Weather Forecast


Cottage Grove fire crews burn house to train for tragedy

The opportunity for Cottage Grove firefighters to burn a house as a training exercise is rare, usually occurring only once every four or five years. Bulletin photo by Judy Spooner1 / 2
The Robert McChesney House had asbestos shingles that were removed as hazardous material before the fire. Cottage Grove firefighters, working in pairs, practiced going into the house looking for possible victims. Bulletin photo by Judy Spooner2 / 2

Billows of black smoke poured from a home in Old Cottage Grove recently, but it was no emergency: the blaze was a controlled burn by firefighters at the request of the property owners.

The McChesney House, built in the 1800s, is located near the home of Lyle and Cheryl Kohls, who own the property.

Cottage Grove Fire Chief Bob Byerly saw it as an ideal situation for firefighter training and started early on Sept. 24 with teams of firefighters going into the house to learn how fires burn and to look for possible victims.

It was a great opportunity for Nick Arrigoni, 20, who became a firefighter in November of 2009 and joined the department in January of this year.

He'd been called out for several house fires but none on the scale of a fire that burned a house to the ground.

"Training is at a slower pace and you learn what to expect," he said in an interview. "You realize the value of training and never get enough of it. The more experience you have the better."

An opportunity to burn a house in a rural area, such as the one as the one on Kohls' property, only comes along every four or five years, Byerly said.

Noisy, smoky

Fires, including this one, which burned at 1,500 degrees at its peak, are noisy, smoky and hot, he said. Chemicals such as cyanide are in the air along with fumes from burning plastic.

"That's what firefighters go through," he said, "while carrying 60 pounds of equipment including an oxygen mask and tank."

The rule is 10 minutes into the fire and 10 minutes out with volunteers working in threes or pairs. If your buddy taps you on the shoulder and signals to leave, you must also go, Bylerly said. No one stays in alone.

Fires can explode or "flash over," making a sound similar to the "whoosh" that is heard after igniting a gas fire in a fireplace, but is much more dangerous.

Firefighters inside a burning house don't see the entire situation or potential dangers, he said. That's why there are incident and operation commanders who are trained to spot a ceiling that is about to fall, for example.

"We want to instill good habits because that's the kind of fire I'm going to send them into," Byerly said.

Safety officers keep track of who is in the house and who is not, he said, and also write down the times.

After coming out of a fire, firefighters rest and drink water to rehydrate. Monitors check their blood for chemicals.

Trainers are on hand to observe how firefighters behave so they can make "after action" reports back at the fire station.

Newcomers, such as Arrigoni, go into fires with experienced trainers.

Learning to control a hose nozzle is important and takes two firefighters. Put the water in the wrong place or at a bad angle and the result is burning hot steam.

The department has four full-time employees. There are also 50 volunteers who are on call.

Training includes learning to work well with other firefighters, according to Bylerly.

When a firefighter goes into a fire with a partner and experiences danger, they need to trust each other because their lives might be on the line, Arrigoni said.

There are two firefighters on duty daily at Fire Station 2 on 80th Street from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Prospective firefighters must complete 160 hours of training including dealing with hazardous materials and must also become emergency medical technicians.

After being accepted by the department, they are paid for up to 60 hours of work a month.

Having a firefighter ready at the station to drive an ambulance brings the response time down to an average of four minutes, Byerley said.

When they are not on an ambulance run, they clean trucks and do various other assigned work.

Firefighters meet once a week and attend 35 drills a year.

The training that took place recently however, was a unique opportunity to experience a real fire in a controlled situation, Byerly said.

Home once housed local settlers

A Cottage Grove house burned during a recent firefighter training session was home to early settlers.

Robert McChesney, who lived from 1826-1915, was a Scotch-Irish farmer who built the Italianate-style home on property owned by Lyle and Cheryl Kohls at 11825 70th St. in Cottage Grove.

According to recollections and plat maps, McChesney bought the property in 1874 so the first part of the house was probably built sometime after that. There was an addition, probably at the turn of the century, and other modifications when electricity came to the area.

Grace McChesney, the last of the McChesneys in the area, told local historian Bev Gross that the home had five bedrooms upstairs, and a beautiful chandelier in the living room. There was a cistern, she said, and rainwater was used to wash clothes.

The house was eligible to be listed as a historic landmark with the city's Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation, but was never registered by the Kohls family, according to John Burbank, city senior planner.

Burbank photographed the home before the Sept. 24 training fire.

--Judy Spooner

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
(651) 459-7600