Burning Central Campus for practice

Durham firefighters get some training on the razed apartments

PALE SMOKE seeps from holes in the roof of 1915 Yearby Avenue. Minuscule flames lick the eaves tentatively, cautiously, like swimmers dipping their toes in cold seawater. Firefighters from the Durham Fire Department stand by their trucks. They’re waiting for the fire to grow before they go in.

And it grows. A second-story window warps visibly as tongues of rich orange flicker in the room behind. Step back, says Captain David Young. The veteran firefighter is decked out in many pounds of firefighting gear—face mask, oxygen tank, heavy coat and boots, the works—while I’m the model of inutility in my khakis, cardigan, and favorite pair of Adidas sneakers. I back up a few steps and soon enough the window bursts outward with a rain of broken glass and a plume of gray smoke. And then the fire starts in earnest. Red and black flames and thick columns of sooty smoke emerge from ventilation holes one team of firefighters already cut through the shingles. Sections of roof collapse.

The ladders come out. The attack team suits up and climbs the exterior stairs. Firefighters move through the burning building, their silhouettes occasionally visible through now-glassless windows. High-powered hoses blast the fire from within. Jets of water knock aside sections of already weakened roof and arc another thirty, forty feet through the air, soaking nearby trees. Within ten minutes, flames no longer dance on the roof, and 1915 Yearby merely smolders.

It’s late November, and most of Central Campus is being razed to make way for whatever comes next. Granted, many buildings are being demolished the old-fashioned way—with bulldozers—but the destruction of several former student housing units serves a dual purpose. In their last educational act, these apartments are being used to train firefighters.

Assistant Chief Willie Hall Jr. watches from the grass. Hall is a second-generation Durham firefighter who has served the city since 1987, while his father’s career started in ’61. Today he trains a new generation. See the firefighter leaning on that truck? Hall asks. He grew up with my son. I coached him when he was ten.

Indeed, the coaching continues, as overseeing training is one of Hall’s major roles. Some of the firefighters in attendance today are fresh to the department, though a training burn in this kind of building is a rare opportunity benefiting everyone. Most of the time, Hall says, the department is offered houses in lousy condition—many of them already condemned—and it’s just not the same. It’s rare to train in a multifamily dwelling, as Hall describes this type of building, and one in decent condition at that.

Hall and Young take this exercise seriously. Though the burn is under control and the building is surrounded by trucks, this is still real fire. One firefighter emerges with his protective gear scorched. He drops his battered helmet in the grass and explains that a ceiling fan fell on him, a hint of fatigue creeping into his voice. This man was just inside a burning building.

You can’t see much in front of you, thanks to the smoke, Young says. It’s nothing like the movies. And unlike the movies, this is real danger. Young watches the burning building, his affable expression turning grave. Then he says what he’s thinking: Please remind your readers to change the batteries in their smoke detectors. For Young, it’s not a rote Public Service Announcement, but a question of life or death.

It’s approaching noon, and soon the DFD will put out the fire completely and break for lunch. With the flames gone and blackened beams visible through gaping holes in its roof, 1915 Yearby looks like some enormous, partially eaten carcass. The morning’s teams, their training complete, will return to duty, while fresh teams from across the city will arrive to train in these apartments. And then the afternoon fire will be set, and once again Durham’s firefighters will go toward danger.

It’s what they do.

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