‘As you leave the house, make sure you shut the door’: Fire Department training illustrates fire behavior

CEDAR CITY — The Cedar City Fire Department conducted a controlled burn training exercise Tuesday evening, using three adjacent empty buildings slated for demolition.

Fire Chief Mike Phillips gives instructions at beginning of a Cedar City Fire Department training exercise involving three adjacent vacant buildings, Cedar City, Utah, July 20, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

One purpose of the demonstration was to illustrate the role oxygen plays in the burning process, said Cedar City Fire Chief Mike Phillips.

 “What we are trying to do is just show the fire’s science: giving the fire air versus no air,” he said.

The three target buildings, located along the south side of 200 North at 673, 685 and 695 West, were similar in terms of layout and construction. Each structure had a pile of pallets, old furniture and paper materials inside a main-level room, waiting to be ignited simultaneously using road flares.

Once the fires had been ignited, firefighters then waited 10 minutes before taking any action, thereby providing a realistic response time for the mock scenario.

One of the three buildings had its front door and multiple windows left open, while one had them all shut during the response time. A third one started out with the front door open, but a responder closed it a couple minutes later.

As might be expected, the building with the most ventilation soon had its front room fully ablaze, with bright orange flames shooting from its front windows.

However, in the other two buildings, the fires largely died out due to lack of oxygen. That was even the case for the building where the front door had been left open for the first couple minutes.

“That’s simulating law enforcement showing up and all they’re going to do is shut the door,” Phillips told Cedar City News right before the exercise began. 

Firefighters extinguish a burning chair at the scene of a Cedar City Fire Department training exercise involving three adjacent vacant buildings, Cedar City, Utah, July 20, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Later, as the exercise unfolded, firefighter Darren Maxwell took a few moments to explain what was happening inside.

As he and other onlookers peered into the side window of the house that was deprived of all ventilation, Maxwell said, “This house is completely closed up. It should burn the oxygen out and die back down.”

Although the structure did sustain smoke damage throughout, one of its rooms ended up almost entirely unscathed, as all of that room’s doors had been closed during the fire.

Phillips said the experiment underscores the importance of people closing doors behind them when evacuating a burning building.

He said the most important lesson is to exit the house immediately in case of a fire and call 911 from outside or a neighbor’s house, but “as you leave the house, make sure you shut the door. And, at this time of year, if your windows are open, if you can safely shut them from the outside, shut them. But really, just shutting the door and taking the air away from it, is going to slow the fire.”

“You saw the difference,” the chief added.

Phillips said the training exercise also provided valuable hands-on practice for Cedar City Fire Department’s  firefighters, particularly rookies who don’t have much field experience. 

Among those in attendance at the scene were Cedar City Mayor Maile Wilson-Edwards and City Manager Paul Bittmenn. Numerous onlookers set up camp chairs and watched the hourlong exercise from across the street.

Meanwhile, on the side of the roadway, a flashing lighted sign reminded passing motorists that the situation was a controlled burn and said, “Do not report.”

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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