Greg Jaeger pries a door open inside the old boys gym at The Lowell Whiteman School during a training session Wednesday.

Photo by John F. Russell

Greg Jaeger pries a door open inside the old boys gym at The Lowell Whiteman School during a training session Wednesday.

Steamboat fire chief: Be safe; call 911 for blazes larger than a trash can

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Larry Schnackenberg puts out a simulated fire while training at The Lowell Whiteman School on Wednesday evening.

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Firefighter Dave Hesselton talks to recruits during a training session Wednesday at The Lowell Whiteman School.

— A fire the size of a wastebasket is containable for amateur firefighters, given a fire extinguisher or bucket of water. It’s when the fires spreads, to a couch or into a whole room, that it’s best to leave, close the door and call firefighters.

Fire officials say the most common injury for firefighters is from smoke inhalation, as it was in a fire at Rabbit Ears Motel on July 17. A Steamboat Springs Police Department officer was taken to Yampa Valley Medical Center for smoke inhalation in that incident.

Fire Marshal Jay Muhme said Friday that he still is waiting for insurance company representatives to gather and that the cause of the fire has not been determined. He said the room still is closed off awaiting the investigation.

Fighting the fires

Steamboat Springs Fire Chief Ron Lindroth said the elementary-school advice of dropping to the floor to avoid smoke still is wise. He said fighting the fire is a good first reaction for small fires, but only to a point.

“If they have quick access to a fire extinguisher and they can keep themselves between the fire and the exit route, then being able to extinguish a fire on a small scale like that would probably be appropriate,” he said.

The problem, he said, is that fire expands exponentially. A fire typically doubles in size every minute, he said.

“What starts the size of a wastebasket … three minutes later is the size of a couch, and three minutes later is the size of a room,” he said. “Exponential growth also produces smoke and noxious fumes at an exponential rate.”

Lindroth said an increasing concern for professional and amateur firefighters is the amount of noxious fumes produced by standard household fires.

Decades ago, household fires would have fed on cotton, leather and other natural materials. Now, polyurethane couches and pressboard with chemicals make smoke more dangerous.

Lindroth said once a fire expands past the trash can size, people should leave the room and close all doors to isolate the room and starve the fire of oxygen. The same is true of car fires, he said, and it’s often more efficient to keep a hood closed and to spray an extinguisher into the grill, or up through the wheel wells, instead of opening the hood.

Finding the fires

When a fire does expand to the point where the fire department is needed, it’s also crucial that crews can find the fire.

Firefighter and emergency medical technician Scott Hetrick said firefighters work with the city’s mapping department to constantly update mapping software used in the fire trucks, but that doesn’t do much good if the house numbers aren’t visible.

“When we’re trying to find an address, and say it’s on a longer driveway, they should have it clearly posted at the end of the driveway so we know,” he said. “Numerous times, more often than not, people do not have that information posted at the end of their driveways.”

He said it’s important to remember that the visibility of the addresses changes with the season — addresses must be high enough off the ground so they’re not obscured by snow in the winter or plant growth in the summer.

County resident Bethanne Dressel ran into a different problem, however, when she tried to call for a fire truck to her home on Routt County Road 179 for a small electrical fire. She said that after watching the trucks drive by her house the first time she called, she worked with Routt County Communications dispatchers and found that her phone number was associated with a wrong location. After working with dispatchers to correct the mistake, she said she did a test call, and everything is now fine.

During her call, however, she put out the fire by herself by turning off the main power breaker to the home.

Hetrick said it’s helpful for callers to have someone at the end of long driveways when emergency responders arrive to help them know they’re at the right address, but the address always should be marked.

“Unless it’s clearly posted during all seasons … it’s a shot in the dark,” Hetrick said.

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