Reflections by Jennifer DeShon

 

Reflections Fire, photo by Cory Kilburn

Reflections Fire, photo by Cory Kilburn

It’s dark, hot, and the desert air feels unbelievably dry. Three A.M. in late September, and the temperature is still about 90 degrees. I’m already starting to breathe a little harder as I hop down off the second parapet wall on the roof of an old nightclub. I’m wearing and carrying 70 pounds of firefighting gear, and the chainsaw idling in my right hand sends vibrations up my arm assuring me that it hasn’t stalled yet. It’s difficult to hear the saw over the noise of the trucks and the fire and my own noisy breath pushing through the regulator on my mask. There is a small hole in the roof about 40 feet away, and I can see the fire occasionally push up through it, struggling to escape the burning nightclub below. Underneath our feet the fire absolutely rages.

 

Seconds have ticked away as we placed one ladder against the building, and then another; as the three of us have scrambled over two parapet walls. But the old roof still feels solid beneath my feet. The captain is walking just a few feet behind me, and the engineer is just up ahead, hitting the roof as hard as he can with a rubbish hook before each step forward. The captain and I follow his footsteps. The engineer, a big man with a permanent grin that we call Blue, stops and turns back to look at me before drawing a big, imaginary square on the roof with the rubbish hook. This is a silent communication. Cut the hole here, he’s saying to me.

 

The engine company from our house is down below, forcing their way through the old oak front doors. Those firefighters inside, and any victims that may be trapped in the building, need us to cut large holes in the roof, allowing the heat and thick smoke trapped inside the building to escape into the night sky, giving them a measure of relief from the intense heat of the fire. Visibility and survivability inside will improve second by second after that.

 

Blue steps back around me out of the way, so I can cut. I rev the chainsaw up to full throttle, and take one step forward in an attempt to cut the hole exactly where Blue indicated. As I do, I feel the whole roof dip and start to pitch me forward. I’m going in,I think as I try to step backwards to safety. A remarkably calm thought, considering I’m about to die. Out of the corner of my eye I see my crew lunging for me, trying to catch me before the roof swallows me and I fall 12 feet into an inferno. But, I already know that they are too far away. And if they do manage to grab me, we’re all going in.

 

. . .

 

I have been a firefighter for a long time. 18 years. But, I’ve only been assigned to this company for about 9 months now. I have a fantastic crew. It’s one of those crews that fell in line almost perfectly the very first shift. We have great chemistry, and we practically read each other’s minds on calls. We’ve been on plenty of roofs in the last nine months; cut plenty of holes. Houses, apartments, large commercial panelized roofs. And we have trained a lot. Five-cuts, trenches, pull backs. But, the day of the Reflections Fire my captain and engineer had both taken the shift off. I still had a great crew, though. The captain and engineer that were covering the shift were salty and fearless.

 

I was comfy in bed when the tones went out for this fire. I jumped up at the word Battalion. We were all dressed and headed downstairs before the dispatcher had completed the verbal.

 

From the bunk room window an orange and black smudge was visible in the sky above Old Town. The brass gate protecting the pole clanged again and again as half of us pounded down the stairs in rapid succession and the other half slipped down the pole from the bunk room to the apparatus bay just shy of the speed of light. Someone in the stairwell spoke over the noise of the dispatcher. Peking Gourmet!

 

And it’s what we were all thinking. Peking Gourmet is an abandoned restaurant (half a block from the Reflections nightclub), which we’ve all been expecting to burn for some time now. That building is smaller than the nightclub, but with nearly identical construction. It houses a rotating crew of homeless people, while Reflections was still occasionally rented out for parties and events, once even used by Hollywood film crews for some gritty scene in a movie.

 

Engine, Truck and Battalion arrived on scene together less than 5 minutes after dispatch.

 

The engineer spotted our truck on the southwest corner (Alpha/Delta corner). The majority of the fire appeared to be concentrated in the back half of the 7,000 square foot building.

 

The captain and I have a brief discussion about which ladder to use. He asked for a 16-foot straight ladder, but I tell him that I don’t think it will be enough. And I have to admit that part of my resistance has to do with the fact that I hate that ladder! I’m short, as firefighters go, and it is geometrically impossible for me to throw that thing with any kind of grace. But he assures me that it will reach, and so I pull all 16 feet of ladder out of the back of the truck, carry it over to the corner of the building, plant the butt of the ladder against the building and walk it upright, slamming it flat against the cinder block wall. The tip of the ladder barely peaks over the parapet. Too short. I pull the bottom of the ladder away from the building leaving the top propped against the wall. There’s a good chance that we will need a ladder on the roof, maybe more than one, so leaving it in place could be handy. Plus, removing it takes time.

