Hell Erupts in California: Inside the Wragg Fire with Photographer Donna Forman

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Firefighting in California has a definition all its own. And, unfortunately, those who battle the flames, heat, and smoke have been put to the test recently with the eruption of several large wildfires.

The smoke from the fire above (the Wragg fire near Lake Berryessa/Napa area) was easily seen from my backyard. In fact, the fire was so large—over 8,000 acres and counting—that we first saw the smoke as we drove out of San Francisco a couple of days ago.

As of today, over 1,400 firefighters are battling this blast furnace in the hills. Much of the terrain is steep and nearly unreachable, but they’re there, somehow. And they’re also fighting the fires that endanger homes and animals. This thing is massive and people have been forced to flee their homes, leaving precious belongings behind. Believe me, this is not a fire where the shiny red trucks roll up, hook a hose to a hydrant, spray water for a few minutes, and all is well. Not even close. This one is D.A.N.G.E.R.O.U.S.!

I know, sitting at your computer in an area that’s regularly dampened by wonderfully cool and refreshing summer rains, you have no concept of a California wildfire. So, here’s a closeup journey inside the searing heat and flames of the Wragg fire, courtesy of photographer Donna Forman. Notice the special firefighting equipment—air tankers and helicopters. Remember, much of the area is not accessible by vehicle.

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Thanks so much to Donna Forman for these incredible photos. You can view more images of the fire at Donna Forman Photography. While you’re there say hi, and please tell her I sent you.

By the way, Donna is a retired Richmond, California K9 officer who worked two K9’s back to back. She also worked HRET, narcotics, and was the first female dirt bike Motorcycle officer.


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Patti Phillips: What Does A Firefighter Wear


Firefighters have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Walking into a house fire that could reach 1000 degrees in under a minute (that’s not a typo) or a chemical fire that may reach double or triple that temperature in seconds, while  battling smoke inhalation as well, means a firefighter’s life depends on being supplied with the best equipment that money can buy. Without the proper gear, firefighters can’t stay inside a burning structure long enough to rescue victims or fight the fire successfully.

So, what is the right gear that keeps them safe and still allows them to do their jobs?

Tim Fitts, a veteran firefighter in North Carolina, and Coordinator of certification classes for firefighters and rescue squads at Guilford Technical Community College, demonstrated his gear on a 95 degree day in September. Fire isn’t selective about the weather, so it’s a good thing for us that firefighters train and work under all kinds of conditions.


The firefighter uniform is generally called ‘turnout gear’ by firefighters because they turn it inside out when not in use, so that they can step into it quickly and pull it on/up when the fire bell/siren sounds. Firefighters need to get completely dressed in about a minute, so any safe system that will speed up the process is used. Some guys pull on the boots and pants, grab the rest of the gear and finish getting dressed in the truck as it pulls out of the fire station.

The official name for the gear is Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

Parts of the firefighter uniform:

While on the job at a fire or rescue operation that might result in a fire, most firefighters will wear these pieces of clothing:

  • Boots, insulated with steel toes and steel shank
  • Cotton t-shirt
  • Gloves, insulated leather
  • Helmet, with neck flap and eye protection
  • Hood, Nomex
  • Jacket, insulated, with Velcro and spring hooks
  • Pants, insulated, with Velcro and spring hooks, with extra padding and pockets
  • Suspenders


These three hoods are each made of different fabrics:

  • Kevlar blend
  • PBI/Kevlar
  • Nomex

Firefighters put a hood on before the jacket, so that it sits properly on the shoulders. They tend to wear two hoods to protect against a flashover, giving their heads the extra defense needed in the intense heat. If a flashover occurs, the firefighter will have about two seconds to get out of the building. If the hoods are not providing enough coverage, it will feel like 1000 bees stinging the ears at one time – it’s too hot to stand. It’s time to get out.


The helmets are made of thick, heat resistant plastic and often include Kevlar or Nomex flaps for the ears.


Firefighters are taught to fight fires on their knees (not while crawling) so the extra padding helps cushion the wear and tear on the knees.


