KENNEWICK -- When a car burst into flames in Kennewick on Tuesday, 16 young men and women in firefighting suits were at the scene within seconds.
But none of them lifted a finger to put out the fire.
They couldn't -- they still are in high school.
A Honda minivan caught fire for unknown reasons while being driven down Metaline Avenue early in the afternoon. Also on Metaline -- in a classroom at the Tri-Tech Skills Center -- was a group of aspiring firefighters, who gathered around for some impromptu instruction with very real visuals.
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About 850 students from 20 area high schools spend part of each day at Tri-Tech to get started in careers ranging from cosmetology to welding and 18 other fields.
On Tuesday, the afternoon class of firefighting students practiced putting on and taking off breathing equipment when a student from the law enforcement class next door burst through the door.
After hearing that a real car was ablaze outside, instructor Nathen Allington herded his students to the scene not 50 yards away. As the driver of the Honda was safe, and nobody else was at risk on the quiet side street, the students got to enjoy the perfect timing.
"It was ironic," Allington said. "We're just about to get into extrication and how to use the Jaws of Life."
Next week, the students will take a car that has served its purpose in the skill center's autobody shop and cut it up with the hydraulic tool used to get people out of bad wrecks.
This fire showed the students better than any class ever could why firefighters need to be particularly careful in car fires. As the flames consumed upholstery and plastic panels, airbags popped like gunshots.
"Sometimes car fires are more dangerous than house fires," Allington said.
The popping airbags and hydraulic pistons from automatic seat belt tensioners or impact-absorbing bumpers can come flying at firefighters as they reach into the car.
Being able to see the fire from start to finish also provided a unique opportunity to observe burn patterns of fuel and plastics. Car fires are relatively rare.
"The students go on ride-alongs," Allington said. "But the chances to see this kind of fire all the way through are pretty slim."
The students, who come out of the Tri-Tech class with basic certifications that can get them hired for their first jobs in firefighting, were appreciative of the sight of a real fire after so much classroom time.
"It's not very often you get to see this," said Nolan Gudde, 19. "It was surprising how quickly the car was completely engulfed in flames."
It took only a little more than a minute until "there was nothing left inside," he said.
But the young man saw something besides burn patterns and air bag deployment -- teamwork.
"The team connection I saw gives me more of a drive to become a firefighter," Gudde said.
He saw firefighters work together seamlessly.
"That's what I liked about it -- you just spread out and get the job done," he said.