Hillsborough: How do you battle a gigantic fire in the freezing cold?
Firefighters in Somerset County Thursday have two enemies: The raging blaze before them, and the bitter cold.
As firefighters from several companies continued to battle a severe warehouse fire that sent thick black smoke more than 130 miles away, they were contending with temperatures around 20 degrees and winds of about 15 mph.
And both, said New Brunswick Fire Captain George Arriaga, present hazards he'd rather never have to deal with.
Arriaga — speaking to New Jersey 101.5 while preparing for the possibility his own fire company could be called in to help — said water would be freezing in the hoses and on the ground alike.
"It's an extremely difficult challenge for the firefighters, and my hat goes off to the firefighters that are fighting this fire," he said.
Slips and falls are a serious risk. Reaction time is slowed, Arriaga said; "Everything you do is slower."
Hydrants can freeze up — "which is very dangerous," he said.
"Your hands are freezing. Your face is freezing. Your feet are freezing," Arriaga said. "But you have a job to do, And you continue to do it. It makes the job twice as hard."
Thursday night's fire — which consumed at least two buildings and multiple trucks on the site of a former military depot, and which was continuing to rage for several hours into the evening — might be one firefighters could only contain.
Arriaga said if the fire reached beyond the waterflow, all firefighters could do would be "to go to defensive operations" — to step away from the building, to prepare for the building collapse and to apply water from a distance.
"At that point, there's no saving the building," he said. "You do what you can to save other buildings. You do this in the cold and the wind, which is causing extreme conditions for those guys."
Firefighters have to balance multiple needs — their mission to extinguish the fire against their own safety. They need to stay far enough away not to risk being endangered by a building collapse, while close enough to put water on the flames, Arriaga said.
He said it's like "playing devil's advocate" with the fire."
"It's kind of a cat and mouse game," he said.
— With reporting by Annette Petriccione