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(Jim Schulz / S&S)

(Jim Schulz / S&S)

Firefighters extinguish a fire during a firefighting demonstration at Sagami Depot, Japan.

Firefighters extinguish a fire during a firefighting demonstration at Sagami Depot, Japan. (Jim Schulz / S&S)

SAGAMI DEPOT, Japan — Fire rips across the ceiling in a blast as thick smoke engulfs the firefighters wearing oppressively hot gear with heavy tanks as they inch their way into the unknown.

Army firefighters in Japan now can practice fighting real fires using two donated fire-training simulators from Fort Wainwright, Alaska. The trainers, a two-story simulated building and aircraft, allow firefighters to practice realistic situations safely.

“You actually get to feel the heat and everything around,” said U.S. Army Garrison Japan Fire Chief Julie Thixton. “It really makes a difference.”

Thixton and a coterie of new “recruits” — including USAG-J commander Col. Garland H. Williams — inaugurated the new trainers Thursday.

The trainers are self-contained, fueled by propane and computer-operated. Officials at Fort Wainwright gave the structures — together valued at $550,000 — to Camp Zama because they couldn’t be fully utilized in Alaska.

Camp Zama paid shipping and installation costs and built a training area at Sagami Depot, the Army installation in Japan with the most space.

Army firefighters from eight stations across mainland Japan will share the structure. The fire department has 122 firefighters, Thixton said.

“We’re also going to open it up to the cities, to our mutual-aid companies,” she said. That includes the cities of Zama, Sagamihara and Yokohama.

The building can be made into a mock living room, bedroom or kitchen. It allows firefighters to practice moving hoses, working in teams and getting the water usage just right. They can cut a hole into the top to allow smoke to escape or practice climbing stairs.

“It allows you to set up what type of scenario you need,” Thixton said. “It allows the firefighters to go in and see the fire, fire behavior and flashover concepts.”

Flashovers are deadly eruptions when smoldering fire suddenly ignites and flashes overhead.

Before the trainers, firefighters practiced on buildings awaiting demolition. Training was contingent on availability, and dangerous situations such as flashovers and backdrafts couldn’t be simulated.

The trainers are computerized so in the event of an emergency the propane and flames can be extinguished immediately. Propane also burns cleaner than combustible buildings, Thixton said.

To launch the new structures, several new “recruits” suited up to experience the heat and intensity.

“It was smoky in there,” said U.S. Army Japan Command Sgt. Maj. Charles Hopkins. “It was realistic. I just wish they had a larger facility.”

During opening remarks, Williams said the trainer gives Army firefighters a more realistic opportunity to train and allows them to practice with their Japanese city counterparts.

“Our firefighters are now better-prepared to save lives and that is the ultimate goal of what we do,” he said.

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