Abandoned house burned as part of Vallejo fire recruitment training

Black smoke billowed for hours over central Vallejo Thursday evening, but not to worry.

It was a house burning down- intentionally- and training new firefighters can get no other way.

"What these men and women do, when others are running out of a building, they are running in, " marveled Reverend Dante Quick, as he watched the old two-story structure burn to the ground.

Quick's congregation, Friendship Missionary Baptist, owns the building, next-door to its church.

When it came time to replace it, he decided rather than tear it down, it would be better to donate it to the Fire Department so new firefighters could learn in a real-life situation.

Years ago, a church member broke the color barrier, as Vallejo's first black firefighter, so  this opportunity seemed fitting.

"We've had members coming to watch, bringing children and grandchildren," Rev. Quick told KTVU, " and now children are saying 'I want to be a firefighter,' and they have more of an idea what a firefighter does." 

For recruits, it's not the biggest house fire they'll ever see, but one of the first, and a chance to feel the heat. 

"We're all pretty well prepared for the job, " said recruit Brett Bullock, standing alongside the four others, who graduate Saturday after fifteen weeks of training, and become fire apprentices assigned to stations.

"It's awesome, awesome!" exclaimed recruit Kenneth Borges, " hometown department, just couldn't ask for anything better, you know?"

"It's really hard to get hired into this job so we're really proud of each other," chimed in recruit Kevin Reustle.

"It's been a long journey so we're really juiced."

The two-day training also put recruits inside the house while fire was burning, so they could learn how to move around.

Every drill was strategically planned, and the building prepared, even installing sheet rock to better mimic how most homes burn.

Without this rehearsal, recruits might not experience such a fire until their first call.   

"And then, there's a lot more chaos and things to think about," noted Vallejo Fire Chief Jack McArthur.

"This is the single best way to train, live fire in a controlled situation with folks who are looking out for you in a learning environment, it's a benefit."

The training left an impression.

"It's hot, and people's masks are cracking, it's unreal," observed recruit Jason Martin, "and we have one of the best instructors anyone could ask for, so it's an experience I'll never forget."

That instructor, after 29 years, will soon stop answering the bell.

"I am going to miss that, miss the excitement, running calls," admitted Captain Dan Sarna, in charge of training.

Sarna has taught a generation of firefighters, and when he retires this month, admits he'll miss the camaraderie most.  

"The fun part of the job, the little things that happen, that are funny," Sarna smiled.

"Like the jokes in the station, and pranks we pulled on each other."

Sarna was reminded he made many saves, of lives and property in his career.

"We did," he acknowledged, "and I'm thankful for that." 

The recruits posed for a picture with Sarna on the front steps of the former house, as it was still smoldering.

"Captain Sarna has helped a lot of people learn those golden nuggets, " said recruit Stephen Kay, "and for us to be the last recruit class to learn those lessons from him, it's an honor."

It was the 384th live burn exercise in Sarna's career.