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Homes don’t catch fire as often as they used to.

That’s a good thing, but it does raise the issue of keeping local volunteer firefighters in practice. The Oakdale Fire Department addressed that issue Saturday with its annual training day.

This year’s training was conducted on a residential structure owned by Ray Habelman in the town of Byron. Firefighters were able to use a house on the property to practice a wide variety of rescue and fire containment techniques.

“We couldn’t do this without the property that was donated,” Oakdale Fire Department chief Bob Gnewikow said.

State law requires local fire departments to conduct one live session per year. In a good year, it’s one of the few raging residential fires that Oakdale volunteers will encounter. Nationwide, the population has grown 40 percent since 1977, but the fires have plunged by 57 percent thanks to stricter building codes, quicker response time, smoke alarms and automatic sprinkler systems, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Fire deaths fell by 56 percent during that same period.

While there are fewer fires, Oakdale Fire Department training officer Matt Steele said fires that start now leave occupants with less time to escape due to lightweight timber construction and increased flammability of housewares such as furniture.

“There are a lot less structure fires, but the house fires we go to are way more dangerous,” Steele said.

There were 18 firefighters and five emergency medical service personnel from Tomah Area Ambulance Service at the training. Steele said three of the firefighters were on probationary status and that the training helps them to assess their future as a volunteer firefighter.

“They get to watch from outside and see our operation,” Steele said. “They get to come here and determine if this is what they want to do.”

Finding a qualifying structure can be a challenge because state law requires the drill to be conducted on a residential structure. Sheds, garages, barns and storage facilities doesn’t qualify.

“It must be a single-family dwelling, and it must be in good condition,” Steele said. “There’s nothing more realistic than a real house.”

Firefighters spent all day at the site training in situations ranging from smoke damage to a building totally consumed by flames. Volunteers arrived at the property at 8 a.m. and stayed until 6 p.m.

“This is all-encompassing training,” Steele said. “The reason we do it on Saturday is because it’s an all-day affair. There are a lot of things we can cover.”

Gnewikow said the training was well worth the time.

“I think it went very well,” he said. “We had a great turnout, and the cadets we had there had a great experience.”

Tomah Journal editor Steve Rundio can be reached at


Tomah Journal editor

Steve Rundio is editor of the Tomah Journal. Contact him at 608-374-7785.

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