On New Year’s Day, the Upper Yaak Volunteer Fire Department responded to a fire in the attic of a homestead cabin that has stood since 1910. With the rapid response and good save on the structure, resident Dave Stevenson has nothing but praise for the work his local firefighters did.
“When I first got there, the fire was in the attic,” said Upper Yaak VFD Chief Mike Sanders. “I could see the whole top story was nothing but smoke, looking through the window, and the smoke was pouring out of the attic, full length of the building, which was about 40 feet.”
Though no flames were visible, Sanders knew from the speed and volume of the smoke that they had a serious fire on their hands.
Stevenson, who lives in the cabin with his wife, said that he was impressed with how professionally the firefighters went about their work.
No one was standing around. No one was wasting time. They looked like they knew what they needed to do, and they got to it, he said.
Sanders said that their timing — the department responded in about 18 minutes — was just in time. As they arrived, the chimney fire that had been burning through the length of the attic burned through the tongue-and-groove ceiling, and pieces of burning ceiling fell into the second floor.
Acting on their training, the volunteer firefighters sent water through a second floor window to douse the burning pieces of ceiling that had fallen through. Then, they donned their air tanks and masks and went in.
Lacking a specialized nozzle for attic fires — a device that is inserted into the attic and sprays in all directions similar to a lawn sprinkler — Sanders said that he used a technique he learned from former firefighter Tony Bacon.
Sanders pushed the nozzle through a hole in the ceiling and set it to fog, spreading a fine mist into the attic space to rapidly cool the air and keep the smoke and other sources of fuel from burning.
Mist converts more quickly to steam. Though hot, the steam is still cooler than the temperature needed for fuels to ignite, and so is very effective at putting out fires in a contained space.
The fire was out so completely, there was no need to apply additional water as the firefighters went into overhaul — cutting away ceiling and as they looked to make sure the fire was completely out, Sanders said.
Sanders said that being able to put the fire out with as little water as they used was particularly good, as the wooden bridge between the road and the home prevented them from bringing their largest tanker to the home, and they had to relay water using smaller trucks.
Sanders said that the fact they don’t often have calls like the house fire Jan. 1 makes their training that much more important. Twice a month, the department runs through drills so that they are ready to act quickly and knowledgeably when they have a fire to fight.
And training is something all the members of the department take seriously, even if they aren’t always happy when Sanders drops a surprise drill on them when they are least prepared, he said. Sanders said he will pick times such as when they have all their gear off the trucks.
But, Sanders said, fires don’t schedule themselves ahead of time. They are by their nature inconvenient.
Sanders also noted that the only two firefighters on the department who weren’t on the scene New Year’s Day were out of town.
“Since Tony Bacon died, I’ve been very dedicated to teaching them what Tony Bacon taught me,” Sanders said. “It’s just a matter of we work together well, and nobody’s better than anybody else.”
“We work very hard doing it. That’s just what we do,” Sanders said.
Stevenson said that he and his wife had gotten most of their valuables out of the cabin as soon as they knew there was a fire. Luckily, they didn’t have a lot to remove.
Their expectation from the moment they called 911 was that the cabin would be lost, he said.
Stevenson said he believes that the cabin, which sits along the Yaak River, is one of the original homesteads in the Yaak.
The 73 year-old Stevenson attempted to fight the chimney fire himself at first, but quickly realized he was losing ground. “I just couldn’t get up the stairs another time.”
So, Stevenson and his wife got out and waited for the fire department.
“When I walked away, I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s… it’s gone. It’ll take the whole house,’” he said.
Yet, aside from the damage to the attic and some holes along the peak of the roof, the house is liveable, Stevenson said. He said that he expects to temporarily patch the holes to keep out water until the roof can be replaced.
“They did an outstanding job,” Stevenson said of the volunteer firefighters. “They all seemed to know exactly what they were doing.”
“I can’t really say enough I guess,” he said. “I’ve done a number of things over the course of my life -- you know, military and the whole bit -- and I was just, impressed. That’s all. Those guys knew what they were doing.”