Capt. Rich Saalsaa takes photo of fire
Capt. Rich Saalsaa of Philomath Fire & Rescue takes a picture during Saturday's live burn in Kings Valley. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

KINGS VALLEY — Training videos, lectures and even so-called “burn boxes” can only do so much to prepare firefighters for the real thing. As a result, the opportunity to stage a live burn takes training to a new level, especially for those just starting out.

Just ask 19-year-old Layne Converse. Just two months into his volunteer firefighting experience with Philomath Fire & Rescue, he was among those who found value in a staged training burn on Saturday at the site of an old house near Kings Valley Charter School.

“Live fire training is always a really good experience to get all of the hands-on training that you don’t really get out of the textbook and lecture kind of scenario,” said Converse, who formerly volunteered in Bandon before joining Philomath. “You get to observe a lot of fire behavior and learn how to read the smoke … it can tell you a lot about how the fire is going to behave and the best approaches to attack that fire.”

Fire behavior — that was the primary objective of the training.

“Obviously, you don’t want to give them that first experience on their first structure fire,” said Philomath Fire & Rescue Capt. Rich Saalsaa said. “So that’s why we have these particular fires that can kind of give an idea of a dynamic.”

Philomath Fire & Rescue ran the fire drill — Saalsaa is one of two people in the department certified to supervise such an event — and had 14 personnel on site. In addition, 19 others — including an entire crew at Station 201 — were involved with covering calls for the rest of the district. The department’s newest engine, which is not even in service yet, was at the site.

Philomath Fire & Rescue’s Trent Tegen provides support to rookie firefighter Layne Converse during Saturday’s burn-to-learn training. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The training took place in the Hoskins-Kings Valley Rural Fire Protection District and they had four firefighters on hand. Polk County Fire District No. 1 also participated with a tender and representatives from the Willamette Valley First Responder Chaplains group were even present.

A significant amount of planning, Saalsaa estimated 40 hours, goes into the training exercise.

“Like I said at the beginning of our briefing this morning, it’s kind of like a gourmet meal in that it takes you four hours to build a meal and 15 minutes to consume it,” Saalsaa said. “It’s the same thing here. We do a lot of pre-planning and then in three or four hours, it’s all done.”

Firefighter Dan Eddy sprays a stream of water toward the side of the house. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The “burn-to-learn” training opportunity included groups of firefighters rotating through to be able to see different examples of fire behavior.

“We kind of pushed the limits to live fire training today and got to watch the fire really develop to a stage a little further than usual,” Converse said. “So that was just a really good experience to be able to watch that growth and learn another perspective and strengthen our tools and our knowledge base to be able to deal with these kinds of incidents and serve the public in the best way.”

One method of training is through the use of “burn boxes” — but Saalsaa said it’s just not the same. For example, firefighters don’t experience the radiant heat or see a vortex of fire.

“It’s just a very invaluable sort of impression on fire behavior, fire dynamics and then how water works,” Saalsaa said.

Firefighters operate a hose at the site, located near Kings Valley Charter School. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

In addition, actual exercises like Saturday’s event can provide real-life factors, such as how wind can impact a fire.

“Today was a little bit funny because the wind was actually coming from the west and then it shifted to the east,” Saalsaa said.

Keeping participants, equipment and nearby structures safe are a big part of the exercise. For example, the building was located close to a fence that firefighters paid a great deal of attention to so it wouldn’t be damaged — covering it with wet canvas and spraying water on it during the most intense burn periods.

The opportunity in Kings Valley was the first “burn-to-learn” training since 2020 when a house on Applegate Street in Philomath was ignited.

“It was a really good training, a really good opportunity for everybody here,” Converse said. “It was great for me since I’m still kind of new to the area. It’s just been great to work with everybody in this department.”

A firefighter aims a stream of water at the house’s chimney, which toppled over a few minutes later. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

After the training, the remnants of the structure will continue to burn and smolder down to white ash. There were plans to erect a temporary fence around the site to keep people — including nearby schoolchildren — out of the area.

Eventually, the school will hire a contractor to clear the site of the ash, concrete and metal that remains.

Owned by Kings Valley Community Trust, the two-story, seven-room house had been on the site since the mid-1940s. At one point, there were plans to turn the structure into a preschool but Kings Valley Charter School’s Mark Hazelton said it became too expensive for remodeling. A modular will likely go into the space.

“It makes more sense to put like two classrooms up here,” said Hazelton, who volunteers for the Hoskins-Kings Valley RFPD and participated in the training. “We haven’t determined what those two classrooms will be — they’ll either be science labs or a preschool and another classroom.”

Philomath Fire & Rescue’s Viktor Bovbjerg was among those on site. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.