'Everybody just goes to work'
The former Blue Heron Paper Mill is scheduled to be redeveloped into the Willamette Falls Riverwalk starting next year, and at this point the buildings at the site are mostly derelict and empty, waiting for the project to start.
But before the historic warehouses are torn down, they got one last chance to be the focus of attention in Oregon City last week when the mill played host to a series of large-scale firefighting exercises.
Clackamas Fire District 1 was the primary participant, but the drills also brought in crews from Lake Oswego, Tualatin Valley, Canby, Estacada, Gladstone and Portland.
"We decided to invite others because we don't normally get something this size (as a simulation venue)," said Clackamas Fire Lt. Sean Brown. "This is a good opportunity for us to work together and find out where we need to practice."
The crews performed two simulations per day — one in the morning and one in the afternoon — from Aug. 29-31 and then planned to repeat the process Sept. 5-7, although officials said Tuesday that the afternoon excercises for the second week were likely to be cancelled due to predicted high temperatures. Each run-through involved five engine crews, two truck crews and two or three battalion chiefs, for a total of around 30 participants.
The simulations alternated between two adjacent buildings: a large two-story warehouse to simulate an office building, and a smaller, adjacent three-story building to simulate an apartment complex.
"It's a lot of hose deployment up stairwells," Brown said. "Getting the hose up there is a lot of work."
The "Down and Dirty" simulations served as the culmination of several months of training in individual skills. Four times a year, Brown said, the departments organize a series of drills, each focusing on single tasks like ventilation or hose deployment. Those are capped off by a final exercise that combines all of them.
"This is really the coming together of all that training throughout the quarter," Brown said.
The paper mill simulations have been in the planning stage since February and involved working with Oregon City staff and the mill's owners to make sure each event — which involved controlled fire, smoke and about a half-dozen fire engines — didn't cause traffic backups or disturb nearby residents.
Fire crews spent three weeks leading up to the event outfitting the buildings with props and obstacles for participants to overcome, such as locked doors to break down, roof panels to cut through for ventilation and a body dummy to rescue. Metal barrels on the second floor of the warehouse were filled with fuel to be burned during the exercise, creating a smoke-filled environment that the crews would need to navigate.
"We use hay, charcoal and just regular lumber trimmings for fuel, so everything is natural," Brown said.
The exercise on the afternoon of Aug 31 began at around 2 p.m. when a Clackamas Fire employee, playing the role of a worker in the "office" warehouse, called 911 to report smoke at the site. Following a script that mirrors how a real-life fire event would play out, one Clackamas Fire crew was dispatched and arrived on-site a few minutes later.
The "office worker" approached the firefighters and said that the building was on fire and that an employee remained trapped inside, prompting the crew to call in a "full first alarm" and summon backup: several additional Clackamas trucks and one from Lake Oswego operated by Lt. Dan Carpenter, Driver Engineer Ben Sanders and Firefighter Troy Waddell.
Several firefighters worked to connect hoses to a nearby fire hydrant and get water into the building, while another crew used a ladder truck to allow firefighters access to the roof. A third group entered the ground floor and made its way past a locked door and up a flight of stairs in search of the missing employee.
"In the process, they're also trying to fight the fire," explained Clackamas Fire Public Information Officer Steve Hoffeditz.
The inside crew was able to locate and "rescue" the dummy, but then the simulation threw another curveball: Following the script, one of the Clackamas firefighters who had entered the building became separated from the others and reported via radio that she had become trapped inside the warehouse, prompting another engine crew to immediately enter and look for her.
"So it's gone from a fire problem to a trapped victim, and now to a lost firefighter," Hoffeditz said.
The biggest reason for calling in six different crews, Hoffeditz said, is manpower. Firefighter teams can quickly become exhausted moving around inside the building, and another team needs to be ready to immediately jump in and take over, allowing all the teams to rotate through the building.
The various crews were guided by two battalion chiefs from Clackamas Fire, one of whom supervised the operation from a command station outside the warehouse while the other patrolled the perimeter to look for signs of danger.
"The firefighters are our eyes in there, and the battalion chief is keeping an eye on the external conditions and feeding them resources," Hoffeditz said. "It's kind of chaotic at first, and then all of a sudden everybody just goes to work on their jobs."
The exercise lasted for about 40 minutes, after which all of the participating firefighters gathered at the entrance to the warehouse to discuss their roles in the simulation. The exercise went pretty well, the group said, although multiple firefighters reported having issues with choppy radio signals inside the warehouse.