MARQUETTE - As city of Marquette firefighters battled a massive blaze New Year's Day at a home on Michigan Street, it wasn't just the flames the crew had to worry about.
It was also the cold.
"A firefighter gets wet both from the inside and the outside," Marquette fire Chief Tom Belt said. "They're sweating inside of the clothing and you're getting soaked from all the water and the foam product. ... They get pretty well soaked through and through."
Far left, relief engineer Kris Shirtz stands inside the Marquette City Fire Department’s headquarters on Third Street Wednesday morning, dressed in full firefighting gear. With extreme cold temperatures, such as the area experienced this week, firefighters must not only battle flames, but the frigid air as well. (Journal photo by Jackie Stark)
With temperatures dipping to 12 degrees below zero New Year's Day - and continuing to hold the area in a deep freeze the National Weather Service expects to finally let up Friday - the danger of frozen equipment and frozen bodies can be just as big a threat to firefighters as flames are.
"When they leave the inside of the fire scene and come out into the cold weather, everything almost instantaneously freezes," Belt said.
A third alarm was used to call in reinforcements so frozen firefighters could warm up themselves and their gear, before heading back out to battle a blaze that took nearly 12 hours to quell.
"It was in the walls, it was in the attic, the whole structure was completely involved," Belt said. "It took a long time to get to all the hidden fires that were in there."
Firefighters were allowed to work for up to 40 minutes at a time, then had to rest up and dry off their equipment.
Resting firefighters took time to dry their breathing apparatus, clearing off all the water vapor expelled with every breath. The vapor clings to the respirator and could freeze in a matter of minutes, making it impossible to breathe through.
The crews had to keep their masks clear as well, wiping away vapor and sweat that collected inside of them.
On the truck, Belt said with subzero temperatures water must always be running to prevent the hoses from freezing up.
The crews open a dump valve on the truck that dumps excess water out of the bottom of the vehicle, making for "a skating rink" Belt said but ensuring that water is always running through the hoses.
And though it's certainly a dangerous business fighting fires in extreme cold, some firefighters say it's better than battling a blaze in the middle of July.
"You get an adrenaline rush you wouldn't believe," Capt. Dan Lancour said. "When you're heart is racing like that, it creates a lot of heat inside, when you're ripping and tearing like that."
Lancour said firefighters dress in layers, only so many of which can be removed for a summer fire.
But all these cold-weather dangers are old hat to a team of firefighters that sees most of its calls during the winter season.
"We're a four-season training organization," Belt said. "We've got about five months of potentially very cold weather to deal with."
They're also old hat to other public service organizations, such as water and sewer crews.
Marquette Department of Public Works superintendent Scott Cambensy said the biggest impact extreme cold has for his department is in time.
"Everything seems to take longer," Cambensy said.
The city of Marquette - and other cities and townships in the area - has seen a number of water main breaks as a result of the so-called Polar vortex. Most recently in Marquette, a water main broke in the 700 block of Center Street, flooding the road with water that quickly froze.
"It makes it a lot harder at this time of year just to deal with the water from the break and the saturated soil because it freezes so quick," Cambensy said. "Typically, you don't have storm sewer available, so often you're actually scooping up the slush with a bucket and putting it in a dump truck and trying to get it somewhere quickly before it freezes in the dump truck."
Cambensy said the city has experienced four or five water main breaks since Christmas, setting a pace slightly higher than in winters past.
And with frost measurements reaching 55 inches into the ground at Altamont Street and roughly 36 inches into the ground on Kildahl Avenue - inching ever closer to the 72-inch depth of water pipes throughout the city - Cambensy said he's hoping the worst is behind us.
"The closer it gets to the pipe then you get a little more nervous," Cambensy said. "I'm hoping this warm-up slows things down a little bit at least."
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.