"Alright, dig in! She's about to go off!"
I could barely make out Sergeant Woodward's figure in front of me; despite being no further than arm's length away from me, the thick smoke inside the flashover can obscured my vision almost entirely.
As we all strained our eyes to see something—anything!—in front of us, an orange glow began to appear through the smoke. It slowly grew in intensity, until everything around us was saturated with the color of burning wood. Long, evil-looking tendrils of fire reached out from the drum; some shot right past our faces, and others licked over our heads.
They were quick at first; as they grew in length, they slowed down and took longer to reach their destinations. It was then that I saw for the first time how fire can fucking dance.
I've watched fire before. I've seen it burn slowly; I've seen it spit, crackle, and even rage furiously out of the window above my apartment (in college, an errant cigarette from the guys upstairs damn near burned our whole building down).
But I had never in my life seen it move as gracefully and as peacefully as I did today. It was mesmerizing; it's path was never once predictable, and it almost seemed to take pleasure in teasing us as it weaved in and out of the group clustered near the floor.
Just as I reached the height of my entrancement with mine enemy, she showed her true form. All at once, the tendrils of fire conglomerated into what I can only describe as an upside-down sea of heat and light, bubbling and rolling towards us in big, lurching waves. The very air itself was on fire, consuming smoke and soot with a frightening speed and igniting everything it touched.
I caught one of the instructors out of the corner of my eye, readying his grip on the hose we had placed in the can.
No! No, wait… just let us watch it a little bit more.
Alas, he opened up a few short blasts into the ceiling, and the fire was extinguished. Returning to the ether, the tendrils faltered—and then disappeared altogether.
Fortunately, we let it grow a couple more times before our group exited the can. By that time, the air we were breathing actually felt hot, because of our SCBA cylinders' exposure to the heat. Our gear was steaming, and was too hot to take off without gloves. Some recruits damn near passed out; others vomited when they left. But nevertheless, we had all emerged victorious from one of the most dreaded scenarios in all of firefighting.
I know, through the wonders of physics and chemistry, that flashover is technically the near-simultaneous ignition of all combustible material within an enclosed area. The heat from the fire building up ignites everything in the container that can burn, including the superheated gases near the ceiling (to put that into perspective: carbon monoxide, one of the main by-products of combustion, has an ignition temperature of 1,128º F). The progressive ignition of these gases from the source of the fire outwards is what produces the "rolling sea" effect that we saw above us.
However, even knowing all that (and actually having a deep appreciation for science myself), I just can't help but think of the scene from Backdraft where Robert DeNiro's character squirts some liquid onto a doorway and lights it while speaking to his new assistant, William Baldwin:
It's a living thing, Brian. It breathes, it eats… and it hates. The only way to beat it is to think like it. To know that this flame will spread this way across the door and up across the ceiling, not because of the physics of flammable liquids, but because it wants to. Some guys on this job, the fire owns them, makes 'em fight it on it's level… but the only way to truly kill it is to love it a little.
Is it true? I guess there's only one way to find out.
(Maybe I'll be able to answer this when I retire from DCFD. Get back to me in about twenty-five or thirty years.)