In addition, the firefighters put on:

  • Airline and pressure gauge
  • Flashlight
  • Positive pressure mask
  • PASS device
  • Radio
  • SCBA shoulder straps, airtank bottle and backpack frame

The PASS device (Personal Alert Safety System) is a personal safety device used by firefighters entering a hazardous environment – a burning building. When the firefighter does not move for 30 seconds, it makes a loud, shrill, really annoying  sound, letting others in the area know that something is wrong.

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The mask on the left is a newer model, the one on the right? Older. There has been an upgrade in technology for the plastic in the mask, developed because at high temperatures, the old plastic would fail (melt). It was the weakest part of the uniform. The new version will not fail as quickly.


Note that even the air tank is protected with a fire retardant fabric.


The idea is to be protected from the fire and to be able to breathe safely while he/she works. The positive pressure mask on the SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) gear keeps the toxic air out as much as possible by allowing the tank air to flow continuously, even if the firefighter is not inhaling. By the way, the tanks are full of compressed air, not oxygen.


Most of the clothes have reflective tape so that the firefighter can be seen more easily through the smoke and low light/darkness. Some departments are large enough that they use color-coded reflective tape in order to tell the full-time firefighters and the volunteers apart.

The uniforms are sized to the individual firefighters, so that when they bend over, there is at least a two-inch overlap with the fabric pieces, and no skin is exposed to the crippling, blistering heat.


Hip boots of years ago, are now old school because of the area of the body they left unprotected from heat. Now the boots have steel toes and shanks and are calf high or knee high in length.

When fully dressed, the firefighter is wearing about 70 pounds of equipment. Add more weight for the tools they have to carry – picks, axes, etc – needed to fight the fire.

After ten years, all turnout gear must be thrown away. It wears out because of repeated exposure to the intense heat and toxic elements. Many large, active fire departments dispose of the clothing after only five years, because of their more frequent use and improvements in technology.

Firefighting gear is not fireproof. It is fire retardant.

Some of the clothing has 3 layers, each layer performing a different function. People can only tolerate temperatures to 135 degrees, so the specialized fabrics extend the time available to do the job. Firefighters get very uncomfortable at 250 degrees, and the time limit for the firefighter at that point is about 30 seconds to reach someone and get out. One of the firefighters at Command keeps track of the men/women – where they are in the structure and how long they’ve been working the fire.

Nomex degrades at 400 degrees, so needs to be used in addition to other fabrics if fighting a structural fire. It tends to split when the wearer is running. When combined with Kevlar, it becomes more flexible and the fabric breathes a bit better.

PBI degrades at 1100 degrees, allowing a much better chance for the firefighter to stay safe while fighting a house blaze. It stays intact in the extreme temperatures and allows the firefighter extra time to get to a victim and then get out.

Gortex helps shed water

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Heat goes through each layer a bit at a time. Each layer is a necessary barrier, in its place to protect the firefighter and keep his body from getting hotter than is safe.

After fires, all of the clothing needs to be taken apart and washed, because everything in a fire is carcinogenic. Hmm…that means that the entire time a firefighter is working the fire, his equipment has to protect him from the flames and the smoke, as well as anything else thrown into the air, both in the active fire and in the area outside the building.

Some fire Captains insist that the clothing be stored away from the sleeping area at the station, because it may still contain toxins even after being washed. If you get a chance to visit a Fire Station, you might be able to tell where the gear is kept, before you ever reach the room. The smoky odor is sharp and unforgettable.

Cost of Basic Turnout Gear (approximate)

  • Pants, jacket, gloves – $1,150.
  • Boots – $175.
  • Helmet – $150.
  • Nomex hood – $60.
  • PASS device – $300.
  • Airpack with mask – $4,500.



Tim Fitts told us about the testing going on at NC State’s College of Textiles, in the search for better, more effective, fire retardant fabrics.

To see a demonstration of how a firefighter’s uniform reacts to fire, click here for NC State’s PyroMan video:


For a demonstration of how quickly heat from a flame penetrates protective layers before reaching the skin, click here for NC State’s PyroMan animation:


Every second counts when rescuing you or your pets in a fire. We know that a simple house fire can fully engulf an 8’x10’ room in 90 seconds. That’s not a typo. If the firefighters are on the scene before that happens to the entire house, they need as much lead time as possible in order to keep a rescue operation from becoming a recovery operation. That’s when the best turnout gear on the market is worth every dime.

