Think it’s hot outside? Try stepping into a burning building, wearing 65 pounds of protective clothing and gear.

That’s what Scott Kepler did Sunday as he got his first chance to see a fire the way it looks from behind a firefighter’s hose.

Kepler, with the Sandhills volunteer station, was among 40 men and women who set fire to an abandoned house and barn as part of a training session off Clemson Road.

Though Sunday was cooler than it has been in recent days, the four-hour session was scheduled for the heat of the day — adding the effects of the South Carolina sun to fire that can flare at 1,800 degrees.

“That’s one of the biggest reasons for your firefighters getting hurt, is heat exhaustion,” said Christi Fortson, assistant chief of the Sandhills station. “They get their adrenalin going. They want to go in.”

Firefighters — including those from the Sandhills, Killian Road and Bear Creek stations in Richland County and the Blaney station in Kershaw County — were instructed to take breaks every 15 minutes, take off their gear and drink water.

Kepler and other new volunteers were taken inside the house to accustom themselves to breathe from air tanks. The door was closed behind them. Fire burned along a back wall. It was dark. The smoke was thick. Then water was sprayed on the flames, creating steam. “You couldn’t see a thing,” Kepler said.

To find the door, the firefighters felt their way along a wall.

It was all new to Kepler; he’s only recently joined the force. In September, he begins nearly three months of weekend training through the S.C. Fire Academy.

Though it was clear they were taking their work seriously, Sunday afternoon’s training session had something of a picnic atmosphere.

The Sandhills women’s auxiliary provided a lunch of sandwiches, chips and watermelon. Children played in the grass. Others sat on blankets in a treeless field. Back off the sandy road, some Sunday afternoon gawkers stopped to see what was going on.

Volunteer firefighters get called out almost every day; Fortson said Sandhills alone responded to 69 calls in July.

“Everybody at our stations are basically friends. Some are relatives,” said Dee Davis, with the four-woman auxiliary. “Everybody lives in the general area they fight fires in.

“Some of them have known each other since they were kids.”

Her group holds bake sales to raise money for holiday parties for the families of volunteers. Once, when a serious fire went on all day, they showed up with coffee and doughnuts.

Kepler, 28, engaged to a woman who is also a volunteer firefighter, said he just wants to be involved in his community. But it’s not easy work, he said. At a fire, he may see someone’s hard work and memories destroyed before his eyes — if not from fire, from the water that snuffs it out.

“When you’re walking through a house and you see pictures half burned up,” he said, “it’s hard.”

August 21, 1995  State (published as The State)  
Columbia, South Carolina
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August 21, 1995  State (published as The State)  
Columbia, South Carolina
Page 7

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