Dirty Jobs: Getting to the bottom of a fire
You can’t say Cyndi Foreman didn’t know what to expect when she began her fire service career as a Santa Cruz County firefighter- engineer in 1995.
Foreman’s great-grandfather and her grandfather retired as fire captains. Her father retired as a fire engineer. Two uncles retired, one as a captain, and a cousin is now a captain in the Santa Cruz Fire Department.
“I grew up in a firehouse in Felton in the Santa Cruz Mountains,” said Foreman, 44, fire prevention officer for the Central Fire Authority of Sonoma County.
“My grandparents lived above the fire station, and I spent a lot of holidays at the fire station.”
Before 911 became the nation’s emergency phone number, someone always had to be at the fire station to respond to emergencies because that’s where people called when they needed help, said Foreman from her office at the Windsor Fire Prevention District.
“I was submersed in the fire service. I had respect for the fire service all my life.”
In 2001 she moved to Sonoma County and became a fire engineer at the Rincon Valley Fire Department; in 2008 she became its fire prevention officer.
Now she also is a public information officer for the fire district and provides public education and outreach. But she has done the dirty work that comes with firefighting.
She has pulled down walls and ceilings and pulled up floor boards when the fires are out and while investigating the blazes.
“We go in after the fire,” Foreman said. “It is acrid, smoky, sooty and dirty. It’s a very clumsy environment. You’re dealing with a debris field.
“You’re looking for the fire’s origin first and the cause second. You go from the least burned to the most burned area.
It’s a process of elimination.
Sometimes the origin is obvious. “It’s hard, sweaty, and messy.
You crawl around and sometimes dig to the bottom of a pile of debris. You taste it and smell it. Your truck smells like a barbecue. Even after a shower it’s hard to get rid of it.”
And there’s the danger.
“It’s wet,” she said. “It can be dark because the power is not on. There can be electrical wires hanging down. There are floor boards missing. It’s not uncommon to step through a floor that was exposed to fire and water.”
Fire investigators use “good old-fashioned garden tools” like rakes, shovels and spades, as well as firefighting tools like axes, hammers and saws. They also collect evidence in small plastic bags and in sterile paint cans of various sizes, Foreman said.
If it’s a large fire or one that caused a death, law enforcement agencies will collect the evidence, she said. It seems hoarders and collectors are becoming more prevalent, and they present a special challenge.
“We see more people filling their homes with stuff, and it’s not going out the door. It can make for a real dirty, messy and smelly environment to fight a fire, overhaul and investigate,” Foreman said.
Firefighters and inspectors wear protective suits made of fire retardant material that protects them against thermal and steam burns. That gear often has to be decontaminated at the end of the day, too.
Wildland fires present their own hazards. Sometimes firefighters and inspectors, fire engines and hoses are doused with the pink fire retardant dropped from planes. Then there are snakes, yellow jackets, hornets, ground nests, tree stumps, fallen power lines and embers to avoid.
Fire investigators use the term “suspicious fire” when things aren’t adding up, Foreman said. “There may be conflicting stories. It’s not quite an arson and not quite accidental.
The investigation is ongoing.”
Did the arsonist kick down the front door to get into the home, or did a neighbor do it to make sure no one was in the burning home?
Foreman was involved in the investigation of two unusual fires last year, one caused by an explosion at a Rincon Valley gas station during the alleged theft of gasoline, and the other that allegedly was deliberately set to cover up a burglary at a Fulton residence. Both suspects are being prosecuted in Sonoma County Superior Court.
“Our motto in the fire service is, ‘There’s no such thing as a routine call,’ ” Foreman said.
Still, most fires are accidental, she added. “People make bad decisions. They smoke while they are using oxygen tanks.
“The fire service is very different from five or 10 years ago. We do something every year to be a little safer. We’re better at preparing ourselves for the inevitable, unexpected circumstance.
“But if you don’t have a little bit of healthy fear, I think that’s dangerous,” Foreman said.