Fresno firefighters use Fulton Mall to train for high-rise blazes

The Fresno Fire Department is training this month on fighting fires in high-rise buildings.

Consider it a sign that Chief Kerri Donis and Fresno firefighters “believe in downtown.”

The department is joining with other agencies for training exercises several times a week at the 10-story Helm Building.

Fresno fire spokesman Pete Martinez said the department looks forward to development of the Fulton Corridor between Tuolumne Street on the north and Inyo Street on the south.

It’s a stretch that includes many of Fresno’s tallest buildings.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin is making plans to open what is now Fulton Mall to vehicular traffic. Investors have bought several prominent buildings (empty to a large degree) that once were centers of Fresno’s commercial scene. These investors want to turn them into mixed-use developments with a heavy emphasis on residential.

The action goes beyond turning old into new. Local developers Mehmet Noyan and Terance Frazier in late 2014 told the City Council that they’d like to build an entertainment-themed project with a high-rise at the southern end of Fulton Corridor.

It’s all part of a wider revitalization strategy with the motto “I Believe In Downtown Fresno.”

At the same time, Martinez said, “the Fire Department needs to make sure it continues to provide the citizens of Fresno with the best service possible. Our training is all about that, whether it’s the structure fire like we’re used to fighting or a high-rise building.”

Martinez said the department has fought more than 200 structure fires this year. These typically are one-story affairs, such as a house or retail building.

Fresno firefighters have an immense store of institutional knowledge in such situations, Martinez said.

High-rises present a fundamentally different firefighting challenge. The hard-earned lessons aren’t there because Fresno doesn’t get many high-rise emergencies. But with downtown changing, Martinez said, it’s time to prepare for potential trouble.

For example, Martinez said, firefighters arriving at a high-rise fire must prioritize. Is the building empty? Where is the fire? If the fire is on the ninth floor, is someone on the 10th floor?

Firefighters must begin the arduous climb up flights of stairs to where they’re needed. Elevators aren’t an option – no one wants to be stuck between floors.

A firefighter usually is carrying 75 to 100 pounds of stuff – clothing, gear, tools. The firefighters also are hauling water hoses.

“It’s definitely taxing on our legs,” Martinez said.

He said more firefighters are needed on a high-rise fire because of all the wear and tear on the human body.

The complexity only builds from there. Firefighters might have to carry injured people down the stairs. Machines and the people who operate them must work as a team to ensure that firefighters high above have enough water pressure. Plans must be honed in case fire separates firefighters from people on floors above the blaze.

“We want to prevent fires from happening,” Martinez said. “When they do happen, we want to make sure we have every tool available.”

Martinez said there will be training exercises several times a week until early November. Firefighters from Cal Fire, Clovis Fire and departments in nearby towns take part. It’s all part of working as a team on big fires, he said.

George Hostetter: 559-441-6272, @GeorgeHostetter