It wasn’t so much that I was floating above the melee looking down upon myself. Not at all. But it was as if someone had transformed the scene my eyes were trying to process into a small slice of cinematic glory; as if it were running as a 35mm film on a screen. I even saw the scratches and motes of dust slip by. At one point, I thought I smelled buttered popcorn.
Barely three months into our probationary year, six of us were selected to attend a Mississippi State Fire Academy class designed to introduce us to techniques favored in harnessing conflagrations fueled by that friend of trailer parks and meth labs through out the Piney Woods, Liquid Propane gas.
There was to be a day long class followed by a dinner break. We were to reconvene after sunset at a large parking lot for a series of training evolutions with live fire conditions.
The class glopped along like a tootsie roll stuck to your shoe. It’s fire. We spray water at it until it submits, blah, blah, blah. However, the in-depth mechanics of the adjustable 1 ½ inch fog nozzles we staked our lives upon broke my 6 hour snooze. Water is broken into fine droplets and spread out conically, lterally thrown by rotating turbines in the nozzle head. Supposedly, by spinning the water out into very small droplets, the surface area of the water is increased, allowing the water to absorb more heat, turn to steam, and then displace atmosphere from the fire, effectively smothering it.
Before we left the classroom, one bad ass instructor in particular slowed our roll with a firm suggestion. There would be two apparatus on the training ground that night. One simulated an average 500 gallon LP gas tank impinged with fire and venting gas.
“The second apparatus we call the Christmas Tree”, said No Neck from under his push broom mustache. He about-faced and once again blocked the door we were trying to escape through.
“You boys fuck this up,” and he eyeballed us rookies and backhandedly grinned at us like he’d wiped his hairy ass with every strip of bacon we consumed that morning, ” and somebody will get burned. It’s a guarantee.”
The concept was easy enough to understand; the trusty inch and a half fog nozzle flowing its full capacity would be used to push the fire back; to corral it, in a word, to get a man to a shut off valve, thereby killing the monster.
Now, I may have fallen off the turnip truck when it rolled through town on day but I can assure you it was not in the dark.
There is no inbound shut off valve on a stand alone LP tank. Either the product is expended or at some point, or the metal tank fails due to heat and WHA-BOOOOOOM……
Everything within (distance grows based on capacity of tank) feet or so is incinerated by x gallons of propane morphing into a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion. There will be LP tanks impinged with fire in the real world. Big ones, small ones, mobile ones; it’s a sure thing. There is another sure thing on that betting line. You can bet your sweet ass any fire brigade with a brain in their head will stand off and huck thousands of gallons of water on the tank to control the temperature in a effort to lessen metal fatigue until the gas burns itself out.
Simulated, I thought. Meaning controlled, a fail safe in place somewhere, manageable, dangerous if not executed properly, but no one was going home in an ash tray unless they were known for habitually wearing their ass for a hat. My boys and I were ready.
They are certainly not going to march up to it behind a couple of inch and a half fog nozzles. Heh. Right? Uh….
But this Christmas Tree thing was an unknown quantity. I pondered the techniques over and over in my head while we drove around Hattiesburg looking for a decent place to eat.
Evening came. We navigated through the gloam to this parking lot in an industrial area of the county. We parked and suited up. It was a ritual pounded into our heads at the academy. Your turn out gear goes on the same way, every time. You do not enter the training field unless you are booted and suited. Helmets on. Shields down. Chin strap buckled.
All a trainer would have to do is say the word “ding” or any other monosyllabic place holder for the sound of a bell ringing. Hell, he could just whisper it. You had a grand total of 60 seconds from the first foot into the boot till the shield on the helmet coming down. A glove-muffled overhead hand clap signified completion. Your hands remained over your head until the trainer looked at your buttons, snaps, straps, and so on. Then you grabbed a face full of ground and counted off 25 or so.
We passed by several groups of mismatched county volunteers and a large LP gas delivery truck; the kind you might see in any rural county. A rubber hose, perhaps an inch or so in diameter led a couple hundred feet away to a structure built out of unidentifiable pipe that indeed resembled a tree. Somewhat……
The “tree” was about 8 feet tall. Scrawny doesn’t even begin to describe this sad little statue. Unimpressive, even given the fact that this tree had been welded steel and not wood. It’s skeletal appearance gave it no character. There was nothing here to dread, other than the toothless rednecks from the volunteer ranks. This evergreen edifice was of no consequence whatsoever, or so it seemed.
The training officers made their preachments and called for the first groups to stand by. We lowered our eye protection on command as a trainer advanced on the tree with a burning torch affixed to the end of a 12 foot pike pole. The engine in the LP gas truck revved a slight bit and with a whoosh, the steel tree disappeared inside in a small orange fireball. I remember thinking if that was it, this whole deal would be a cake walk.
Two hose lines advance with 4 men on each. A training officer was in the middle of the two hose lines and within ear shot of the person holding the nozzle. A ninth man stood behind the training officer. It was his job to wriggle through the mass of water and fire and extend his hand to the base of the tree to a shutoff valve located there.
The training officer raised an arm and spun his hand in a circle.
The LP gas truck now grunted down low as the revs built up to a hollow diesel moan. Promptly, the truck faded underneath by what could only be attributed to a large jet plane landing directly on us, if one was to go by aural cues alone. The rising, whooshing, thunderous rumble of large volumes of gas whistling and screaming out the open ends of pipe was then accented by a fireball at least forty feet tall and twelve or fifteen feet around at the base. It layered and lapped itself into a tear drop shape.
The instant sunrise lit our faces to a golden glow and revealed commonalities. Never mind, personal beliefs, religious affiliations, political parties, sexual proclivities, or anything else that might separate us on the street.
Tonight, for whatever it was worth, we walked into this fire together………