 

We access the roof with the 24-foot extension ladder instead, and bring an 8-footer with us to help us over the parapets.

 

……

I’m going in, I think as I try to step backwards to safety. A remarkably calm thought, considering I’m about to die.

 

Having made it into position on the roof, I find myself standing on the brink of disaster.

 

But, I am lucky! And instead of falling into the inferno, I come away from this fire with a series of photos instead of a series of scars.

 

One quick step backwards and I’m back on solid roof. A second step back to give myself a bit of a buffer. And another half a step back just because, well shit that was close!

 

I can feel the first bead of sweat roll down my back, but the adrenaline rush has made me remarkably calm and so I push the blade of the saw into the roofing material. The rounded tip of the saw dances on the roof for just a second before it starts to chew through the layers of comp, tar and plywood, and drops through. My crew is staying much closer now, within arms reach, an obvious readiness in their stances. I hold the saw straight up and down and draw it towards the fire until I feel just the slightest increase in resistance. That’s a rafter. Cutting it could mean falling through the roof. I feel another rafter, and this time lift the saw blade up, and roll it over the rafter, trying to cut all the layers of roofing material, but not the rafter, before pushing the blade back down, about 4-inches of rotating chain plunged straight into the roof. I keep drawing the saw back until I hit a third rafter. Then I reposition the saw back near the first rafter. I cut a line straight down away from the first cut. I’m trying to make a square hole that is at least 4 feet by 4 feet. We don’t have room for a 4 x 8. The third line is cut parallel to the first, right in front of me. And the last cut finishes the square.

 

Black smoke and flames are already seeping through the cuts. I step back a bit and the Engineer steps forward. He hits the side of the square closest to us with his hook trying to louver the square piece of roof that I have cut. If things go according to plan the square will pivot on the middle rafter and open up the hole without dropping anything into the building. If we drop the louver into the building we risk hitting someone inside. It takes him a couple of tries to get it to budge. The building is old. The rafters are 2x 6, spaced about 16 inches apart. As soon as the hole is open fire shoots through it making a perfectly square column of flames about 25 feet high.

 

But, our hole is really only about 3 feet x 3 feet; not nearly enough ventilation for a building that big. So, I stand a couple of feet from the column of fire and start on another hole. The captain’s hand signals echo my own thoughts. He wants me to roll several rafters and then dice it up. This will allow us to quickly open up a much larger area. But the heat is intense. I’m only able to roll two rafters before I need to finish the cuts and step away. This time the captain and engineer have to work together, using their hooks to pull the stubborn roofing material away like taking a lid off of a boiling pot. One piece won’t come off at all. As soon as they step back, I start cutting again, repeating the procedure, cutting for as long as I can take the heat, making more progress this time. My right hand and the right side of my face are starting to burn. I know from experience that it’s not a real burn. I know that by morning the redness and stinging will be gone. I feel a snap on my helmet. The strap holding my headlamp has melted and popped off.

 

We have been working back towards our ladder, making sure that we don’t cut off our escape route. Now we are just about out of time and space. So, in the space I have left, I cut one last 3 x 3 ft. hole, and then we all move back to the parapet wall.

 

But, I am lucky! And instead of falling into the inferno, I come away from this fire with a series of photos instead of a series of scars.

 

We assess the roof, the fire, our work, and decide that it’s time to get off this roof. We scale both parapets and I am just stepping onto the ladder at the corner of the building when the Incident Commander calls an operational retreat. This is a signal for all the crews on the fire to get off the roof, out of the building, re-group and change tactics. Not long after, the entire roof caves in. We’ve lost the building, but everyone is safe.

 

In the pictures captured by our paramedic student, I am cutting that last hole before we get off the roof, while three columns of fire shoot through the holes that we have already opened up.

 

Years later, I see footage of a firefighter falling through a roof and I can feel that old roof dip beneath my feet; feel my weight pitch forward.

 

unnamedJennifer DeShon currently serves as a Firefighter/Paramedic with 
San Bernardino County Fire. She has been in the fire service for 21 
years. She is trained as an Urban Search and Rescue Technician and an 
Air Rescue Medic, and holds an AS degree in Paramedicine. She lives in 
Lake Arrowhead, California.

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