Flames reaching as high as 20 feet in the air wowed even the most experienced firefighters Thursday night during a training exercise here.
“Awesome,” uttered Portage Fire Inspector Craig Ratz before — and after — the propane fire training exercise reached its visually impressive conclusion. The sights at Portage Fire Department’s training facility on Wauona Trail had met his expectations, and to the uninitiated they served as a reminder of what fire can do.
“I don’t think many civilians understand the devastating effects of fire — the power of it,” Ratz said as the area near the practice fire got very hot. “And when you add the elements of propane ...”
Ratz’s department — for which he’s been fire inspector and engineer since 1993 — had never held an exercise quite like Thursday’s.
“Not to this extent,” he said.
About 50 area firefighters and a few observers gathered at the Portage Fire Department’s training facility for the demonstration, preceded by classroom instruction. Participating departments included Portage, Pardeeville, Endeavor, Baraboo, Wyocena, Fall River, Arlington and Randolph. The Portage Fire Department in partnership with Wisconsin Propane Education and Research Council hosted the emergency response training, with the propane provided by Crawford Oil and Propane of Portage.
“Just one second — I gotta see this,” said Jon Crawford, president of the company, taking video and pictures of the drill with his phone. He wasn’t alone in that regard, and he couldn’t be blamed for wanting a few minutes to himself as teams of firefighters took turns blasting water at the flames in various stations. “Amazing,” he said of the visuals.
WiPERC is the education foundation of Wisconsin Propane Gas Association, of which Crawford Oil is a member. WiPERC estimated the total training value at about $5,000.
“There are a lot of propane tanks out there, and the more people who know the safety of the product, the better,” Crawford said.
“It’s huge,” Ratz said of the programming. Training, in general, he said, is the “single, most defining factor in the effectiveness of a fire department.” The classroom portion of the training involved lessons in the physical properties of propane — learning that it is heavier than air, that it sinks and follows the topography of the ground — lessons that allowed firefighters to develop tactics for fighting such a fire, including where to move and when it’s best to let it burn.
“I’m a big advocate that the first time we do a skill set isn’t the actual fire,” Ratz said. “It gives them the opportunity to be on the hose line, to feel the heat and have the fire in a controlled setting, which makes them that much better prepared to handle it when we do encounter a real emergency.”
Propane systems in people’s homes are heavily regulated, possessing multiple safety features, which means propane fires are uncommon, Ratz said.
“But there’s always a chance” that those features break down.
“In my mind, it’s not a matter of if, but when. It’s just a matter of time,” Ratz said. More common than a failing propane system is a fire that spreads until it later involves propane, which can cause significant explosions. Cars hitting propane tanks also is relatively common. Scenarios such as these were played out in Thursday’s training.
While a failing propane system is rare, residents should know the dangers of the fuel, Ratz said. “Propane and natural gas, which heats our homes, we’re surrounded by it,” he said. “It’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked.”
Ratz noted that just one gallon of gasoline is equal to one stick of dynamite.
“It’s a very volatile flammable liquid,” he said. “So it’s already in the gaseous form, and we know how dangerous gasoline is. Propane and natural gas are already in that vapor form, so they just need an ignition source and proper flammable range, and then we have a proper catastrophic event.
“So, if we smell propane or natural gas — and they have that rotten egg smell, which is easily detectable with our noses — that is a true emergency.”
If you smell propane or natural gas, evacuate the structure and call 911, Ratz concluded.