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Playing With Fire

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Joe Ordaz has been caked with fire-retardant goop and set on fire so many times he has lost count.

On Friday, the veteran movie stuntman did the “body burn” again, this time for the benefit of about 50 firefighters taking a motion picture safety officer training course at Camarillo Airport.

For the better part of the morning, mortar rounds and explosives exploded, windows shattered, stuntmen leaped ahead of bursting flames. For good measure, Ordaz even took a simulated shotgun blast to the gut, complete with fake blood.

Taught by the state fire marshal’s office, the three-day course is designed for those who work in safety roles on television and motion picture sets.

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On the surface, firefighters and pyrotechnic experts might not have much in common. But on a movie set, they have no choice.

“You’re talking two exact opposites to make this work,” said Kayla Thames, a production specialist with the California Film Commission on hand for the pyrotechnic and stunt demonstrations. “They’re people who make fires and people who put fires out for a living. Here you guys, work together . . . “

It was the first time the course has been offered in Ventura County, where government officials have stepped up efforts to reel in some of the $20 billion spent making movies, television shows and commercials in California last year.

For two days, firefighters sat in a classroom studying such topics as filming, fire codes, permits and licensing and delving into other industry fire-safety hazards such as lighting, flammable liquids and pyrotechnics.

They also reviewed set construction, studio and warehouse filming, and regulations on pyrotechnic special effects storage and handling.

“Filming is becoming more and more complicated now,” said Al Adams, a deputy state fire marshal who taught the three-day course to firefighters from Ventura, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles counties. “It’s been said a movie isn’t a movie until you have special effects. Now this training is becoming even more needed.”

Permits for many films require that a fire safety officer be on the set at all times. In Ventura County, that means overtime pay--paid by the movie producer--for the firefighter assigned to the job.

The state fire marshal does not mandate that firefighters take the course and become certified as fire safety officers, Adams said. But the office recommends it, as do many production companies, he said.

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By sponsoring the course, the Ventura County Fire Department is taking a strong stand on movie set safety, he said.

“The movie industry likes to see us take these courses so we can help identify problems and keep everyone and everything safe,” said Ventura County Fire Department training officer Michael Burns.

Mark Taillon, a captain in the Ventura County Fire Department, has worked as a fire safety officer on hundreds of movie and television sets in Ventura County for 24 years.

He’s watched everything from the filming of the old “Dynasty” television series to someone who spent a full day making toast for a television commercial. The experience has taught him plenty about potential safety pitfalls in filmmaking. But the course was the first time he had ever focused on the state’s rules and regulations for movie-making safety.

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“There’s so much you have to look out for,” he said. “It’s not just special effects.”

Los Angeles County Fire Department inspector Bob Goldman, who oversees the filming and special effects permits, said he has seen production companies--especially independent film makers--converting the likes of old aircraft hangars and vacant industrial buildings into temporary sound stages. But there are dangers fire officers need to be aware of, such as hanging heavy objects off the roof or using hot lights.

“Most of the fire safety officers are at a disadvantage going to a movie set because they don’t know what to expect,” Goldman said. “To be effective, you’ve got to have some technical knowledge about what you’re dealing with and who you’re dealing with. Otherwise, you’re just depending on what somebody’s telling you.”

Both Ordaz’s company, “The Stunt Shop,” and special effects coordinator Larry Fioritto’s “Special Effects Services” put on Friday’s demonstrations for free.

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“The more knowledge that the fire safety officer who works with us on a movie set has, the easier it makes our job,” Fioritto said.

Times correspondent Dawn Hobbs contributed to this story.


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