*Photos by Patti Phillips, taken at Guilford Technical Community College, NC, during The 2014 Writers’ Police Academy.


Thanks to Tim Fitts for generously sharing his knowledge and expertise. Tim is a veteran firefighter and Fire Occupational Extension Coordinator at GTCC. He’s in charge of all Con Ed certification and non-certification classes in Fire and Rescue subjects to members of NC fire departments and rescue squads. Any errors in fact are mine, not his.

*     *     *


Patti Phillips is a transplanted metropolitan New Yorker/north Texan, now living in the piney state of North Carolina.

Her best investigative days are spent writing, attending The Writers’ Police Academy, cooking, traveling for research and playing golf. Her time on the golf course has been murderously valuable while creating the perfect alibi for the chief villain in her novel, One Sweet Motion. Did you know that there are spots on a golf course that can’t be accessed by listening devices?

Ms. Phillips (writing as Detective Charlie Kerrian) can be found at www.kerriansnotebook.com. Her book reviews can be read at www.nightstandbookreviews.com

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What Goes Up…Explodes!

Fireworks displays are often hand-fired, Joe Collins’ favorite way of shooting a show. And, this past weekend, he and a friend photographed a hand-fired show from beginning to end. Here’s what he had to say about the experience.

Loaded Trailer

Above, is a trailer loaded out for the show with racks, mortars, buckets, post-hole digger, fire extinguishers and other things needed.

Dropped Show

The show is “Dropped”—delivered by a special crew with the proper training, equipment, placards, trucks and certifications.


The mortars are dug in. Fours are in front, fives are in the middle and threes are at the end. This placement reduces the chances of loading the wrong sized shell into a mortar.

Dropping Finales

Finale racks are screwed together, and the shells are dropped. Finales are long chains of shells tied together with quickmatch so that when one shell is lit, the entire rack will fire in sequence.

Finale Racks

Above, you can see all the finale racks ready to be shot.

Bucket of 5s

The shells to be shot individually are put into buckets—basically a garbage can. With the lid turned upside down this provides some protection for the shells before they are loaded. Each size of shell has its own bucket. The person responsible for getting the shells out for the loader is called a “Bucket Tender.”


The cakes are set up. A cake is a multi-part firework. Each cardboard tube contains a shell or effect and all are lit off in sequence once the fuse is lit.

The next step is to wait for it to get dark. Bring bug spray, lawn chairs and plenty of water to drink!

Fusee Closeup

Something very much like a road flare—called a “Fusee” is fastened to the end of a piece of conduit. To light a shell, touch the burning end of the Fusee to the quickmatch or visco, make sure it is lit and briskly step away.

Lighting Shells

The bucket tender is to the left. And the shooter is lighting quickmatch which will light the shell.

Lifting Shell

To the loaders and bucket tenders, this is what a shell looks like as it’s lifting. In this case, it’s a five-inch shell.

I like to tell people I haven’t seen a fireworks show since I started shooting them because what you see above is pretty much all that I get to see.

Shell Hand-off

The loader is getting more shells from the bucket tender to be loaded into mortars. Note the fusee in the back pocket of the loader—in this case me. The extra fusee is a backup if something goes wrong with the one being used to light shells.

Loading Shells

Yes, we are often that close to lifting shells as we are loading. Although it looks as though I have my head over the mortar, I’m trying to be as far away from the mortar as I can, facing another direction as I drop the shell.

A lot of teamwork, training, experience and most importantly, trust is involved in shooting a fireworks show.

Stepping Fast

And everyone has to hustle, while being safe.

Cakes Lifting

Every once in a while, hit a cake or two. Yes, it does sometimes get a bit bright.

When the bucket tenders are out of shells, they turn their bucket over to let everyone know that they have no more shells. Then they can watch the end of the show.

Finale Lifting

Naturally, the last thing fired are the finale’s. I was about three-foot away from the racks when the shells started lifting.

Safety Check

When the show is done, every mortar and cake is checked to see if all the shells have fired. If a shell hasn’t lifted for some reason, the mortar is filled with water and it’s removed to go back to the fireworks company to see what went wrong.


