Technology improves, methods change. Volunteer firefighters answer the call regardless. Their devotion to Pierce County is steadfast.
Time moves on, and sometimes that’s not a bad thing.
Time has brought advancement in medical treatment, technology, and here in Pierce County, how local volunteers fight fire. Much has changed over the last 40 years.
“We’ve come a long way from putting the wet stuff on the red stuff,” says Blackshear Fire Chief Bucky Goble, while looking at black and white photos of area firefighters battling the Pierce Timber Company blaze in March 1979.
The Pierce Timber fire was thought to be started by sparks from a passing train. Firefighters from three counties fought the fire that destroyed the timber company building, equipment and lumber, and brought traffic along Hwy. 84 to a standstill for hours.
Damage was estimated to be $200,000, an amount that translates to nearly $700,000 today when accounting for inflation.
Men manned fire hoses in T-shirts and jeans, their pants soaked with backspray from the nozzle. Dedicated volunteers squinted to see the flames they were dousing through thick, acrid smoke, and they wore ball caps. No helmets, face masks or gloves to be had.
Risk of an explosion and potential loss of life was high with butane and diesel fuel tanks near the vicinity of the fire.
These days, dedicated firemen — some who braved that ‘79 inferno — still show up to ‘put the wet stuff on the red stuff,’ but the risk of bodily harm is greatly reduced with advances in turnout gear.
“When these guys started they had raincoats. We called them ‘glorified raincoats’,” Goble says with a laugh.
Each fireman now has an ensemble of gear protecting them from head to toe. Soon Blackshear Fire Department volunteers will have carcinogenic hoods to cover their head and neck completely. Turnout gear has to be replaced every 10 years so BFD keeps gear on a constant replacement schedule, budgeting for at least four new sets per year.
Technological advancements and equipment improvements have greatly benefited fire fighting methods over the years, too.
BFD now regularly uses foam to fight fire. Foam breaks the surface tension of water so it soaks into materials faster. It makes the wet stuff more wet, Goble explains.
The department’s newest fire truck is outfitted with a foam system to inject the sudsy substance right into the water system at the touch of a button. Foam is often used at structure fires, but is also extremely effective for controlling fuel spills.
Bigger isn’t always better.
No tool refutes that misconception more so than what local firemen call “the beast.” The long slender, yet powerful tool, is used to poke holes a few inches wide in walls or floors for an interior attack when physically entering a structure is not deemed safe.
“It allows us to make an interior attack without actually entering the structure. We’re able to cool that hot area before we send men in,” Goble says.
A wand attachment to the end of “the beast” is inserted into the hole and rotates to spray foam or water on the flames.
The fire department also owns a thermal imaging camera which uses heat signatures to detect persons trapped in a burning building or fire hidden in a wall.
“If somebody is trapped in smoke and we hit them with that we can see them through the smoke,” Goble says.
The newest airpacks on the market feature thermal imaging inside the helmet. Wherever a fireman looks he can see the various heat signatures. But, it’ll be awhile yet before that technology makes its way to Pierce County — those airpacks cost $10,000 each.
Firemen also have the opportunity to be better prepared now than ever before with access to online training courses and a burn building where BFD sets up live fire, search and rescue drills.
Yet, with all the advancements in equipment, gear and training, firemen cannot usually put out the flames any faster than they did in their “glorified raincoat” days.
Structures burn nearly four times faster now than they did 30 years ago. Homes are fully engulfed in flames within three to four minutes versus 15 because of an increase in highly flammable plastics and foams in the home and open floor plans which are more common in new construction.
“The foams in furniture, plastics in television and furniture (burns faster),” Goble says. “When we go into homes, they’re wide open. There are no compartments to compartmentalize the fire … When you’ve got a big open floor plan, (fire) has got all the oxygen it wants.”
The only way Blackshear Fire Department can offset faster burn times and the loss of precious valuables for homeowners is by their rapid response time. BFD can be on scene at any fire within the city limits in 4-6 minutes, and Goble attributes that to the quality and dedication of the city’s volunteer firefighters.
Forty years ago local firemen may have arrived on scene with little more than a big tank and a long water hose. Today, they roll up, sirens blaring, with powerful jet sprayers, foam systems, sophisticated turnout gear and “the beast.”
What matters most is they show up.
Firemen roll out of bed in the middle of the night or speed through town at midday to answer the call.
Locals can count on them to keep putting the wet stuff on the red stuff.