A torrent of water cascaded below a canopy of conifers at the Twain Harte fire training facility on Vantage Point Drive.
Smoke billowed from the upper hatch of a singed iron container.
The Columbia College fire academy students were there for a lesson in live action fire.
Alyssa Flaming, 24, a Columbia College fire academy student, stood out by the forced entry training door in a black uniform from volunteer work with the Columbia District Firehouse.
“We’re learning the bread and butter of the trade,” she said, motioning to the sea of yellow fatigues and helmets of her peers as they prepared to pry open the door with the irons.
“Here we’re getting hands-on experience and learning skills no else gets to learn. We are entering a fun career.”
Each of the 35 students and about a dozen instructors had designations sewn onto their backs, identifying them as Columbia College Fire Academy students, or their teachers out of Twain Harte, Alameda, Turlock, Merced and from CalFire.
At the forced entry site, said Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Captain Josh Tucket, students were using “the irons,” or a halligan and an axe, to gain entry past a tall black iron door locked with a small piece of wood.
The students struck at the irons repeatedly, wedging their tools into a gap to pry open the doors.
These skills, he added, were “basic to any firefighter.” Only when these men and women were employed would they gain experience from their coworkers and superiors about the finer points of “strategic entry.”
Throughout the live action fire training, said Columbia College faculty instructor Andy Van Hoogmoed, the students are educated on the mechanics and technique of fire behavior, vertical ventilation, hose manipulation and forced entry to buildings.
“We have our academy 16-week course and this is just one of the aspects of the academy. This is the only live fire training we actually do on this,” he said, noting that the course is divided between in-class education and labs where the students learn specific skills.
Van Hoogmoed, who has taught the course for two semesters, spent 33 years as a firefighter in Merced and understood that the live training gave students an essential understanding of the equipment and burn behavior they would be likely to experience after graduation.
“A lot of it is preparation for them before they get employed by the fire service,” he said. “We are simulating situations that they would experience in the field. They get comfortable with the mechanics and with their gear.”
Trudging through the granulated rocks and runny, silted mud, the students were treated to an “adrenaline-rush experience,” said Gabriel Avila, 20. “It sets a strong fundamentals as we enter into the fire industry.”
Over by the “burn box,” Twain Harte Fire Captain Mark Slater kept a gloved hand pressed against the iron double doors of a converted shipping container while gray smoke and fumes swirled out of ventilation hatches.
Inside around 10 students sat on the ground with masks and breathing apparatuses over their faces, monitoring a live fire attack to learn the behavior and patterning of a burn.
“They get to see it actually happen.,” Slater said. “They see what the fire actually does when we get ventilation and fire attack.”
In the back, other instructors fed the fire with hay, discarded furniture and stray lumber.
“Some of our props get a little wet, so it takes a while to build up the heat,” Slater added, his hand still pressed against the door to keep it closed.
After live training in places like the burn box, Van Hoogmoed added, some students may choose not to continue with the course due to the stresses and strain of the job.
“Students sometimes leave, usually it's prior to the academy being complete,” he said. “This is a good safe place for them to find that out.”
Ben Lampley, 24, said despite the difficulties he experienced in the course, he plans to see it through to the end.
“We get a lot of knowledge and instructors have a lot of experience and they know the tricks of the trade. It’s hard work but it’s fun,” he said. “It’s not just learning the basics, you learn the tricks to make things easier.”
Over by the hose manipulation training, students were educated on the physics of body movement, nozzle reaction, and maintaining the line without flow-disrupting kinks.
Twain Harte Fire Captain Neil Gamez explained that back during the 1950s and 1960s the materials that made up home furnishings might take anywhere from 17 to 30 minutes to reach a “heat release” where the entire home is consumed by flame. With the onset of more inorganic materials however, a home could burn in up to 30 seconds to a minute.
“We call this setting up for success,” he said. “When we have the higher release rates we need to cool off those environments immediately,” so rooms around it can’t ignite.
Students were learning this relatively new technique, he said, scraping a knee along the ground while advancing in a kneeling stride with the hose in hand, in order to be better prepared for these situations. With each step, the students pulled along the hose and sprayed the tree line with a gusting surge of hydraulic pressure.
“It’s a new technique,” he explained, “just for the feet to make it more efficient.”
An instructor additionally explained flow power to the students, demonstrating how kinks in the hose line can minimize a firefighter’s ability to combat a blaze.
“An experienced firefighter can hear and feel the nozzle reaction,” Gamez added.
The fire crews and their students were also joined by the Twain Harte Area Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), who provided rehabilitation to the fighters in between sessions.
Team Leader Carol Hallett explained that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)-sponsored groups are all around the United States, but the Tuolumne County branch was not initiated until four years ago, a direct result of the Rim Fire.
“I was surprised that we were not as prepared for fire living in a heavily wooded area.”
Community volunteers are often the first people on scene at a fire, Hallett added, and with 50 active members throughout the county, neighborhoods and residences are more apt to have a trained assistant on hand during emergencies.
“We are utilized in a lot of different things. We are here to help the community in preparation, we are on call and they will deploy us when a catastrophe happens,” she said.
The Columbia College students at the site today, Hallett noted, will be the primary fighters for fire combat and abatement once they complete the course.
Additionally, the students worked on top of a grant-funded ventilation prop that simulated the different angles of a roof.
“It’s hard to get real buildings a lot of the time. With this we can do it all the time,” Slater said, indicating to a series of levers used to shift the gradient of the rafters.
The students took chainsaws in hand and cut through the wood, mimicking how to make ventilation on a burning building.
Down by a maze of wooden pallets central to the training site, a few of the instructors loosened their coats and had a quick breather.
It was almost lunchtime during another hard day’s work.