Mark Hunter (ozma914) wrote,
Mark Hunter

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next week's column -- Propane is Trying to Kill Me, or: Why I'm giving it all up


I’ve faced a difficult decision, made somewhat easier by the fact that propane is trying to kill me.

Don’t get me wrong -- plenty of stuff is trying to kill me – but I’ll get to the fun part later. After a great deal of soul searching, I’m thinking the time has come to retire as a volunteer for the Albion Fire Department.

I wrote earlier about planning to hang around a few years but, as I said, propane is trying to kill me. Besides, what’s the point of going further than 28 years? There was a time when I toyed with the idea of being the oldest guy on the AFD, but Phil Jacob is never going to retire. Never. If he ever dies – and I have my doubts – there’ll be a stipulation in his will that will leave his mummified remains in a jump seat on the main engine, always first on the scene.

He and Tom Lock are the only two guys with more seniority than me; Mitch Fiandt has been a firefighter longer, but he transferred from another department. Besides, Mitch joined up when he was about twelve; they’d catapult him onto the roof to ventilate, because they couldn’t afford ladders.

Lock’s never going to leave the fire department. What’s he going to do with his spare time, polish his head? Tom lives for lights and sirens the way some live for the latest issue of Playboy.

In truth, I’ve been getting burned out – which is better than getting burned up, I’ll grant you. Plus, propane is trying to kill me.

Now, I don’t have that many close calls; I come closer to getting killed dropping my daughter off in the high school parking lot, where some act like blindfolded NASCAR drivers. Still, situations will come up, every now and then.

I remember the first time a ceiling fell on me, for instance. So should Tom Lock, who was crawling with me through the smoke filled room at the time. Luckily the charred timbers fell on our heads, instead of any sensitive areas.

That same fire was the first time I ever got shot at. Well, the first time at a fire; let’s not get started on my youth. There have been times when people actually have shot firefighters, but in this case the fire reached the homeowner’s stock of ammunition. While standing by a window I heard a pop, and a piece of window sill hit me. That’ll get your attention.

Not long after, at a basement entrance, I heard someone announce that the fire was in the same area as a stock of gunpowder. To give you an idea of how crazy firefighters are, that home still stands to this day – I live next door.

Explosions are less common at fires than the average TV watcher would think, but I do remember approaching a car fire as the tires started blowing. Later we discovered the gas cap had already blown off, and is orbiting Earth to this day.

Special hazards are – special. We pulled up to discover two cars and a shed burning, after the owner chose a windy day to do some unplanned property clearing. An hour later, while dousing hot spots on the remains of the shed, I saw something burning at my feet and hit it with a stream of water.

It was a magnesium lawn mower engine. Magnesium burns so hot that when water hits, it immediately divides into its separate atoms: oxygen and hydrogen. It was like being inside an exploding fireworks shell.

It’s possible to get killed at the harmlessly named grass fires. What could go wrong? Well, you could burn two cars and shed, and the magnesium engine block inside the shed, and almost kill a rookie firefighter who should have been paying attention. But everyone generally comes home, if they don’t fall into a hidden ditch, roll over the brush truck, get heat stroke, get into a crash, have a carelessly discarded shotgun shell explode in your face, or get overrun by a flare-up. Otherwise grass fires are perfectly safe.

Then there was riding in the rescue truck when it hit a utility pole and almost rolled over. If we’d been pinned inside, at least the extrication equipment would be close.

My personal favorite: The time I pulled up a still smoldering mattress, intending to push it through a window, and found beneath it three “D” size (the big ones) oxygen tanks and a collection of weapons big enough to invade France.

But you’re wondering about the propane. Okay. Most of this happened within a couple of years:

After knocking down a garage fire we discovered it full of charred cans and tanks, including several propane tanks. Another time, at the back of a burning home, a small propane grill tank had fire impinging on it; so the guy on the nozzle sprayed me down while I pulled it away (if the temperature’s above freezing, being sprayed with water is rarely a bad thing). Then I had to figure out what to do with it: The seal had melted, and I couldn’t get it to stop leaking.

While dousing hot spots at a burning chicken coop I spotted something lying under the smoldering debris, which turned out to be still another propane tank – leaking. I sent all the other firefighters out and doused it with water until I was sure it was cool, because I really, really hate going to funerals.

Then there was the time we pulled up to a burning camper trailer, parked right beside one of those big propane tanks that heat rural homes. When the flames wouldn’t go out, I realized the lines had ruptured; the nozzle guy again covered me while I turned off the supply valve, because you wouldn’t believe the amount of paperwork involved when things go boom.

Just last year I walked around to the back of a burning house and discovered, right next to the window that the fire vented through – a blackened propane tank. As I turned away it whispered, “Next tiiimmme …”

None of this was particularly heroic; I acted because I was there, just as firefighters elsewhere made a rescue because they were the ones on that truck at that time, and just as other firefighters never made it home because they happened to be where they were. I could tell stories about electricity trying to kill me too, and don’t get me started on roofs.

So I’m thinking it’s time to go. Maybe I should make Wednesday my last day: That would be, let’s see … April 1st.

Oh, come on, you don’t really think I can drag myself away that easily, do you? Happy April Fool’s Day, everyone.

These pictures are from the fire with the propane tank that I couldn't get to stop leaking; the guy in the middle with the blue helmet is me. See the gas grill, way off to the left side? A short time after this the fire flashed into that area. That's where the propane tank was that I removed, only to discover the rubber seal had burned off and I couldn't get it to stop leaking. We had to leave it to vent off in the middle of the back yard.

I'm on the left, stretching a line to the back yard to protect the exposure. The insane guy with no protective gear on is Phil Jacob, who works just a block away at the courthouse and came straight to the fire. A short time after this picture was taken, we started taking fire from ammunition stored inside.

Do I have to tell you what this is?
Tags: column, firefighting, new era, slightly off the mark

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