In California, the West Sacramento Fire Department responds to all sorts of blazes, like this garage fire on San Vicente Road on Jan. 20, 2013. It's not usual for crews to encounter ammo, fireworks, and pressurized cans cooking off, but it's almost never a major headache for them. West Sacramento Fire Department photo.
West Sacramento Fire Department crews responding to a recent California blaze had begun hooking up hoses when a cacophony of pops and bangs began.
Video footage recorded on Saturday, Sept. 10, captured the banging and even revealed white streaks flying through a doorway at the apartment complex, the telltale signs of ammo cooking off, but the firefighters didn’t even flinch.
What gives? Weren’t they worried about catching a stray round?
West Sacramento Fire Engineer Ian Gilmour told Coffee or Die Magazine that while these snaps, whizzes, and booms might seem unusual, they’re not as dangerous as the blaze itself, and crews will remain focused on fighting the flames.
“The faster we get water on the fire, the sooner all the problems go away,” Gilmour said. “So, our main focus is to get a hose line on the ground and to get water on that fire, whether we know there’s a hazard there or if there’s an unknown hazard.”
California’s West Sacramento Fire Department operates five stations 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with a combined staffing of 17 personnel on duty. They include a battalion chief to respond to all structure fires and major emergencies to serve as the incident commander and scene manager. West Sacramento Fire Department photo.
Gilmour told Coffee or Die that can change if there’s an “extraordinary hazard,” like a large lithium-ion battery that’s ablaze or if flames start licking at some acetylene tanks.
If an extreme explosive or health hazard is detected, crews know to take up defensive positions and lob water on the building from a safe distance.
For all other fires, the best defense is a fast and aggressive offense.
“We try to either put the fire out, reduce the spread, or to reduce it from exposing to other structures and stuff like that,” Gilmour said. “We will go defensive, but if we just hear a couple of pops and bangs in a regular household fire, we’re just going to keep advancing in and aggressively attack the fire.”
On Dec. 29, 2015, West Sacramento Fire crews in California responded to a report of a refrigerator explosion inside a residence on the 2800 block of Pitzer Circle. West Sacramento Fire Department photo.
He said canned beans, aerosol canisters of vegetable oil, and even July Fourth fireworks can sound like gunshots, but that’s just the pressurized containers bursting. After 15 years of fighting fires, Gilmour said he’s been around a lot of pantries that pop and hiss, but they’ve never been a real threat.
If a homeowner warns firefighters about an ammunition stockpile, crews will note that and try to avoid getting close to it, but it won’t stop them from extinguishing the blaze.
“It’s just kind of going to explode. It should just pop the casing,” Gilmour said. “There may be some shrapnel associated with that, but sometimes, I’ve seen it where it just pops, and it doesn’t really cause anybody any harm.”
There’s a caveat to that. If a round is chambered in a firearm and it cooks off, that can be dangerous because the barrel will channel the bullet to wherever the gun was pointed.
But most of the time, ammo isn’t that big of a deal.
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Joshua Skovlund is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die. He has covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. After five years as in paramedicine, he transitioned to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children. His creative outlets include Skovlund Photography and Concentrated Emotion.
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