A billowing cloud of smoke, black as night, stands out against the blissful blue of the sky.
MARINE CORPS AIR STATION IWAKUNI, Japan -- The smoke curls upwards in spiraling funnels, drawing flames into its center and towering over the silver figures of aircraft rescue firefighters like a giant portal to hell.
Clad in heat-reflecting suits, the Marines dart towards the fire, which dances and leaps away from the water they hose on it.
The shields protecting their faces mirror the vivid orange of the flames they battle, but the fire grows steadily.
The air fills with a crackling sound as bits of concrete bubble away from the ground and shoot into the air like popcorn.
Suddenly, the fire truck standing at the ready sounds its alarm and begins to spray a fluffy foam over the burn pit.
The flames die almost instantly, and the firefighters find themselves and the pit blanketed in the white substance. The training has come to an abrupt end.
Immediately, onlookers are assured that we have seen something special.
“Normally we just use water,” said Staff Sgt. Ron Marshall, a Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting section leader. “That’s all we ever use, so you all got a bonus.”
Lance Cpl. Jesse Pyle, a H&HS ARFF specialist, confirmed this statement, adding that he had “never actually seen [the foam] put on fire” before.
This rarity cannot be contributed to a lack of training.
“We try to do fires at least twice a month,” said Marshall.
The bimonthly fires use water almost exclusively. So why did the firefighters resort to foam this time?
“We were about to send that last crew in, and someone said there was only 400 gallons [of water] left in the tank,” said Pyle.
Master Sgt. Roy L. Clayton Jr., ARFF Chief, called for foam, because the water was not enough, especially with the size of the fire. That was the biggest one we had all day, Pyle added.
The foam is a chemical agent which quickly smothers a fire. “Foam simply blankets the fire and takes away the oxygen,” explained Marshall.
Though the foam provided for, in Marshall’s words, “awesome training” this time around, each fire teaches valuable lessons.
“We train for everything we can possibly think of,” stated Marshall. “We keep the guys on the ready all the time so we don’t get complacent. At any moment, we are ready to perform our job.”
Maintaining a constant state of readiness does not solely entail the performance of regular training sessions; Marines of ARFF must also be physically present any time there are planes in motion.
“We’re here to support the airfield really,” said Pyle. “If we’re not here then the airfield’s not open basically.”
To maintain this constant presence, ARFF is divided into two sections, which take turns standing on duty for 24-hour periods.
While the Marines on duty are not required to stay awake for the full 24 hours, they still do not get a full night’s sleep during work days.
“Our hours are really just airfield hours,” said Pyle. “During the week, the airfield [opens] at 6:30 [and] closes at 23:00, so we’re up that whole time. The 24 on/24 off helps us catch up on sleep.”
How do the Marines of ARFF spend their time on duty? After all, it’s not like there are fires to be put out every day nor would the firefighters wish this. They do not sit idly.
“We do a lot of training,” said Pyle.
When the Marines are not sitting on the airfield in one of the everpresent trucks, they work on tasks such as preventative maintenance for their trucks and tools. But the best part of their job is the training, said Pyle. “It doesn’t really get old. You get a rush still every time.”
And after witnessing that fire – crackling and leaping around the firefighters like a live beast – who could blame him?