Out of all the days to stay late at work, my boss asked me Tuesday to stay until 8PM for a late meeting. Around 4:30 PM my phone starts ringing off the hook with my guys calling me to tell me there's a huge factory fire on Garibaldi Ave. I checked with a few sources to make sure it would still be burning when I got home (being that my commute is over an hour) and they reassured me it would be burning for a long time. I left work with apologies to my boss and let's just say that was the longest commute of my life.
Coming into my town I could smell and see the smoke. I grabbed a few granola bars, got dressed, went to headquarters and grabbed my gear and drove to the scene. The smoke engulfed a few city blocks and when I got close, police moved the barricades to let my car in.
When I met up with my crew, they were standing and watching as all the tower ladders were in full operation, and I was told this was a 100% defensive operation as the plant had unknown chemical and plastic contents and was vacant. As everyone was unsure of the quality of the air, we were all issued filter-masks similar to the ones surgeons wear, and some agency was already on scene doing air-quality testing.
I found my Captain and as I'm stepping up as Lieutenant in a month, I felt this was a great opportunity to work side by side and get some things done. Even though Engine Companies don't have much function at a defensive fire besides pumping water to the master streams, we found a metal staircase to a lower-set rooftop that had a door that led to one of the attached buildings that was not yet involved in fire.
After giving a heads up to the Chief and all operating ladder streams, we took a 3 man team up the attached metal stairs to set up a 2 1/2 inch line up hanging up and over the parapet next to an attached roof-access ladder. Next to us was a door to the building, which we cut off the hinges with a circular saw. We stretched the 2 1/2 up the stairs, made a big U into the room and back out of the room, 3 feet up the wall and hung it over the parapet.
I was standing a foot into the room when they charged it, unaware that I was standing right in the center of the U the line made. Water rushed throught he lines and the weight pulled the 2 1/2 tight and I quickly realized it would sweep my legs right out from under me. I only had about a second between hearing water rushing and seeing the line whipping towards my legs. I jumped as high as I could as it swept under my feet like lightning and it just caught my heel, tripping me slightly, before flying out the door and almost down the stairs. That was an extremely close call as it nearly brought me down the stairs with it. Crisis averted and let this be a lesson to me and anyone reading this to stay the hell away from a 2 1/2 as it's charging, even if your pump-operator is more gentle on the throttle than mine.
Our strategy was to set up one firefighter sitting on the 2 1/2" hoseline on the parapet, one firefighter on the landing beside him for support, one firefighter a foot into the room with a thermal camera to watch for encroaching fire, and an officer on the landing to coordinate it all.
100 feet across the roof from the nozzle-man was a set of windows which at this point all had massive amounts of fire rolling and blowing out of them. The idea was to hit the right-most window to keep the fire from moving right and entering the attached building. Every 7 minutes we rotated positions and sent 1 man down to be replaced with someone fresh from the ground below.
The attached room was hot and had a haze of smoke that got denser as time went by. At the far end of the room was a hallway which had fire that could be seen with the thermal camera, but not yet with the naked eye as the smoke was too thick down the hallway. An interior attack was out of the question as master streams operated above us, even though they were aware of our crew. As we rotated guys more and more, we noticed the fire was making its way down that hallway towards us, and we debated whether to wait for it to enter the room and make a final stand with the 2 1/2 from the landing at the doorway.
After about 45 minutes of fire attack, no improvement was seen in the windows we were hitting and the fire was getting even closer down the hallway. Too many towers were in operation flowing water, and we decided our attempts were futile and we backed down the metal stairs. 15 minutes later that entire building was overcome by heavy fire, creating furnace-like conditions.
A few hours later, I took a walk around the front of the building, which now had heavy flame blowing out of 3 or 4 windows, catching a nearby tree on fire as well. Rehab was set up in a deli across the street, and everyone operating with me earlier on the stairs went inside for some pizza and O2.
We set up our deck gun later on the same building we were trying to protect earlier and stayed for another 10 hours pumping water to all the master streams in operation. About 7 AM, my crew was relieved by one of the 16 towns helping out through the night. I went home, called my boss to take off work, and fell asleep until the pager went off a few hours later for a house fire on Avenue B...