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Firefighters practice live burn exercise at Fritz Cove home

Posted: October 8, 2012 - 12:03am
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A spruce tree behind this house unexpectedly catches fire, but the tree was quickly extinguished. Firefighters conducted live fire drills at this Fritz Cove home on Otter Run, then set it ablaze, Saturday. The home was donated to the fire department by David MacDonald.  Emily Russo Miller / Juneau Empire
Emily Russo Miller / Juneau Empire
A spruce tree behind this house unexpectedly catches fire, but the tree was quickly extinguished. Firefighters conducted live fire drills at this Fritz Cove home on Otter Run, then set it ablaze, Saturday. The home was donated to the fire department by David MacDonald.

There’s a certain amount of anguish watching your waterfront home — once worth more than a $1 million — burn to the ground, even if that was the plan.

But David MacDonald, 63, a retired civil engineer who donated his Fritz Cove property to the fire department, took it in good stride, saying it was for a good cause.

“I’m really thrilled that I was able to help them in their training,” MacDonald said. “I think this went to a good cause rather than going to the dump.”

About 40 firefighters with Capital City Fire & Rescue practiced interior fire attacks (where they go inside a structure to fight a fire), roof ventilation operations and other skills inside the five-story light blue house with white trim on Saturday morning before it was set ablaze.

Deputy Fire Marshal Sven Pearson, said the firefighters conducted several different simulations on each of the floors of the house by setting wooden pallets on fire.

“It creates the same kind of conditions you might have if you went into a regular residential fire,” Pearson said. “And the whole idea is to get firefighters, volunteers in there and know exactly how the fire’s going to act and what the best way of suppression would be.”

Juneau has a fire training center, the William Hagevig Regional Fire Training Center on Sherwood Lane in the Mendenhall Valley, that is used regularly. Still, Pearson says, it’s nice to mix things up, especially since residential fires cannot be recreated at the center.

“It gives us a good opportunity to use our skills on an actual building,” Pearson said. “The training center is great, but a lot of us, that’s all we practice on. This gives us a structure that’s in the community, basic construction that you’re going to find anywhere around Juneau, and it’s great for some of these young guys getting hands-on training.”

Such hands-on training is rare, according to Fire Chief Richard Etheridge who noted that approximately 20 of the firefighters have less than five years experience in the department. The last time the fire department engaged in a live burn at a home was about two and a half years ago in North Douglas.

The fire department has turned down offers from homeowners for myriad reasons: too close to trees, power lines or other structures; lead-based paint; asbestos; or structurally unsound.

For MacDonald’s home, 990 Otter Run in a cul-de-sac off of Fox Farm Trail, the location was perfect.

“This structure is in an area that is easy to protect,” Etheridge said. “There is great air movement, it will be a clean hot fire so there should be a very solid smoke column that reaches a high altitude before spreading apart.”

It took several months for the home, built in 1968, to be prepared for the burn, especially to be in compliance with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

In July, MacDonald began gutting the home by giving away, for almost next to nothing, the home’s interior fixtures and appliances. He advertised on Craiglist, and most everything went to locals, he said. The kitchen cabinets went to a person who travelled here from Petersburg.

“Doors, windows, cabinets, mirrors, basically I gave it away,” MacDonald said. “Fifty dollars for this, 50 dollars for that. I just wanted to see it used more than anything. I didn’t make any money off it, but it helped offset the expenses of getting this prepared.”

MacDonald purchased all the materials needed for the fire department. He also hired an environmental group to come to the home to assess it for toxins, and then he put on his own HAZMAT clothing and removed all the asbestos.

The carpet was removed, the popcorn ceiling was scraped out, an ABS pipe more than four inches in diameter was removed.

The fire department had an engineer certify that the structure met the DEC requirements for asbestos, lead-based paint and other pollutants. Etheridge said DEC inspectors also made a site inspection and verified the findings before CCFR received final approval from the Anchorage office.

The water department pre-flushed the water system in the area to remove any sediment to protect water quality, Etheridge said, and the airport, Docks and Harbors and the Coast Guard were notified of the event.

Etheridge noted that CCFR spoke to a neighbor’s insurance company about the risks involved to neighboring property.

On Saturday, it was good to go. MacDonald threw a lit flare into the home’s lowest level, igniting the flames that were fueled by the pallets.

It burned for more than an hour, collapsing in on itself before the eyes of neighbors, invited guests and kayakers and boaters on the water.

The flames at one point unexpectedly torched a Spruce tree behind the house, but it was extinguished quickly and before it could spread.

Safety was one of the biggest concerns of the day, and the day went off without a hitch. Etheridge says many departments in the Lower 48 have stopped doing these burns due to safety concerns, but says the state of Alaska has adopted standards on how these fires can be conducted safely.

Etheridge said, “This includes what can be burned as fuel in the structure; all of the fires have to be planned as to their location and sequence of ignition; safe egress routs have to be created and identified; multiple safety officers are assigned to specific sections of the building; medical monitoring of all firefighters takes place and multiple water sources have to be established as well as a rescue team has to be on standby.”

MacDonald said it was difficult to watch his house burn, but it had problems that would have cost more to fix than it was worth.

“It’s hard to burn things down like this, but the roof was in need of being replaced,” he said. “We’d done rot replacement a couple of times already, and the house was pretty broken up interiorly, so it was more advantageous to tear it all down and start over.”

MacDonald said he bought the 2,800 square-foot house in November 1999 for a little more than $1 million. It has since decreased in value, and was worth $837,200 at the time it was burned on Saturday, according to the City and Borough of Juneau Finance Department Assessor’s Database.

MacDonald has leased the home out to renters for the past 12 years because six months after purchasing it, the house next door went up for sale. His sister and brother-in-law, Janet and Ed Cavagnaro, bought that house and the three of them have lived there since.

But that house, at 8,700-square-feet, is too big for them, he says. They want to build a new house that’s about half that square footage in the same location of the now burned home.

The building of the new home is a family project: MacDonald, who worked as an engineer for Kiewit Construction for 20-some years, is designing the structure; his sister the floor layout plan; and his brother-in-law, the site grading and landscaping.

They want to start building in the spring.

When asked how the idea to donate the house to the fire department originated, MacDonald said one of his neighbor’s kids, who was a volunteer firefighter, suggested it.

He said, “Rather than hauling it off to the dump, this idea came up and we worked with the fire department to make it happen.”

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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