Trial by fire: Fire departments finish multiday training by torching church camp building in live-fire exercise |

Trial by fire: Fire departments finish multiday training by torching church camp building in live-fire exercise

SUMMIT COUNTY – It took less than a half-hour for hellish flames to erupt and consume the old church camp building. Bystanders could feel the heat from more than 100 feet away, and when it was all over, all that was standing was the mason chimney and concrete footers. But for the firefighters on hand, the blaze was much less perdition than it was education.

The Summit County Fire Authority staged the blaze Wednesday at the old United Church of Christ camp near Farmer’s Korner as the culmination of a multiday exercise for firefighters. Although the fire authority uses a propane-fueled burn building near the County Commons in Frisco to train firefighters, there is no substitute for a “Class A” fire – combustibles like wood, paper and fabrics – said Chief Nick Drelles, a division chief for the Red, White and Blue Fire Department and countywide training chief for the fire authority.

“This is a fantastic opportunity,” said Drelles, who retired from Boulder’s fire department and moved to Summit County in February. “There’s a lack of frequency of structure fires up here – that’s a good thing. But that means we don’t get to practice in real fire.

“When this building went up, a lot of these guys had to do a little backpedaling into the trees because of the heat. It’s more than you’d expect. This is something they’ll remember for the rest of their careers.”

In addition to Breckenridge firefighters, Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue, Snake River Fire Protection District, Copper Mountain Fire Department and crews from the Colorado State Forest Service took part in the exercise.

The Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Church of Christ used the site for a camp from 1968 to 1993. The group decided not to renew its use permit with the U.S. Forest Service, and land managers and local officials decided in 2000 that the best way to return the land to its native state would be to burn the buildings, haul away the debris, regrade the ground and seed the area with grass.

The training began earlier this week and slowly evolved to involve the entire, 3,000-square-foot structure. Initially, training leaders started fires in rooms to simulate the common scenario of entering a building and putting out a fire before it spreads to walls and ceilings. Crews rotated in and out of the rooms.

With each day, the scope of the fire increased, allowing the firefighters to focus on different aspects of fire control. The larger the fire became, the more danger it posed to the surrounding environment.

“This is a great opportunity for urban interface training – where homes meet the forest,” said Paul Semmer, observing the exercise for the U.S. Forest Service’s Dillon Ranger District office. “The firefighters cleared some of the trees surrounding the building, and right now they’re hosing down that larger tree (a lodgepole about 20 feet from the building) to make sure the heat doesn’t ignite it.”

With wildfires raging around the state last year, the danger to forests and open spaces captured most of the public’s attention. Drelles said training for urban and structure fires hasn’t dropped off, even though funding has been pouring in to wildland fire training and crews. Drelles said that in an environment like Summit County, wildfires and urban fires are typically synonymous.

“It’s usually either a wildland fire threatening homes or a house fire that starts a wildland fire,” he said.

The exercise was also a learning experience away from the burning building, where pump operators were keeping an eye on pressure gauges and hoses. Because the church camp site is far from fire hydrants – as are many residential areas in Summit County – firefighters set up a portable pond. Water tankers filled the reservoir, and pump trucks drew water from the makeshift pond and fed it to firefighters’ hoses.

“This is the main component of your more rural operations,” said David Williams, public information officer for Snake River Fire. “This is the perfect chance to learn tanker operations.”

Cleanup of the area will continue throughout the month. The debris will be discarded in the county landfill. Semmer said another building in the area also might be used for a similar training exercise, but the building contains a large amount of fiberglass that would have to be removed beforehand. The Iron Springs road that leads to the site will remain closed to the public until June 1.

Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 237, or

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