Aspiring firefighters suit up

Published 7:33 pm Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Rebecca Muha, who will be a senior at Dowagiac Union High School, became the first Fire Science Academy participant to turn a hose onto real flame. (Vigilant photo/JOHN EBY)

Rebecca Muha, who will be a senior at Dowagiac Union High School, became the first Fire Science Academy participant to turn a hose onto real flame. (Vigilant photo/JOHN EBY)

Edwardsburg Argus

DOWAGIAC – Edwardsburg freshman Justin Tighe didn’t expect to be the only guy at this week’s second annual Southwestern Michigan College Educational Talent Search Fire Science Academy, but it is what it is, he shrugs. He’s here to begin pursuing a career as a firefighter.

But then so are some of the five females filling out two crews.

“It doesn’t really bother me, but yeah, it did surprise me,” he said as he and the ladies rolled hoses Thursday, June 24 after torching two cars in the city “tree dump” off Middle Crossing Road that they investigated after lunch.

That’s where petite blonde Lauren Burnham should shine. She wants to be an arson investigator after graduating from Marcellus High School next year.

Lauren and Nichole Hiscock are Marcellus fire cadets who arrive in their own department-issued gear.

Nichole’s primary passion is photography, but she also wants to incorporate firefighting into her career plans with a fire science minor.

She’s also starting her senior year as an MHS Wildcat and is likely one of those recruited by Lauren, the only participant who completed the inaugural academy in 2009.

“We’ve never put out a car fire, so it’s good experience,” Nichole said.

They started as cadets as juniors and must be 18 to be actual members of the Marcellus Fire Department.

Sister Lakes also has a cadet program.

Even these young women are surprised that the fire academy consists almost entirely of females.

“For me it started because they said girls couldn’t do it,” Lauren said. “But then I liked it. I came to the first camp last year” which graduated four. “The arson part is my favorite.”
Nichole was third in line on the hose behind Lauren and Rebecca Muha.

“When they need it moved over, you have to (maneuver) the hose forward or backward,” she said.

A real roaring fire is as they imagined, except perhaps hotter and “scarier.”

Instructor Capt. Mike Mattix of Dowagiac Fire Department didn’t want to be a firefighter when he was their age 25 years ago, despite growing up in a fire service family, the son of Fire Chief Wayne Mattix.

And no, his three daughters, Kate, Becca and Courtney, aren’t at the academy.

They are angling for careers in health-related fields, including veterinary medicine, at Bethel College and Western Michigan University.

After “refueling” over lunch, the firefighting apprentices will “switch cars” to begin their investigation.

“The team that extinguished the red car won’t investigate the red car,” but focus instead on an overturned white car, Mattix explained. “That’s normally what happens. You don’t normally investigate your fires, the crew that did the attack. They’re going to be looking to determine the origin and cause of the fire and, hopefully, whether this fire was intentionally set or an accidental fire.”

Perhaps they were preoccupied with getting suited up and fitted with air packs and masks and missed Deputy Chief Dale Hutchings liberally saturating the vehicles so Amy Anderson of ETS could touch them off with a flare tossed in like a grenade.

Like throwing out a first pitch when you’re not accustomed to throwing over home plate, Anderson needs a second toss to light the first fire, so she’s understandably proud when the white car ignites instantaneously.

The red car is just stubborn, slow to burn and then, as one of the vigilant real firefighters carefully watching over the exercise put it, “It acted like it didn’t want to go out.”
Whichever side Rebecca Muha’s crew goes to, orange tendrils lick out from underneath on the other side until Wayne Township’s Ethan Pasternak brings over a tool resembling a harpoon to pop open the trunk and finish off the tenacious flames once and for all.

“There is one in Berrien County run out of the Berrien Springs fire department,” Mattix said. “Ethan, who’s on our support staff, will be in the fall county ‘rookie school.’ As a matter of fact, Lauren told me she will be, too. She’s our best recruiter, out telling everyone, ‘You’ve got to do it.’

“I was very pleased and surprised we had so many girls. Female firefighters are a very growing segment of the fire service right now. You’re starting to see more women as chief officers. That’s where it comes from is getting kids interested. This gives them a taste. This is one of those professions where you’re not sure if you really want to do it until you actually get into it a little bit. That’s the way it was for me. I didn’t want to be a firefighter in high school.”