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A Big Island woman is alive today thanks to decisive action by a Big Island firefighter.
It was Sunday morning. Frank Branch, the fire department's deputy chief, was at home when the emergency call came over his radio dispatching the department to a house fire off Folkes Street in Big Island. Branch knew the house. The fire department has a chimney clean-out program for elderly and disabled people. The program involves doing a basic chimney inspection, in the fall, and cleaning out creosote buildup.
"It's to keep from having a chimney fire," he said. "It's a whole lot easier to prevent it than to fight it."
He knew that a wheelchair-bound woman lived alone in that house.
The house is on his route to the firehouse and his first thought was to get her out. He decided to go directly to the house, rather than go to the firehouse, first, and get his turnout gear. By the time he could do that and get back, it might be too late, he decided. At that point he knew that a fire in the living room had been confirmed. He also knew it was an old house.
"It was pretty much a tinder box," he said.
"There was a considerable amount of fire when I got there," Branch said, describing the scene.
By "a considerable amount of fire," Branch meant that flames were shooting out the windows on the front of the house. The woman was in the kitchen doorway that exits on to a porch on the side. That was as far as she could get without assistance, so she was trapped.
Branch hurried to the porch and pulled her to safety. She is now staying with a niece in Bedford.
"There was a whole lot of radiant heat off of that fire," Branch commented.
Was he afraid?
"Not really," Branch commented. "The adrenalin took over."
The house was a total loss. Branch said that old houses were built without fire stops in the interior walls. If the house was built using balloon framing, the interior walls act like a chimney.
"Once fire gets into the wall, it heads straight to the attic," Branch said.
Branch said that people stopped using this framing technique in the 1940s. He couldn't confirm that this house had balloon framing, but it dates back to the era when it was common.
Branch works at Georgia Pacific's Big Island mill as a maintenance mechanic/planner. The planner portion means that he is responsible for planning maintenance work. He's been on the Big Island Fire Department for 12 years.
Why does he do it?
"Because I enjoy helping people," he replied to that question.