MUNCY - The sky was clear Saturday morning until the light-blue house that sits at 501 N. Main St. was set on fire from the inside.
But it was no ordinary fire. Any passersby who were alarmed by the billows of smoke rising over the trees can take comfort in knowing that the burning home was not the work of arsonists intent on endangering lives.
In fact, the destruction of the house, though intentional, was completely safe, set ablaze by local fire companies to serve as part of a live burn class for firefighters in training.
A Muncy firefighter-in-training extinguishes a second-floor fire from the outside in a matter of seconds on Saturday during a controlled burn exercise.
The home, abandoned by the former owners because it rests on a floodplain, is set to be demolished by Steinbacher Enterprises, but Muncy Creek Township allowed the fire companies to use it before the demolition.
The 20 participating students were from the Muncy, Picture Rocks and Hughesville volunteer fire companies, all under the guidance of 10 instructors from Harrisburg Area Community College. After the trainees complete the 16-hour class, they will receive a structural burn certificate from the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy.
For student firefighters, very few training environments come this
close to a real situation in which much more is at stake than a passing grade.
"This type of training almost never happens," said Fire Chief Scott Delany of the Muncy Area Volunteer Fire Co. "This is a live fire. There's no fake smoke. It's such a valuable tool because a truly real situation is not where you want to learn."
Instructor John Fogg also emphasized the rarity of the event: "This controlled burn is the closest thing many of these students will get to a real house fire," he said. "Controlled house fires used to be common, but now getting a permit for them is a lot harder because people would screw off and not follow regulations."
"The last time something like this happened was about 10 years ago," Delany said.
Unlike traditional concrete training facilities where only what is inside the building burns up, a real house with a wooden structure is much more unpredictable, especially the Muncy home whose balloon frame amplifies every danger because it gives the fire a clearer path for traveling between floors, instructor J.J. Magyar explained.
"About 50 hours of hands-on work went into preparing this controlled burn," Magyar said.
The work included removing any hazardous materials that may have posed a threat to the environment, as well as sealing up any holes in the building to prevent the fire traveling up the walls.
Despite the precautions, the fire companies did their best to replicate a real house fire in icy conditions.
"Even though it's a controlled environment, you still have to keep your eyes open," said Michael Moyer, of the Picture Rocks Volunteer Fire Co.
The house was burned one room at a time, using wooden pallets and excelsior, which is comprised of bales of wooden slivers that resemble hay.
Two firefighters entered the house together and put out the fire in their respective rooms, with a team waiting outside if they needed any help.
One tool, a thermal imaging camera used to differentiate between hot and cold areas, helped firefighters assess the severity and location of a fire. It resembles a camcorder, but with a lot more bulk, and is an invaluable device for firefighters and rescuers alike when smoke and debris cloud their point of view.
"It's probably the best invention of the 1990s," Fogg said.