Behind a cone of water, a group of firefighters push forward approaching a flame, which climbs to 30 or more feet in the air. The flame jumps and whips in the breeze.
In unison, the firefighters move closer and closer to the source as the fire curls back around the “fog spray” of water and hovers a few feet above their heads. This is a propane fire, which requires a different approach than a typical house fire.
The 10 firefighters are feet from the flame when the lead firefighter stops his movement forward after being tapped on the shoulder twice. Now one firefighter facing straight ahead as he reaches a valve only inches from the flame and turns off the supply of propane.
The firefighters slowly back away and the spray of water, called a safety spray, stops.
The lead firefighter then goes to the back of the line and the propane Christmas tree is lit again for the next firefighter to learn the proper technique in fighting a propane fire.
The Saturday morning training exercise for firefighters throughout the county was held at the Auglaize County Fairgrounds. The training was organized by St. Marys Township Fire Chief Chad Hicks and attracts firefighters from the village of Buckland, Cridersville, New Knoxville and Uniopolis, the town of St. Johns and the townships of St. Marys and Wayne.
“This is excellent training for the entire county for the part-time and full-time firefighters,” Hicks said. “The work it takes to get this organized and done is not feasible for one department so we reached out to all the departments in the county to send firefighters for the training.”
The last time they trained fighting a propane fire was approximately 10 years ago and the exercise involved the departments on the western half of the county.
On Saturday, 74-year-old Gene Davis, who has been involved in firefighting for more than 50 years starting as a 14-year-old, is training the firefighters during two sessions.
“You have to respect it and don’t fear it — you can control it,” Davis said. “The flame won’t come through that wall of water. It will roll over it a little bit, but it won’t go through it.”
Davis held his fingers apart at a thickness close to one-fourth of an inch thick.
“With propane, you don’t want to extinguish the fire until you can shut the supply off — any of your compressed gas fires are that way,” Davis said. “If you do not shut the valve off before you extinguish the fire, then you would just flood this area. Propane is heavier than air and would go right down into that catch basin and spread everywhere and be a fire hazard. Natural gas goes up, propane goes down.”
He explained to properly fight a compressed gas fire there has to be two lines of water and at least three men on each line with the middle man the “nozzle man” who is responsible for turning off the supply.
During Saturday’s training, they have six men in each line and a seventh man on each line called a “kinker man” who ensures the water line does not kink as they enter the blaze and retreat from the line.
While he did not operate any of the fire hoses, CC Propane owner Jay Sweede did operate the main propane fuel line. CC Propane donated 1,000 gallons of propane to help the firefighters learn the training technique.
He explained propane is a liquid at a negative 45 degrees Fahrenheit, but it vaporizes at a negative 44 degrees. At this point, propane expands 270 times, so 1 gallon of liquid propane spreads and converts into 270 gallons of propane vapor.
For Cridersville Fire Chief Rick Miller, he said the training is invaluable, especially with propane tanks used for grills and more and more vehicles using propane as a source of fuel.
“It is becoming more and more common and that is one reason we need to keep up on our skills and our training,” Miller said. “This is a great class. I have done this two or three times and I learn something new each time I come.”
The training is beneficial for the younger firefighters, Miller explained, but the training is not lost on the experienced men.
“Hearing the roar of the propane flow and the flame and you feel the heat, it becomes quite intense,” Miller said. “You are right next to that blaze, you are within 6 inches of the flame when you get up to that nozzle and shut it off. It is a good live experience for our firefighters to have.”
The noise is too loud to talk so the men use hand signals. One tap is to move forward, two taps on the shoulder means to stop and three taps means to retreat.
“They are all moving off of feel and if these guys in the back are not doing their job then the guys in the front can’t do theirs,” Miller said. “It takes total teamwork to get it done.”
If this was an actual fire, he explained some of the firefighters would make an initial response but they would have to wait for additional firefighters to combat it and to do so safely.
The lesson of safety is not lost on Hicks and his mission on this day.
“The most important thing they learn today is practicing safety,” Hicks said. “They learn what to do and how to stay safe. They may never see a propane tree like we are using here, but they can take the same skills they are using here and apply it to a propane tank.
“We are here to protect the homeowner and people,” he said. “A firefighter’s main goal is to protect the individual and the family and then property. We are here to protect lives — that is our No. 1 goal.”