HAPPY VALLEY, OR — With the hallway carpet melting under their boots, two Clackamas Fire District #1 firefighters pushed their way into the upstairs bedroom and closed the door behind them. Two of the Happy Valley home’s three occupants escaped shortly after the fire began early Wednesday, but the third — a friend visiting from out of town — had been trapped upstairs, disoriented as she woke in the middle of the night to the sound of smoke alarms.
Now that the two firefighters were with her, though, they all just needed to get out.
Firefighters Matt Towner and Scott Kohler arrived at the residential fire in the 9000-block of Top O’ Scott St. in Happy Valley around 3:45 a.m. Sept. 6 on the Heavy Rescue 305 truck, according to fire district spokesman Lt. Steve Hoffeditz. When they got there, Kohler and Towner were told about the third resident on the second floor — but fire at the home’s front door made access difficult.
Moving around to the back of the house, Kohler and Towner were able to enter the home and navigate through thick smoke to the stairs. The fire engine’s officer and driver entered the home roughly 15 seconds behind Kohler and Towner, but rapidly deteriorating conditions — namely a collapsing ceiling and enflamed carpet — forced them to back out, leaving Kohler and Towner upstairs on their own.
On the second floor, Kohler and Towner checked each room until they located the third occupant. Entering the room and closing the door behind them, the firefighters watched as the door began to ignite from the intense heat.
Knowing they wouldn’t be able to leave the way they came in, the firefighters made a quick decision to egress via the second-story bedroom window using their “bailout system,” a rappel-like three-quarter harness with a rope and carabiner system for exiting from high level structures.
Breaking out the bedroom window, Kohler dove head-first into the night, his bailout rope snapping wrought as it connected firmly to the window sill. As the rope snapped tight, Kohler was whipped upright so he could see Towner moving the woman to the window.
After helping the woman climb out and onto the hanging Kohler, Towner used his own bailout system to jump and hang from the window — just as fire engulfed the bedroom where they’d all just been standing.
During Towner and Kohler’s search inside, the driver and officer who’d been forced out of the house worked to make sure the two firefighters would have an exit.
After moving a ladder to where they expected the firefighters would emerge, they learned through radio communication that Towner and Kohler had found themselves in a different part of the house than where they were expected.
Hearing the firefighters’ communication over the radio as it arrived, the second fire truck on-scene moved to the side of the house where Kohler, Towner, and the woman were already hanging just as the room caught fire, spitting flames out the window above them.
The second truck was able to safely bring down the firefighters and the rescued resident, who was reportedly able to walk to a stretcher, from which she was then loaded onto an ambulance and taken to hospital. Her condition is not currently known.
Additional fire trucks joined the fight and helped to gain control of the inferno within 30 minutes, Hoffeditz said. No firefighter injuries were reported, but the homeowners lost their five house cats.
Fire investigators are working to determine a cause.
“Every move they made was seconds in front of the fire,” Hoffeditz told Patch Thursday. “Any longer, they wouldn’t have even made it up the stairs.”
Just like Towner and Kohler’s veteran actions were seconds ahead of disaster at every turn, the bailout systems used in Wednesday’s early morning rescue in Happy Valley were only recently brought online at the Clackamas Fire District.
This past summer, Hoffeditz explained, Towner and Kohler helped train their fellow firefighters on using the bailout system shortly after the district invested in bailout gear for every firefighter. The pair, Hoffeditz said, “were the expert trainers.”
Hoffeditz further noted the timing of everything — from the bailout system training to the quick-thinking actions of Towner and Kohler Wednesday morning — as remarkably perfect.
“In my 28 years firefighting, this is probably the biggest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.