"A pitch-black room, fog in your mask, smoke so thick you couldn't see"

Volunteers receive "next level" training


February 15, 2024

Ronda Lutz

Members of the Gray's River FD work on putting out the fire inside of the burn tower.

On Saturday, Feb. 10, personnel from all four Wahkiakum County fire districts, including Puget Island, District 4, Skamokawa, and Grays River, along with firefighters and emergency medical staff from the Town of Cathlamet, attended a half-day 'live fire' training event at Clatsop Community College (CCC) near Astoria.

The training was held at the college's Marine and Environmental Research and Training Station, or MERTS, which offers a variety of educational scenarios, such as maritime science, environmental studies, scientific research training, and Industrial and Manufacturing Technologies.

"The event was really well attended," said District 4 Chief, Randy Hoven.

"And most of the personnel are new to the service, as well as to the facility. We actually had a show of hands in the classroom prior to beginning, and I'm going to say at least three-quarters [of the attendees] had never been there before. So this live fire and fire characteristics was all new to them, so it was a great learning experience."

Several departmental personnel served as trainers for the event; experienced firefighters such as Hoven; Cathlamet Battalion Chief, Chris Garstki; District 4 Captain Billy Peek; and others. The morning, too, provided an opportunity for firefighters from the east end of the county to meet and work with fellow personnel from Grays River and beyond.

"I'd not had the chance to meet [Grays River assistant chief] Austin Burkhalter," Hoven said, "and that was a high point. Just the teamwork between all of the departments."

Serving as assistant chief of the Grays River District 3 Fire Department since May 2023, Burkhalter had visited MERTS in 2015 as a volunteer, and now, nine years later, echoes Hoven's sentiments about the facility providing an excellent opportunity for training volunteers.

"There was a lot of good training," the assistant chief said.

But how realistic is a so-called 'controlled fire' in a 'controlled environment?'

And can the training experience at a facility such as MERTS truly apply to what a firefighter might encounter should he or she respond to a true-to-life structure fire?

"As far as the interior burn stuff," Burkhalter began, "I very seldom have a chance to do something like that, so yes. I think it's as realistic as we can get."

Burkhalter went on to say some of the biggest benefits of the event was the hands-on experience in basic firefighter skills such as "properly putting on and taking off air-packs and masks, making certain our gear was correct, handling hose, and spray patterns. So yes, I think it was quite realistic."

Currently serving as the maintenance supervisor for Wahkiakum School District 200, Paul Lawrence has served as a firefighter with the Puget Island Fire Department for the past nine months. This was his first trip to the MERTS facility, and it was, he readily admitted, quite the eye-opener.

"MERTS was awesome," Lawrence said eagerly. "It was really great. It's well run...It didn't matter the level of experience you had going in, [MERTS]...gave you the opportunity to stand in a pitch-black room, fog in your mask, smoke so thick you couldn't see the bail of the [hose] nozzle, with fire running over your head."

Lawrence continued by commenting on the "next level" training available for those who wished to kick their firefighting game up a notch.

"If you wanted," he said, "you could work on the technical side of things, too. Hose spray patterns. Handling the hose in tight spaces. Practicing your air management so you're not going through your air too quickly. Your gear."

He continued, "You knew you were in a safe space and nothing was going to happen. It gave you the ability to make yourself better and more useful as a firefighter."

For those new to the all-volunteer fire service, Cathlamet Battalion Chief, Chris Garstki, who coordinated this particular training exercise, said the morning was exceptionally beneficial.

"It was primarily the rookies from all the departments," he said. "So there was a bit of a learning curve for some of them...For many of them, it was the first time they'd ever had live fire right in their face."

And what, believes Chief Garstki, might be the most significant take-away from the MERTS experience?

Ronda Lutz

Billy Peek of District 4 instructs Vince Litell on hose control as Mark Duvbilo, Dan Kononenko and Dallas Ruch look on.

"My hope was that these recruits would realize just how hot fire actually is," he said, "and what you have to do in order to control that fire with the tools you have."


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