Monrovia fire officials' plans had suddenly gone up in smoke.
They had scheduled a series of controlled burns at an empty office building last week to train about 100 firefighters from 12 San Gabriel Valley cities in how to battle fires inside dark, smoke-filled buildings.
The plan had been to set eight fires that would be fought at different times. But officials were taken by surprise when the second fire they set suddenly engulfed the 68,000-square-foot building at Central and Shamrock avenues.
"It went into the attic right away," said Lt. John Beveridge of the Sierra Madre Fire Department, who was inside the building when the fire was set by throwing flares onto kerosene-soaked wood pallets and mattresses. "It traveled in the attic so fast that almost instantly there was smoke coming up everywhere."
Fire Took Hold
Smoke was soon visible and flames shot 10 to 15 feet into the air as the fire took hold on the roof and interior walls of the red-and-white brick building formerly used by Xerox Corp.
Firefighters quickly jumped into action to prevent the blaze from spreading to nearby buildings.
"It's called realism," said a fire chief who did not want to be identified.
The firefighters were no longer involved in a drill, Beveridge said, smiling. "They're trying to put out a fire. It makes it a bit more interesting."
The purpose of last Sunday's drill was to teach firefighters from the San Gabriel, El Monte, Sierra Madre, San Marino, Arcadia, Covina, West Covina, Monterey Park, Alhambra, South Pasadena, Pasadena, Monrovia and Los Angeles County fire departments how to assist each other at large fires. And they ended up doing just that.
Preferred Realistic Drill
"Fire isn't an exact science," said Chief Mark D. Foote of the Monrovia Fire Department, who added that he preferred the more realistic drill to the smaller fires originally planned.
Extinguishing the larger fire, which took most of the day, provided the firefighters with valuable experience, Foote said. Many had to do jobs they had not performed before; they traded duties and tested various communications techniques.
"They don't usually get this opportunity with the pressure of a real fire," Foote said. "Some of these firemen have been (working for) two years and have never felt this much heat."
Inspector Frank Deckhard of the Monrovia Fire Department said the fire turned the drill into an excellent training session. "This way, everybody got involved," he said.
As the fire grew, three hook-and-ladder trucks raised firefighters about 75 feet off the ground to shoot water on the blaze.
Traffic became snarled on the nearby 210 Freeway as drivers slowed--several even parked on the shoulder--to watch. Monrovia police arrived to disperse the crowd of onlookers and eventually closed the Mountain Avenue on-ramp because drivers appeared to be using it to get a better view of the fire.
The former Xerox building, which faces the freeway, is now owned by the Monrovia Redevelopment Agency and is scheduled to be demolished within a month to make room for a 19-acre auto row, said Glenn Cox, redevelopment division manager for the agency.
Floyd Warr, an assistant Monrovia fire chief, said he asked the agency if the structure could be used as a training site because it was "just an ideal building," away from other buildings and not too close to power lines. Such drills cannot be held often because it is difficult to find sites like this, he said.
"We like to do it, but it has to be perfect conditions before we get into it," he said.
Xerox moved out of the building in January when it opened a new office in El Segundo, said Cox.
Because the building was scheduled for demolition, fire chiefs ordered firefighters to let the fire burn, under control, so they had more time to practice firefighting techniques, Foote said.
Beveridge, a member of the all-volunteer Sierra Madre Fire Department, which has no hook-and-ladder trucks, got a chance to do something he had done only in training tests. He climbed to the top of the 75-foot ladder and sprayed water on the fire.
He and the other firefighters also learned how to fight a fire where dense smoke limited visibility inside the building to three to four feet.
"When you get inside a building like this, it's so thick you can't see anything," Beveridge said. "It's really a strange experience. It's kind of spooky."
Warr said the exercise allowed each department to test a management and communications system designed to handle a blaze--such as a brush fire or a fire in a large building--to which several different agencies respond.
"We're all doing the same business, but the terminology may be different," Warr said.
About 3 p.m., four hours after it had started, the fire was nearly out. Plans to hold a meeting to discuss firefighters' performance were scrapped as they ate a late lunch and found a place in the shade to rest.