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In control

November 30, 2011

It was nearing 6 p.m., and Catawba firemen were circling an old, cinderblock house at 5400 Hudson Chapel Road.

The one-story, abandoned residence was soaked. It had rained all day, which dampened the Catawba Fire Department’s chances of easily starting a training fire at the house that most neighbors consider a burden to the community.

The house, located directly across from Catawba Elementary School, already burned more than four years ago, said Catawba Fire Chief Donald Robinson.

“The house was never cleaned up and became an eyesore to the community and a hazard to the community,” he said.

On Tuesday night, the house burned again. This time, it burned to the ground.

The fire department and town worked for months to get the proper permits to conduct a controlled, training fire at the empty home — a practice that would benefit firefighters and get rid of the old house for good.

After a quick meeting with Robinson, more than 30 volunteers suited up and circled the house, spraying down adjacent trees and forestry to prevent the brush from catching fire.

The first fire was set in the basement of the home.

Training officers used bales of straw to ignite a mirage of orange flames underneath the home. After one group of firefighters put out each blaze, another team trudged through puddles of mud and plumes of smoke to the basement door for their turn.

Stale, white smoke flowed out of the basement vents in front of the house, but that was nothing compared to what came next.

After the basement burned, the men and women volunteers gathered in front of the house and prepared to set the entire structure ablaze.

Training leaders tossed burning straw onto bales of hay through busted-out windows. They waited for the structure to catch fire.

By no means did the structure light up fast, and the flames — shooting up and hopping through the windows — were slow to spread.

Slowly, the house spit out an orange glow that grew. Heat, radiating more than 50 feet away from the desolate home, became warm, toasty and then hot.

Then, within seconds, an inferno erupted.

Red and yellow flames rushed across the exposed roof like bubbling lava and burst through the front porch awning. They twisted and curled upward — not dancing like before, but raging toward the sky.

Catawba firefighters had stepped up their game, too, and were quickly working to put out the blaze and practice techniques that could one day save a life.

“We got some good attacks and they got some good practice water hauling,” Robinson said after the training. “It gives the firefighter the actual experience of live-fire burning. The heat, wearing the air-packs — that’s the best training we can do. It’s the closest to being real. In the end, you’re as good as you train.”

After a while, the fiery blaze turned to clouds of gray and white smoke that plumed upward. The roof had fallen to the ground, and flames clung to the outline of a deadly hallway inside the structure.

The firefighters, which represented not only Catawba, but Bandys, Oxford, Sherrills Ford and West Iredell fire departments, practiced at the training burn until the flames died around 11:30 p.m., Robinson said.

“We try to take advantage of any local burn we can do that if somebody needs assistance and it meets the criteria,” he said. “We just don’t go out and burn buildings. We only do it if we can get the training."

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