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For firefighters, working in subzero weather a chilling challenge

Firefighters from AurorNorth AurorSugar Grove battled house fire Wednesday morning 900 block Garfield Avenue Aurora. Police said three people were

Firefighters from Aurora, North Aurora and Sugar Grove battled a house fire Wednesday morning in the 900 block of Garfield Avenue in Aurora. Police said three people were transported from the home with injuries. | Erika Wurst~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 9, 2014 6:28AM

Brutal. Absolutely brutal.

That’s how Aurora Fire Department Lt. Craig Mateski described the reality of working in this week’s wild winter weather.

“Thawing yourself out in your fire gear is kind of a process,” Mateski said. “Once you get that crust of ice on you, though, it does help keep your body heat in.”

Aurora firefighters responded to three structure fires throughout the city on Monday and early Tuesday morning, when temperatures were below zero.

Fighting fires is a dangerous occupation in itself. But, when water freezes on near impact with the air, the occupation can get even more risky.

“The scene ices up pretty quickly when you’re spraying water everywhere,” Mateski said, making it hard to station ladders and move around with ease.

Water soaked gear becomes covered in ice, and on Monday, that gear was nearly impossible to thaw out. Firefighters took pictures of their ice-glazed uniforms to record just how brutal the conditions outside were.

“As soon as you would put on dry gear, you got called out again,” Mateski said.

The department responded to 177 calls throughout the day and night, including structure fires at three homes.

Crews were called to the 900 block of Meadow Ridge Drive around 4:40 p.m. Monday for reports of a dryer fire that spread to the garage and attic of the two-story home. Residents were able to evacuate the home without injury, but the home was deemed uninhabitable. Damage was set at $100,000.

Firefighters also responded to the 400 block of Weston Avenue around 7:15 p.m. Monday, and to the 300 block of Bevier Place at 3:20 a.m. Tuesday for fires allegedly caused by residents attempting to thaw frozen pipes. Those homes are still habitable, Mateski said. There were no injuries in either incident.

“The fires appear accidental,” Mateski said, but cautioned residents to take precaution when trying to thaw out pipes.

Throughout the day, there were 29 activated fire alarm calls, 10 broken pipe calls, two car fires, 17 carbon monoxide checks and six gas leaks, Mateski said.

Fifty ambulance calls were made, 19 of which were for weather-related traffic crashes or slips and falls. Paramedics responded to two calls for victims with apparent frostbite.

Mateski said that there were no reports of frozen hydrants at each of the three fire scenes, but that hoses do occasionally freeze up, making them hard to roll and store.

It is conditions like those occurring this week that embed themselves into the memories of firefighters for decades.

Ask any old-timer who was around to remember the Stove Works fire on Christmas Eve 1983, and they’ll tell you it was one for the record books, Mateski said.

The four-story building at 500 Rathbone Ave. burned to the ground that evening, but temperatures around 20 below zero turned the already dire situation into a nightmare for fire crews.

According to The Beacon-News archives, several firefighters suffered frostbite, and crew members’ gear froze from the inside out. Intensely cold air ripped through the protective gear and left water-soaked firefighters shivering outside the inferno.

“It was miserable,” then-Fire Chief Robert Mangers said at the time. “Our hose lines were practically doing nothing because of the severe weather conditions.”

The fire was blamed on a faulty connection in an electrical control box, but the fact that the building’s sprinkler system had been turned off earlier in the day because a pipe burst made matters worse.

“I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how horrible that night was,” Mateski said. “As fast as they could turn their hoses off, they froze.”

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