By Vincent Dunn
"Rekindle" is a dirty word in the fire service, used by firefighters to describe an extinguished fire that reignites after they leave a scene. After the completion of salvage and overhaul and the fire has been officially declared extinguished, firefighters return to the firehouse, only to be called back later to the burning building to fight the reignited fire. Sometimes, the second fire is much larger than the first. Worse yet, sometimes the second fire kills people who assumed the original fire was extinguished.
A rekindled fire indicates a poor firefighting operation. Fire chiefs and officers have faced legal action, and in some instances been forced to resign, when a fire at which they were in command and which had been officially declared "extinguished," nonetheless reignited after firefighters left the scene. Rekindle is a nightmare for chiefs, officers, and firefighters.
Firefighters perform overhaul to prevent an extinguished fire from rekindling after they leave the scene. Frequently, they are unfairly criticized for damaging a person's house or business during overhaul, because they must ensure the fire is not smoldering in concealed spaces or furnishings. Using pike poles, pry bars, and axes, firefighter must break open plaster walls, pull apart mattresses, and throw out smoldering stuffed chairs. They cut up expensive floors and roofs after a fire has been extinguished to ensure the fire does not reignite.
Every member is responsible during the salvage and overhauling operations to prevent a rekindle; it is an important team responsibility in firefighting. I learned this years ago after extensive salvage and overhaul operations in a restaurant. It involved a fire in a kitchen grease duct that had a chimney that ran up the walls of a high-rise office building. After a survey of the scene, a battalion chief and I agreed the fire in the duct was extinguished. Over the portable radio, we ordered the last engine and ladder company inside the building to "take up." A veteran firefighter came to the command post and heatedly insisted to us the fire was still smoldering in the grease duct. He said he could still detect heat coming out of the grease duct chimney flue up on the roof. He was right. We did more overhauling and prevented a rekindle. That firefighter saved several reputations that night, including mine.
After a serious fire, chiefs, company officers, and firefighters are exposed to many physical discomforts. They may be soaking wet, freezing cold, have headaches, and be exhausted from the exertion of firefighting. There may be emotional discomforts as well. They may be frustrated or angered by events surrounding the fire, the strategy, the tactics, or because one or more of their comrades have been injured. Discomforts and emotions in the aftermath of firefighting can interfere with decision making during salvage and overhauling. Time becomes more important than looking for smoldering embers. Everyone subconsciously wants to return to the firehouse for dry clothes, a meal, and some rest. "Get it done and let's get back to quarters" can often be heard during overhauling.
What Materials Smolder & Rekindle
Veteran fire officers know what types of materials are difficult to fully extinguish and are susceptible to rekindling. They have passed down to us the techniques for conducting an effective overhaul operation in smoldering material and to prevent a fire from reigniting after we leave the scene.
Deputy Chief Dunn (Ret., Fire Department of New York) is the author of a number of textbooks, including the new Strategy of Firefighting (Fire Engineering, 2007), Collapse of Burning Buildings (Fire Engineering, 1988), Safety and Survival on the Fireground (Fire Engineering, 1992), and Command and Control of Fires and Emergencies (Fire Engineering, 1999).