NEW SALEM, N.C. -- It is a fact that between 5,000 and 10,000 people die from smoke inhalation every year and as many as 23,000 others injured.
NBC Charlotte asked to film the training burn of a vacant and donated house in Union County. The training is for “newbie” firefighters who haven’t ever been in a burning structure before. These firefighters will see, feel, smell and experience what it’s like to be in a house that is on fire and filled with thick toxic smoke.
We put a microphone on fire instructor Paul Ward as he watched firefighters set the roughly 15 feet by 15 feet room on fire.
“See, it’s starting to roll, you can feel the heat starting to come down,” said Ward as he and the other firefighters crouched on the floor.
The lessons are for everyone, as firefighters watch as the fire climbs and consumes the walls of this room.
Ward can be heard saying “We expect the glues and the paints in there to do that…You see how it’s starting to layer? The fire is starting to roll right across it…The lower you stay, the better off you’ll be.”
“Make sure you stay low,” Ward added. “It’s the whole point of what we teach you in school, stay low.”
The air above their heads isn’t just smoke, it’s thermal heated air and without air packs, will kill them or you almost instantly.
“It’s why you always stay low. The cool air is at the bottom and the warm air is at the top,” he added.
How warm is that air—1200 to 1500 degrees at the top.
With the fire raging over their heads, the room gets intensely hot—so hot that our helmet-mounted camera Paul is wearing melts and falls off.
Flames and toxic smoke fill the house. It could be your house, and your lives would depend on knowing what to do and how to get out. Standing up will cause you to breathe in this hot, smoky air. It’s called smoke inhalation and it kills 73 percent of the people who die in house fires.
Outside the house, Ward says “They’re not going to be able to breathe that smoke. One good inhalation and they’re done.”
For newbie firefighter Misty Greene, it was an experience that will save her life as she one day may fight to try to save your life.
“I felt like I was dying, and I have gear and an air pack,” Greene said.
The fire burned quickly and spread fast, and it would have gone quicker had the house been full of furniture and anything else that would have burned.
Firefighters say you need to have an escape plan and practice it. Have working smoke detectors and never try to fight the fire yourself. Their advice is to stay low and think clearly to get out the fire alive.