It was a surreal image: 40 or so firefighters chewing sunflower seeds and making small talk while huge orange flames ate through a one-story house on a suburban side street.
"It's burning pretty good, huh, Captain?" said one smiling firefighter, as a fat pillar of black smoke streaked the afternoon sky behind him.
The blaze was part of a training session for some of the Los Angeles Fire Department's best officers, the end of a three-day certification course that will allow participants to run fire-training sessions themselves.
It was the firefighters who had torched the structure in the 7300 block of Jordan Avenue in Canoga Park for a hands-on exercise on how to set up house fires for training purposes.
Three other houses would burn on the block before the day was over; one was burned Tuesday.
Such sessions generally take place in cargo containers at the department's training facilities.
But these five houses, which had been abandoned for some time, were made available by Canoga Park Lutheran Church and School, which recently bought the property and plans to convert it into an athletic field. The church wanted to cut down demolition costs, so it called the department, which happily took advantage of the opportunity.
"We don't do homes very often, so we're very fortunate to get this," said Capt. Carlos Garcia. "With an actual house, you get the dynamics of the building, the different materials--it's much more realistic."
This was the first time in eight years that the department had used actual houses for training, Garcia said.
The last session of this kind had resulted in trainee injuries. This time around, he said, they were being more careful.
Most of the first two days of the course were devoted to classroom instruction and smoke training inside the houses. It was the grand finale on Wednesday that drew the neighborhood crowds, however, as the gutted houses were torched from the inside out, with trainees watching to ensure that the structures caved in as planned.
"This is saving the church a little money, and these were a real eyesore for the neighborhood," said Greg Roper, who works at the Canoga Park Senior Citizens' Center across the street.
"Whew," said another, as the sidewalk grew increasingly uncomfortable. "It's really hot."
Capt. Dale Bayless was standing near one of the burning houses, sweating profusely and capturing the event on video.
"It's just like building a giant campfire," he said. "We should do this more often."