Flashover fires are one of the most feared phenomenons among firefighters.
It happens when a room gets so hot that everything, even the gases in the air, spontaneously combust.
10TV News teamed up with the Columbus Division of Fire to go inside of a flashover simulator to experience what most firefighters hope they never face.
Columbus Fire Lt. Chris Kirchner was trapped in a flashover in October 2011.
“I remember I was burning,” Kirchner said. “I’ve never been that hot.”
On Oct. 26, 2011, Kirchner ran into a burning home on Whitehorn Avenue. He was on the second floor searching for possible trapped victims when he said the room went black.
“I couldn’t even see the screen on the imaging camera, it was that dark,” he said. “I had my arm on the wall working my way back to the stairs when it flashed.”
Kirchner had seconds to escape or he knew he would die in the inferno.
“It’s all around you,” he said. “You’re just totally covered in fire.”
The Ohio State Fire Marshal’s Office provided a flashover simulator to the Columbus fire department so firefighters can train for the worst-case scenario.
“It takes them to a place that most of them have never been,” Lt. Steve Robertson said.
When a flashover begins, the temperature at the ceiling is 1,200 degrees and about 550 degrees at floor level.
Firefighters have about 10 seconds to get out alive.
Trainers warn firefighters never to stand up in a situation like the one Kirschner faced.
The flashover begins with a ceiling of smoke so think it appears to be solid.
“Our gear is everything to us,” Robertson said. “It’s like a police officer’s bullet-proof vest.”
In one burst, a flashover turns into a ball of fire. An infrared camera captures the source of the heat as time after time, instructors bring the fire to a flash and students learn to cool and ventilate the room.
The training is designed to save lives.
“Over the last five years, 34 firefighters have lost their lives in the nation due to flashovers,” Robertson said.
Kirchner said that he was happy not to be part of the statistic.
“I had my arm on the wall working my way back to the stairs when it flashed, and my arm and hand happened to go out the window,” Kirschner said.
Kirchner had enough time to hook his arm on a broken window and drop two stories.
“It was a really hard hit when I landed, and when I remember I looked back up at the window and I thought the other three guys were dead in there,” he said.
All the firefighters made it out alive that day.
Kirchner spend several days hospitalized, recovering from first- and second-degree burns.
He returned to the job a flashover survivor.
“It was a close call,” Kirchner said. “I hope I never have another one, and I’m glad no one got hurt terribly bad.”
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