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Practice burns ‘the only way’ to teach firefighters

13 Powell firefighters learn while burning down house on Road 10

They stood and watched it burn. Two of them pulled up chairs to relax and enjoy the view.

You couldn’t really blame the 13 members of the Powell Volunteer Fire Department for admiring the fire at 321 Road 10 in rural Powell Saturday morning. After all, they started it.

“This is the only way we can stay in practice,” said Assistant Chief Damian Dicks. “There’s no way to simulate this.”

The house was owned by Richard Holdsworth, who wanted it removed and has been allowing the Fire Department to hold training exercises there.

Firefighters practiced entering the house and putting out fires earlier this year, Dicks said, and they did some more drills Saturday morning before placing bales of hay, wood and other material inside the stucco building and getting a large fire going.

Smoke poured from the house as the firefighters circled it, and finally, jagged red sheets of flame came through the roof. By 10 a.m., about 2 1/2 hours after they had arrived, the 70-year-old building was engulfed.

“Nothing to do now but watch it burn,” Dicks said. “It’s kind of like watching paint dry.”

It may be routine for him, but it was a new experience for Kyle Cordes and Justin Cock,  both of Powell, who are applicants hoping to land positions with the department. They were not allowed inside the burning building, but offered assistance in other ways while soaking up as much information as possible.

“It’s pretty awesome,” said Cordes, 23. His father, John Cordes, is a Cody firefighter, and Kyle said he always wanted to be one, too.

“I want to know my role, help get things under control,” he said as the house began to catch fire. “I’m getting a lot of experience, a lot of visual knowledge.”

Cock, 30, said he decided he wanted to join a fire department while he was in the Navy. Once he got out, he asked to join the Powell Fire Department.

Becoming a firefighter is a long process. Applicants spend three months working with the experienced firefighters, and then a vote is held amongst the veterans. If they are approved, the applicants attend a firefighting school — offered in both Riverton and Cody — and, if they complete that, they are classified as rookies.

After about 18 months, if they show promise and learn the ropes, they are classified Firefighters 1 and can remain with the department.

While they were gaining experience at the fire, so were the veterans, Dicks said. There are fewer and fewer structure fires now, he said, as people learn more about fire safety.

That’s very good, but has a downside — firefighters don’t have the practical experience they need when a fire does happen. When people offer an older house to the department, it helps keep the firefighters sharp, Dicks said.

“This is for all of us,” he said.

Several of the younger firefighters were given a few lessons during the practice burn.

“What’s the easiest way to know where a fire started?” Dicks quizzed them.

“Ask. Ask the homeowner,” he said.

Dicks also encouraged them to always remain safe, and said, in a joking manner, that if their helmet starts to melt, they need to get away from the fire. But his overall message was deadly serious.

“If at any moment you feel unsafe, get out,” he said. “Nobody’s gonna laugh at you, I promise.”

Fire Capt. Nate Mainwaring said it’s important to keep track of who enters a burning structure.

“Accountability,” Mainwaring said. “We have to do that, so we make sure we don’t lose somebody in there.”

While it was serious business, the firefighters also enjoyed the training. They gathered at the Powell Fire Station for breakfast before heading out.

Once there, they joked and teased each other, and when the fire was burning its hottest, they posed for a group photo with the burning building behind them.

Firefighter Dustin Dicks, Damian’s brother, said it was important to learn from the training, but the firefighters couldn’t help but enjoy it, too.

“Nothing like lighting a fire in a controlled burn,” he said. “I guess it’s the little kid in you.”

While the firefighters did their work, often with broad smiles and laughter, different emotions were evident on the faces of Louis, Florence and Scott Lieberman.

The burning house was their home for decades, and seeing it destroyed was very emotional, they admitted.

Louis, 96, and Florence, 85, moved into the home 60 years ago after they were married. Florence, a Chicago native, met Louis when he was visiting in Chicago, and he married her and brought her to the farm in the wilds of Wyoming.

They now live in a nearly new house about 30 yards from the old place, and they watched from there as the house caught fire.

“It’s kind of sentimental,” Florence said. “A few tears coming down. We started our life there.”

They sold the house and land to Holdsworth and moved into the new home he built, which they rent from him. Their son Scott said he was also sad to see the old house go.

A friend, retired doctor Dennis Goldberg, circled the burning building taking photos. Goldberg was caught up in the thrill as well, he admitted.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said.

That’s not the case for the fire crew. Damian Dicks said they rely on people donating buildings to be ignited, and it’s a vital part of their work. Although there are other ways to learn the needed skills, the best way still is to send men in heavy gear and with breathing apparatus inside a burning building.

As the drills continued, he shouted encouragement.

“Let’s go boys,” Dicks said. “You’re on.”

1 comment

  • posted by kyle cordes

    October 30, 2013 11:08 am

    Are there going to be any pics posted from this?

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