Firefighters prep for deadly flashover fires
EAGLE COUNTY – The room temperature builds beyond 900 degrees and suddenly the air and room contents explode into flames – a life-threatening phenomenon firefighters call “flashover.””In a real situation, you have about two seconds to figure out what’s going on or you’re going to die,” said Kurt Keiser, fire science coordinator for Colorado Mountain College.Keiser instructs area firefighters to identify the signs of a flashover in a Dotsero simulator owned by the college. Because of the relatively low number of fires in the valley, local firefighters rarely, if ever, encounter a real-life flashover, so they learn to spot signs of flashover in the simulator.”I think it’s very beneficial because it’s one of the leading causes of death for firefighters,” Keiser said.And with the increased manufacture of fast-burning synthetic materials, the number of flashovers is rising, Eagle River firefighter Shane Merlihan said.”It’s a great tool for us because it’s a controlled environment,” Merlihan said. “I think we should go in this once a year. It’s a good reference point to keep this fresh in our minds.”While firefighters respond to fire more quickly these days, they also get to the fires before flashover occurs, thus putting them more at risk, Keiser said.”When I started 30 years ago, we’d get there after it flashed,” he said.Deadly scenarioFlashover begins when a fire increases the heat in a room. Thick black smoke and heat collect near the ceiling, gradually moving downward. The heat releases vapors and gases from furniture and other items and mixes with the heated air. When the mix happens, the air literally ignites in a roiling wall of fire, and everything in the room spontaneously combusts.”We need to be aware of this and pay close attention so we don’t go into a hazardous situation,” Merlihan said.The Colorado Mountain College simulator is a sea-going shipping container converted to handle flashovers. Inside the container is a two-tiered room. The top portion of the room is lined with particle board – the fire’s fuel – which is ignited with wood and newspapers in a garbage can. The temperature here can reach over 1,200 degrees.Firefighters light the fire then watch the flashover take place from the lower tier of the room – like a bunker – to stay below the extreme heat in the tier above them.The firefighters see and feel firsthand the signs of flashover, which include increasing heat, flames in the smoke, thick black smoke and everything in the room burning. When flashover occurs, firefighters have 2 seconds to exit the room and must be within 5 feet of an exit based on a person moving 2.5 feet per second, according to the Eagle River Fire Protection District.Inside the simulator, the firefighters’ clothing becomes so hot, if another person touches their suit or equipment straps are too tight, the heat in the fire-resistant clothing will burn the skin below.”Once the heat gets into it, you can’t get it out and you end up cooking in your gear,” Keiser said.Even with the help of the simulator in recognizing flashovers, the real thing can be unpredictable, Keiser said.”We still don’t have a perfect indicator it’s going to happen,” Keiser said. “All we have are the signs it’s going to happen.”Staff Writer J.K. Perry can be reached at 748-2928 or email@example.com.Vail Colorado
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