuvers in tight places and what to do if it snags on something,” said Capt. John Wisner with Hellsgate.
Wisner stood outside the home, acting as commander.
He radioed for another water tender to help battle the “blaze.”
While just a simulation, firefighters took the drill seriously.
They drove the ladder truck up with emergency lights on, unloaded their gear then laid the hose out carefully so it unfurled as they pulled it through the multi-story structure.
They tapped on the front door, gave each other hand signals and turned their oxygen tanks on.
Rural departments like Hellsgate treasure these training opportunities. While Payson has a training facility in town, Hellsgate does not use it as often as it would like.
Such training can save lives.
“This increases our firefighters’ ability to move in blacked out environments with confidence that they are OK,” Wisner said. “They know the feeling when their bottle touches something and what it feels like if they are snagged and they get used to holding their tools, using the hose as a reference point to know which direction is in or out based on couplings.”
The only thing missing from Saturday’s drill was heat and fire.
While the department had permission to cut holes in the home, break windows and generally destroy it, the one thing they couldn’t do was set it on fire.
Still, they could simulate finding a victim or a firefighter collapsing and how to respond.
The 13 firefighters who attended Saturday included those with just a month on the job and those with 20-plus years.
“This is a good first place to start,” Wisner said.