Firefighters use donated house for practice


LEITERSBURG - Jim and Mindy Marsden smiled as they watched flames spread up the walls of their 19th century farmhouse on Sunday afternoon.

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About 25 firefighters from Longmeadow, Maugansville and Greencastle, Pa., fire departments were busy putting out the blaze that gutted the two-story structure at 19570 Leitersburg Pike.

Sunday's fire was no surprise and it won't leave the couple homeless. It was planned as part of a practice session by Longmeadow Fire Chief Richard M. Roche.

"We're just happy we could provide the training ground," said Mindy Marsden.

The couple has lived on 26 acres in Leitersburg since 1976, she said. But after 20 years in the farmhouse, the Marsdens decided they wanted to modernize and retire in a new home.


Additionally, they felt necessary repairs to the aging structure would be too expensive to undertake, said Jim Marsden, who is an engineer.

Two years ago, they built a one-story brick home more than 200 feet from the farmhouse. But they were left with the problem of what to do with the structurally compromised building.

Jim Marsden said a friend who was a firefighter at Longmeadow suggested they allow the fire department to use it for a training exercise.

"We thought if we have to demolish the house we might as well give them an opportunity to learn something from it," Jim Marsden said.

After securing the necessary permits, Jim Marsden removed the building's shingles, siding and insulation to prepare it for burning.

The Longmeadow Fire Department has been using the farmhouse for training exercises for the past month.

Sunday's controlled burn was the last time it will be used because it was so damaged, Roche said. It will be torn down later in the month.

The training session involved lighting different sizes and types of fires in the home to show rookie firefighters ways to attack and extinguish them, said Roche, an 18-year veteran firefighter.

The fire departments started out the day with more than an hour of in-class instruction and then fought several fires at the Marsdens' home.

The firefighters were shown how to deal with blazes in a kitchen, bedroom and closet, Roche said.

He said firefighters honed search-and-rescue and ventilation techniques.

The team also learned skills to save or lessen damage to neighboring structures. Three maple trees that were about 10 feet from the farmhouse were saved despite having branches that reached over the building.

The trees date back to 1910, Roche said.

The fire department practiced rapid-intervention drills using crews of three to five firefighters, Roche said.

The Longmeadow Fire Department fights about three structure fires a year, Roche said.

A controlled burning situation provides invaluable, hands-on training that is hard to come by for fire departments, he said.

"It's the closest thing to reality," he said.

The last time the department was allowed to use a home for such purposes was about three years ago, he said.

Donated homes for controlled burns are always welcome, said Roche.

Homeowners would have to prepare the house according to Environmental Protection Agency requirements for burning by removing certain polluting building materials.

Roche said interested homeowners can contact him at the fire station.

Twenty-year veteran firefighter Nelson Powden, of Harrisburg, Pa., was on hand to lend his expertise to eight probationary firefighters from the three participating companies.

Before the fires were started, Powden took the firefighters through the building to show them the entrances and explain how the flames would likely spread.

For Greencastle, Pa., trainee Fran Michalak, 26, Sunday's controlled burn was a chance to put into practice all he has learned.

"The whole experience was really helpful," Michalak said. "I feel a lot more prepared now."

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