Practicing controlled burns to train for fighting real fires

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South Whidbey fire fighters pose for a group photo in front of a practice controlled fire.

In order to keep our paid and volunteer fire staff ready to respond to the nearly 2,700 emergency calls they receive each year, South Whidbey Fire/EMS stages controlled burns such as the one they did at the Waterman house on Langley Road last weekend.

Terry Welch, pictured above in the first row on the bottom, second from left, and a newly retired Coupeville middle school science teacher, has worked as a volunteer EMT (emergency medical technician) and fire fighter since 2002.

“We have always had great, ongoing training,” she says. “I’ve been a part of at least six practice burns over the years. They give us a chance to hone our skills in search/rescue, interior and exterior attack actions. EMTs get practice taking vitals as fire fighters come in to rehab periodically for a rest. Many fire fighters get practice over and over (evolutions) with the same house/structure. At the end, we let the house burn down.”

Louise Richardson lived for 18 years in the Waterman house on Langley Road before moving to a new location

The house that was burned belonged to the Waterman family, where it was used for years to house a caretaker for the family sawmill business. Later Louise Richardson, a retired paraeducator with the nearby South Whidbey School District, lived there for 18 years before relocating to another home. Louise visited her former home during the controlled burn.

Fire Captain Tom Peterson of Maxwelton’s Station 33, says: “I was switching between the outside safety team and inside ignition team. When we were done with interior work, we were cooling down the nearby trees and bushes.”

Debra Waterman, of Waterman Storage, said her family donated the home to the fire department, once they realized it was too costly to remodel.

The former Waterman’s sawmill caretaker’s home, is ablaze during a practice burn

“We decided to donate it when we realized we wanted to take it down,” Debra says. “It didn’t pencil out to remodel. We could have pulled it down in traditional ways, but donated it to the fire department  instead. My parents came to the island in 1948. The house was built probably late ’49-’50 and was built in two sections. My parents moved back to the mainland by the spring of 1952. My father commuted back and forth to run the sawmill. I was born and raised in Everett. My parents didn’t rent the house while the sawmill was going. My dad had one of the sawmill employees live there as a caretaker free of charge. All those years we called it the sawmill caretaker’s house. Louise lived there 18 years and then we asked her to move, thinking we’d do a remodel. When we went to bid, it was way more expensive than what we thought. There were a lot of unknowns. It was never built to be a permanent house.

South Whidbey High School students volunteer at practice burns. They prefer to remain anonymous in keeping with the department’s policy of ‘taking no fame’ and being humble instead.

South Whidbey Fire/EMS responded to 2,697 calls last year and 209 in September. Offering classes in CPR/First Aid, Car Seat Safety, Education, Children/Teens, Elderly, Family, the stations serve the community in more ways than responding to emergencies. Volunteers donated 11,153 hours to the fire department last year. Six stations from Freeland to Clinton serve their neighborhoods:  Station 31, Freeland; Station 32, Clinton; Station 33, Maxwelton Valley; Station 34, Langley; Station 35, Saratoga Road; and Station 36, Bayview. All stations are recruiting volunteers.

An excavator helps dismantle burning house

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2 Comments

    • Kate Poss | With Photos by David Welton on

      Thanks, Terry. It was lucky I was able to get a quote from you while you’re on the road.

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