It may have been only a training exercise Saturday, but as firefighters emerged from a condemned home on Shand Avenue, Lakemont, that was purposely set ablaze, they were sweating and drawn.
The controlled burn was reality training at its most vivid, and as Newberg Volunteer Fire Company firefighter Thomas Bennett explained, "You see how fire acts and works with different things.
"I'm a veteran. I've been to 16 of these, but you always learn something new," he said.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Logan Township volunteer firefighters receive training from Altoona firefighters at a controlled house fire in Lakemont on Saturday.
The home that was used for the training, across from Peoples Natural Gas Field, the home of the Altoona Curve, was once owned by Lakemont volunteer, Bob Brumbaugh, according to Thomas
Sral, the chief of the Lakemont fire company.
He said that Brumbaugh died a few years ago, and the home had been empty for quite some time.
Logan Township assumed ownership of the home using money from the Community Development Block Grant program, and the idea was suggested that it be used for a fire-training exercise.
Local firefighters are trained every year at fire academies, but usually in cement block buildings.
The advantage of using a home like the Shand Avenue property allowed the trainees to experience what it is like to go into a building they don't know, to climb stairs and to experience smoke patterns.
The instructor for the 26 trainees Saturday was Altoona Fire Department Captain Matt Dietrich, a city firefighter for 18 years and a Pennsylvania State Fire instructor for 16 years.
He was busy, moving place to place Saturday. Some firefighters were outside the structure. They would periodically open their hoses to spray the structure.
Inside, other lessons were being learned, as Dietrich outlined, for instance, how to move a hose through a burning house, and what type of nozzles to place on the hose.
The trainees were able to study how fire spreads and the effects of ventilation - what happens when you open or close a door.
The volunteers were able to practice ventilating a roof.
John Kane of Huntingdon, a marketing consultant for the Allegheny Mountain Firefighter Initiative, a federally financed effort to recruit volunteer firefighters in the area, said some of the guys being trained were first-timers, and some were veterans honing their skills.
He said it took quite a bit of effort to conduct Saturday's training.
Several permits are necessary, and the exercise had to conform to regulations
under the Environmental Protection Agency.
He said it took "a lot of cooperation to pull this off."
The fire was obvious to those in the Lakemont area.
Dark smoke drifted lazily across the community and into the bright blue sky.
It was the type of sign that attracts attention during the Christmas season and on such an otherwise beautiful day. Many people came to the scene and watched throughout the day. The session began at 8:30 a.m. and lasted until after 4 p.m.
People even brought chairs to view events with a modicum of comfort.
To Kane and Sral, drawing attention to the fire was not all that bad because they said they were hoping some people would see what was happening and decide to become volunteers themselves.
Sral said the number of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania is dropping. Many volunteers are advancing in age, and the ranks are not being filled by younger enthusiasts.
He said he became a volunteer at age 16 - that was 40 years ago.
"All the departments are looking for volunteers," he said.
He said he understands the problem. Some people today work two jobs or work unusual shifts, a wife working in the day and a husband working at night.
But, he said, people need to get involved in their communities. The exercise Saturday, he said, is an example of how the departments will train newcomers.
The fire companies allowed the Shand Avenue home to burn to the foundation, and a demolition company will remove what remains of the home in about a week.