Burn was a grand feat

Saturday’s burning of the Mower County Fair grandstand had been in my mind for quite some time, ever since Austin Fire Chief Mickey Healey suggested to me it may happen as far back as November.

The idea of shooting this event held such possibility it was almost too much to get my mind around. Over the months I started talking more and more about the burn with Healey and by December had a plan in place that would allow me to suit up in bunker gear and SCBA tank to really experience what firefighters do day in and day out.

You know what they say about best laid plans, though.

The original plan was this: Suit up and follow firefighters through training burns before the grandstand was given the final spark that would bring it down in flames. The photos would be from right there, looking over a firefighter’s shoulder as the flames grew and they knocked it down.

What it turned out to be though was a victim of consequences. As we neared the burn I found out Healey had suffered a broken leg early in the week leading up to the burn and organization fell to commander Terry Petersen, who had enough to worry about without a photographer underfoot.

On top of that, the grandstand was in such poor condition that training itself had to be limited because of a lack of safe rooms to do the training in , cutting down on the time new firefighters would even get the chance to train.

All of this had to be taken in stride and I still found myself lucky to be given the opportunity to get the access I did. I’m certainly not going to begrudge how things turned out. The fire departments on hand had a job to do that was beyond my needs. As a journalist, it’s up to me to adapt and work as best I can.

But here’s why I consider myself lucky. I like to think I have about as good a relationship with the Austin Fire Department as a photographer could ask for. While they went through training and preparation leading up to burn I was allowed to work around them to watch and document the process of such a colossal burn.

And that’s not a little thing. Riverland fire science program manager Brian Staska admitted during an organizational meeting early in the day of all the things going through his head the night before and how it kept him up. That says a lot, especially if you were lucky enough to see the amount of prep work.

The burn was to take the grandstand only. Now take a moment and think about where the grandstand sits in relation to the buildings around it. Directly to the west was the beer garden while directly to the east were the public restrooms. Perhaps 15 feet separated those two buildings from the grandstand. Nevermind the fact that just a little ways further to the east sits the Mower County Historical Society.

This was just one aspect to a complicated animal that included a very specific way they wanted the building to burn. Controlling fire, to say the least, is tricky.

Two holes were cut into the roof of the grandstand that were to act as vents. Water directed from trucks and hoses to either side of the grandstand would work in conjunction with the vents to focus the fire inward, ultimately with the goal to get the middle to collapse first.

Around 10:30 a.m. trickles of smoke began wafting from the grandstand center followed quickly by fire that creeped up through the two entrances to the grandstand.

Before long thick, black smoke began rolling up and over the roof as the flames ate faster and faster at the old wood. After about 15 minutes, the flames had established their hold over the structure and quickly began devouring the aged structure from the inside out.

Not long after the first section of the roof collapsed — near the middle, just as they planned.

By that point, even standing back as far as reporter Jason Schoonover and I were required to stand — roughly 175 feet — the heat was almost unbearable. It radiated as more of the structure collapsed.

At about this time, I started paying closer attention to the objectives of not letting the beer gardens or restrooms get even a little bit damaged.

Amazingly, despite the heat we all felt, the plan went soothingly. Water was directed on the two buildings at all times, acting as a shield against the biting flames.

Not only was this whole process something to behold, it was a fantastic example of fire science in action. To a T — at least from my inexperienced point of view — the burn went off without a hitch, and the structure came down exactly like they wanted it to.

A person could argue for or against burning the grandstand, but everybody can agree the method and process of the actual burning is a remarkable feat and something amazing to watch.

It makes me appreciate all the more the access I was given Saturday and the working relationship I’m able to boast with the fire department — a true opportunity to see what it is they do each time they approach a fire of any kind.

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