The thing that impressed Dean Steinmetz? The people, not the fire.
Recently retired from 20 years on the La Farge Volunteer Fire Department, Dean has seen all the evil faces of fire and destruction, but never has he seen this sort of cooperative response.
“Everybody at CROPP was working very hard with this. Everybody who came to help was working very hard, too.” he said.
When the HQ fire started, Steinmetz first thought grill smoke from the Earth Dinner preparations on the east side of the building had drifted in and triggered an alarm. But on a look around the building, he saw ribbons of white smoke trailing from near the roof of the west end.
Steinmetz was the first one on the west deck with an extinguisher in his hand—soon discharged to no avail. Before Dean knew it, Troy Deaver, Steve Schlifer (both CROPPie La Farge volunteer firefighters), and Greg Lawton (not a CROPPie, but a quick-responding La Farge Volunteer Firefighter and head of the La Farge Ambulance Service) were right beside him, extinguishers primed and ready.
At first, Steinmetz thought the fire was outside the building only, adjacent to the west deck area. A step inside the building showed it was much worse than that. He could tell by the blistering paint inside that the fire was inside the west wall.
The sprinkler system had kicked in and the first group on the scene was already getting smoked and soaked, but it would be a long battle against this difficult fire.
Soon Dean stepped away, leaving the first-line work to the equipped, active-duty firefighters, but his work was only beginning. Dean’s extensive knowledge of the building’s design and systems helped firefighters move quickly to different points of attack.
They couldn’t fight the fire by getting on the roof from the outside. The roof had already become too hot to stand on, and the wiring to the solar panel arrays, which generated electricity constantly when the sun shined, had been damaged enough that electricity was flowing into the metal roof itself, presenting a risk of shock. So Dean guided firefighters through the building and into the attic.
There they encountered a smoky fiend.
“It’s not like in the movies where you can see,” said Steinmetz. “In a real fire, you’re going by feel alone.”
For our firefighters, feel was just barely enough to avert tragedy. Not long ago, Kelly Shird, another CROPP maintenance guru, had installed a two-foot-wide gangplank down the center of the attic. This was vital now to the blinded, choking firefighters. It was this angle that provided them with a secure perch from which to contain the flames in the far west end of the building and eventually extinguish it.
By 1:00 a.m. Dean was able to head home for a little rest, but he was back at 5:00 a.m. to help with any and all acute challenges over the next few days—including monitoring the building for “hot spots” that commonly rekindle after a fire of this magnitude.
Looking back, Steinmetz smiled his warm, all-is-well smile we’ve all come to love.
“I was amazed. It was just like ants,” he said. “The people all over this fire scene were a constant stream, and everyone was very focused, calm and courteous—very professional and accommodating. It was a grand effort all the way around.”