Above, you can see where we blew the top off a five-inch mortar. It landed two-feet from a bucket tender’s head.

Then the hard work starts, tearing down everything and packing it away for the trip back to the fireworks bunker.

The job of a pyrotechnician is physically demanding, sometimes dangerous, doesn’t pay very well, and requires a lot of planning, training and experience to pull off, but the result is worth it!

* Joe Collins is a twelve-year veteran firefighter/paramedic in the busiest volunteer fire department in his county. He holds numerous fire and EMS certifications—many of the same as professional firefighters. During the day he works as a Critical Care Paramedic in the highest call volume EMS service in Iowa. For the past seven years, he has been a professional pyrotechnican working in the fireworks display industry.





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Fireworks: Behind The Scenes With Pyrotechnician Joe Collins

Everyone likes the Fourth of July–fireworks, food, and fun. For some of us, it’s a time of hard work, thrills, and sometimes danger.

For the past seven years, I have been a professional pyrotechnican working in the fireworks display industry.

The BATF—Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, abbreviated to ATF has defined various classes of fireworks. Consumer fireworks are most often classified as Class 1.4G—stuff you can buy in stores and shoot in your back yard—state and local laws permitting.

Most display fireworks are classified as Class 1.3G. I have a federal license to posses and shoot Class 1.3G fireworks as long as I am working for the display company that sponsored my license.

Now that the legalities are out of the way, let’s get to the fun stuff!


The cone at the bottom of a typical shell is where the lift charge is located which is simply a bag of black powder enclosed in a protective cone of cardboard.

five inch shell

Tied into the bottom of the shell is quickmatch which is black match—cotton string covered or soaked in black powder that is enclosed in a paper tube or plastic tube all along the whole length. The tube forces the fire down at a very high speed (approximately 30 feet per second). This is what we light to “lift” the shell from the mortar, either electrically or by fire.


quickmatch closeup

You can see the blackmatch in the close up above.

The whole shell is wrapped in craft-type paper secured with glue.

On the top is a loop of string that is used to keep the quickmatch in the right place and in larger shells is used to lower the shell into the mortar.

To lift a shell, you need a mortar. They come in various sizes and are often held together to accomplish certain effects—the one below is called a finale rack—a series of mortars tied together that all lift shells at the end of a show.

finale rack

As you can see, there are several different sizes and the company I work for has a few of them.

mortar storage

Single mortars are what you see below and are often buried into the ground to stabilize them.


And, they come in a wide variety of sizes.

single mortar storage

big mortar

Our mortars are constructed of fiberglass which doesn’t cause the shrapnel problems if they blow out like the old steel mortars. They are also cheap to make and are lightweight.

mortar closeup

Shells blowing apart mortars happens more often than you would think and makes for an exciting experience when you are close to them.

This is why we wear protective clothing: it’s mandatory that you wear blue jeans, a cotton shirt, a helmet with a face shield and ear protection, gloves, and safety glasses.

safety gear

The most complex of shows to set up and shoot are electrically fired. Some shows are also required to be electrically fired—like those set to music and every barge shoot.

wired barge

The shells are ignited by an electric match which, when an electric current is applied to it, ignites a combustible compound. Think of a model rocket igniter but much more powerful.


The matches are wired into slats which are screwed to the top of the mortar racks.


slat closeup

The slats plug into cables.

slat cables

As you can see, it takes more than a few cables to wire up the shows.

The cables are plugged into a firing panel.

firing panel back

Firing panels come in a wide variety of configurations and sizes, some small:

small firing panel

Note the battery cables—most shows are fired using a car battery.

And some large-bigger shows are fired with larger panels.

100 shot firing panel

You may only notice that there are fifty switches. There are two banks. When you’ve fired the first fifty-shells, you flip a switch and you can shoot the second bank of shells.

bank switch

The really difficult part is making sure that the shells will fire when you flip the switch. There is a test function on the firing board which you can see below.

test and firing switch

There is an LED over each switch and if it doesn’t glow when you hit the test switch, then you have to figure out what is wrong with the circuit which can be very tedious to track down.

firing switches

Once the shells are loaded, wired, tested and otherwise ready to go, you can sit back and enjoy the show.

Next time we get to my favorite way of shooting a fireworks show—hand fired.


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