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Lancaster firefighters hold live burn in Walmart parking lot

In front of a crowd of hundreds at Walmart, Lancaster firefighters Saturday burned two mobile rooms filled with furniture to show the importance of sprinklers and smoke detectors.

In just the past month, fire officials said, two people have died in house fires in Lancaster homes that had no working smoke detectors.

"If we can save lives out here - showing people what fire can do and what we saw twice just in the past few weeks where people died - this kind of demonstration is public service of the highest kind," said Battalion Chief Chuck Small of the Lancaster Fire Department.

In the demonstration's first room - with no sprinklers - a fire started in a wastebasket engulfed the furniture and walls in just 90 seconds, with temperatures reaching more than 500 degrees.

A smoke detector started beeping within seconds, but without sprinklers, the fire spread quickly before firefighters on the scene for the exercise put it out.

In the second room - equipped with a smoke detector and sprinklers - the fire started the same way but quickly was doused by the sprinklers, resulting in far less damage.

New single-family home construction will be required to have sprinkler systems starting in January 2014, said Les Woods of Tega Cay, president of the S.C. Fire and Life Safety Education Association, which put on the event along with sponsorships from private companies.

Existing homes, which rarely have sprinklers, are not affected by the change, Woods said, but the burn event is meant to show people money spent on in-home sprinklers is an investment that could pay off in saved property - and even lives.

Displaying fire - the heat, the flames, the devastation - gets the attention of people, Woods said.

Firefighters with the city of Lancaster and several of Lancaster County's volunteer departments gave out educational materials to adults and children with the hope that an evacuation plan, coupled with the right safety equipment, can be a lifesaver.

Timmy Baker, a 12-year veteran of the Lancaster department and a 30-year volunteer at the Bell Town Volunteer Fire Department outside the city, was one of the four firefighters who put out the fire Saturday with his first shopping center audience.

But most calls have no audience and are far too real. Baker responded to one of the recent fires where a man died in Lancaster.

"I remember one time when a lady came up to me and said how thankful she was that firefighters had saved her granddaughter in a fire," Baker said. "You never forget the people who you save, and you never forget the families of those you can't save."

Baker, along with firefighters Robert Couch, Jeremy Sims and Ben Rowell, showed after the burn the ruined room and its contents.

"Smoke detectors save property," said Sims, "but most important, they save lives."