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As part of Fire Prevention Week, the Santa Maria Fire Department hosted an open house Saturday, where the community gathered to tour the facility, watch a car extrication demonstration and meet the personnel who put their lives on the front line to save others.

"We're opening up our facility today to show the public what our Fire Department does, and it gives us a chance to engage with our community and prepare them for disasters," said Santa Maria Fire Department Chief Leonard Champion. 

Thanks to the large, positive reception from the community in 2017, "we decided to bring it back this year, and hope to keep making it bigger and better every year," Champion said. 

It was fitting to host an open house, especially during Fire Prevention Week, as "we live in California, where it seems like we're experiencing wildfires all year round," added Champion. "What something like the open house does is bring awareness about fire safety, make sure people are responsible through public education, which is crucial."

The community also got to see firsthand the brand-new $1.5 million ladder truck the Santa Maria Fire Department was able to acquire this summer through a government funding grant. The ladder stretches up to 107 feet tall, "so it reaches any building here in the city of Santa Maria," Champion added. 

Heather Walker brought her 6-year-old son Connor McHugh for the second year in a row to the Fire Department's open house, as her son enjoyed it so much last year. 

"We actually go to fire department open houses all over the region -- from Santa Ynez, Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo, so it's a normal activity we do, and Connor loves it," Walker said. 

Walker said Connor first saw the new Santa Maria Fire Department ladder truck over the summer in the Santa Maria Times, and hoped to see it firsthand on Saturday. 

"Connor's grandfather was reading the paper, so Connor had him read the article of how the [SMFD] got a new ladder truck," Walker said. 

Connor's love for firetrucks and firefighters comes from his father, Brian McHugh, who was a veteran firefighter of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department's Orcutt station before he retired a few years ago. 

"I love coming out here, not just to bring my son but, also, to support emergency responders," said Walker. "They're really the heart of the community and keep us safe everyday." 

At 10:30 a.m. the large crowd gathered at the front of the Santa Maria Fire Station 1 parking lot to watch a two-car pile up vehicle extrication demonstration, performed by two rookie firefighters who just completed their training. 

The crews first smashed the windshield glass, then both side doors of the first vehicle that was resting on top of a second vehicle. After removing the glass, fire crews peeled off the top of the car like a can of peas.

Both the cars were donated by local towing companies for the demonstration Saturday.

It's a common practice the Fire Department uses as Fire Station 1 doesn't have a training facility for rookies to practice, especially when having to use the Jaws of Life or extensive extrication, said Battalion Chief Mike Barneich. 

The entire demonstration, from smashing and pinching out all the doors from both sedans, lasted over 40 minutes. 

"This job takes a part of you physically, emotionally and mentally, because there are things that you see at times that you can never 'unsee,' especially during serious crashes, so hopefully the public learned exactly what happens at these scenes everyday," Barneich said. 

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Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210

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Courts/Public Safety Reporter