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AROUND THE SOUTH BAY

Infernos are one thing, but it takes practice to be a match for small fires

March 05, 1987|DEAN MURPHY

They have fought fires aboard massive aircraft carriers, on sophisticated jet bombers and at dozens of military installations throughout Southern California. But give them a burning three-bedroom house and it's back to school.

About 100 firefighters from the Army, Navy and Marines gathered in Harbor City this week to set fires--and then learn how to extinguish them--at eight buildings on Palos Verdes Drive North, which until last Christmas housed the Los Angeles International Hostel.

"On a day-to-day basis, they don't get a whole lot of training with structural fires," said Jerry P. Sack, training captain for the Long Beach Naval Station fire department, which organized the five-day session. "The Marine Corps guys, for example, deal strictly with aircraft. But you never know when you might be called to back up on a structure fire, especially at their own bases."

Gunnery Sgt. Russell Merle, training chief for the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station fire department, said all 120 firefighters from his department would have liked to take part in the unusual training experience, but he only brought about a dozen firefighters who had experience fighting fires other than those involving aircraft.

"Getting some structural fires excited everybody," Merle said. "We are responsible for crashes, so we don't get live (building) fires that often. . . . The main emphasis, however, is on safety, so we brought people with experience so no one gets hurt."

The torched buildings--six three-bedroom houses and two multicar garages--are part of a 44-acre park that the Navy has reclaimed from the city of Los Angeles for a 300-unit military housing development. The Navy had deeded the land to the city in mid-1970s with the provision that it could be reclaimed for "national defense" purposes.

The houses, built during World War II for Navy personnel, were converted into dormitories by the youth hostel when it opened there in 1978. The 70-bed operation was evicted from the property in December and has since moved to several former Army barracks at Angels Gate Park in San Pedro--another military property deeded to the city.

"The Navy would have had to hire a contractor to come in here and remove the structures," Sack said. "But the fire department can burn them down cheaper. It saves money and it gives us some valuable training at the same time."

Training officers from the Los Angeles County Fire Department, the city of Anaheim Fire Department and several other non-military agencies were invited by the Navy to demonstrate how the military firefighters--who include both enlisted men and civilians--should tackle the seemingly mundane task of dousing a house fire.

Tim O'Neill, a captain with the county department, for example, spent one afternoon explaining how to make roof cuts that allow smoke and heat to escape from burning buildings. O'Neill explained how to "read" a roof to find the safest places to walk, emphasizing that firefighters should stay close to the larger beams of the roof's frame.

The firefighters were also sent into the houses, which had been set ablaze with a mixture of oil, diesel gasoline and jet fuel kindled by stacks of wood pulled from the garage roofs. For some of the firefighters, it was one of the few times they had entered a burning building.

Marines from the El Toro Air Station, dressed in metallic suits designed to repel heat from burning jet fuel, stormed a three-bedroom stucco home that had fire flashing across its ceilings and smoke so thick they couldn't see their hands in front of them.

Two houses away, Marines from the Tustin Marine Corps helicopter base fire department crawled into another smoky, three-bedroom house and dragged a dummy "victim" out the front door. Later, they climbed ladders to the roof, where they cut holes between rafters with chain saws to release the smoke and intense heat.

Nearby, civilian firefighters who work for the Navy in Long Beach and the Army at the Los Alamitos Armed Forces Reserve Center entered another smoky house in a drill meant to accustom them to "heat buildup" that occurs when fire engulfs the inside of a closed building.

"It is really good practice for us," said Steven Harper, a firefighter at the Long Beach Naval Station, shortly after he emerged from the inferno. "It really emphasizes teamwork. We could have to work with any of these guys some time and this will make it a lot easier."

A Navy spokesman said that 11 fire departments, most of them from military bases in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, would participate in the exercises, which are expected to end Friday. The operation needs approval each day from the Air Quality Management District, which decides whether wind and air-quality conditions are suitable for open burning.

Although the park is fairly isolated, the Marine Corps had three 1,000-gallon tank trucks on hand should one of the drills get out of hand.

"They only thing we are at all worried about is the brush," said Marine Staff Sgt. Tim Melville, leaning on one of the massive green water trucks. "But then these are the best that they make."

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