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Entering a burning house a dangerous way to spend a Saturday



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July 23, 2013 | 02:44 PM
LINN — The flames were real. The heat was real — up to 400 degrees.

The terrain was the inside of a burning house. It's treacherous, especially when you're looking through a gas mask.

The suit you're wearing isn't the kind you wear with a tie. It's heavy. Everything included, the firefighters are probably carrying about 300 pounds.

You'd better be able to take orders, too.

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You get dressed up in something that resembles a space suit, feel the heat, risk the terrain and the fire, to get yelled at.

'GET 'EM IN THERE! GET 'EM IN THERE!," Grant Winger Jr. yells.

Winger is the assistant fire chief of the volunteer fire department for the Town of Linn.As the operations officer for a controlled burn Saturday, he was the one barking orders to about 35 firefighters from Linn, Lake Geneva, Whitewater, Hebron, Fontana and Sharon.

This is just a practice.

A fire drill, but with real fire. It's one fire departments relish because it's difficult to get through the bureaucracy and paperwork that allows people to donate their homes to be burned down.

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It was practice, but everyone acted like it was real.

For a lot of the firefighters, this is the first real fire they've experienced.

They went in in waves, four or five in each one.

They huddle at the door of the house, poised like paratroopers about to jump from a plane.

When they go there's no exact blueprint. Sure, they've been trained. Sure, they know the theory. But they don't know exactly what they'll face. Nor can you be sure how you'll react if something unexpected happens.

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Onlookers were everywhere. On the porches of nearby homes, on the shoulders of parents. Everyone seemed to have a camera. Everyone was kept out of harm's way.

I was lucky enough to get a closer view. From inside the burning house.

Safety still came first. Winger was at my side along with two other aspiring firefighters, one his daughter.

Winger strung a hose inside just in case the flames got too close for comfort.

"Get down," he told us, explaining the heat comes in layers, the hottest is near the ceiling.

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He yelled: "Fire it up!"

"There's a fire in the hole," someone yelled.

"Fire in the hole," Winger repeated into his radio.

That's when Winger bellowed his orders.

"GET 'EM IN!"

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A stairway door in front of us filled with flames. The firemen burst through the front door, hoses in tow, and headed toward it.

You could hear a flurry of activity in the floor above us. The smoke cut into our throats and eyes.

After a few minutes, we're told an upstairs room might be becoming less stable and Winger orders us out.

Back in the fresh air, I was sweating, coughing from the little smoke I'd inhaled. Grant's mother, Georgie, a member of the Auxiliary, offered me water.

In front of the house, the firefighters we saw go in came out. They'd seen the worst of it.

They knelt down in a circle, seemingly exhausted, heads down like they were praying. When they took their masks off, you could see they were sweating profusely.

Eventually, everyone's had their turn going in. Learning what there was to learn.

The house continues to burn as hoses from the fire trucks go into action. Hoses wrap like snakes from all directions, surrounding the house. There are trucks in front of the house and from on high a spray of water floats down from a ladder truck.

They spray the roof of a nearby home, too, and the fire trucks nearest the blaze. Let it burn, but take precautions.

Eventually, the house crumbles, in stages, like a house of cards.

Obviously, fire can be a tragedy, but it can't help but quicken the pulse.

Rhonda Baumann is studying to be a firefighter at Gateway.

"I always wanted to do this," she said.

This was her first real fire. She called the experience "absolutely fabulous."

Every fire is different, says Winger's 71-year-old father, Grant Sr., who's a pump operator. He was wiping sweat from his bald head as we talked.

"But," he added. "It doesn't matter how many times, you've done it, you get in and the adrenaline flows."

"You never know how much you know until it happens," explained another fire fighter, Ray Boro. "Then the training takes over."

Just as I'm leaving I run into Augie Wojcik and the day came full circle.

He was in charge of setting the fire in the first place.

Like Winger, it seems firefighting runs in the family.

Wojcik's grandfather and father were both firemen.

He has a photo of himself with his father, both posing in the boots of a fireman.

Now Wojcik has a similar photo of his 7-year-old son. And after this practice burn, Wojcik headed to the hospital. Another son was born the night before.

Wojcik plans to pose him as a fireman, too.

A firefighter's shoes can't be filled by everyone, but those who do fill them take pride in it.

We'll leave Linn firefighter Mike Schaid, volunteer fireman with the last word.

"Most people run out of a fire," he said. "We run in."

Even if it's just practice.

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