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Firefighters learn to tame a 3,000 degree flaming monster

Three rural fire departments immersed themselves in propane flames Monday night to train separately and with each other in Lake George.

And they learned when to walk away from a fire and let it burn.

"Not all fires can be fought," training instructor Shawn Bailey warned. Bailey and Dale Mashuga work for a Motley company called F.I.R.E. for Fire Instruction and Rescue Education.

Firefighters and EMTs from Lake George, Lakeport and Itasca Township donned their turnout gear and learned how to create a wall of water to divide a flame.

"It's 3,000 degrees behind that one-eighth inch wall of water," Lake George Fire Chief Miff Soderberg noted.

"We're all we have up here," Soderberg said of the northern region of Hubbard and Clearwater counties, "so we can build on our strengths and find out our weak spots."

They were all drawing water from Lake Paine, working as teams to fill an auxiliary tank of water.

Bailey and Mashuga said fighting fires entails risk/benefit analysis. They offered a PowerPoint demonstration of when the risks outweighed the benefits and reminded firefighters they often have to make those decisions in a split second.

The relatively small departments have 10-12 members, all volunteers.

"There's a lot of value in running around, throwing water," Soderberg noted.

The firefighters quickly ascertained a burning propane tank had other applications in the real works. They face vehicle fires, house fires and other structure fires where they encounter deadly gases.

They gauge the wind, approach from upwind in protective clothing and SCBAs (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) and learn how to precisely fan out their fire hoses to cool the liquid space of a gas fire.

The ultimate goal is to try to eliminate the source of ignition. That's where the risk/benefit analysis comes in.

If a firefighter can creep up to a shut-off valve without endangering a life, that's a risk worth taking.

If not, let the fire burn, they were advised.

And they were warned to keep track of vapor clouds escaping from burning tanks.

"When the vapor hits the ground and dissipates, it's flammable," Mashuga warned.

They quickly became adept at creating fog streams, forming those one-eighth inch vertical stream lines to envelope a tank. It looks, if performed correctly, like a cloud of fog descending on the fire.

"You want to push the fire down and away," Bailey said.

"Lob water onto a propane tank so it'll run down both sides of the tank," Mashuga said. "Wait until the relief valve closes before you walk up to the tank. You don't want to reach through that fog pattern to turn the nozzle off."

Team after team of firefighters approached the propane tank, hoses held over their shoulders.

"These guys are really good," said fire marshal Kevin Mahle, who observed the training.

Because many new model cars are using compressed natural gas and some are LP powered, the lesson of the night can be far-reaching, said Larry Kruft of AmeriGas.

"These high pressured natural gas vehicles are cheaper to run," Bailey agreed.

But the most important lesson of the night probably was don't be a hero.

"If there's no exposure (to structures), no people to protect, let the damned thing burn," Mashuga said.