Fire Prevention & Protection, Leadership, Structural Firefighting

Fire Guts Warehouse: ‘Not Enough Water’

Structural Firefighting: A Falls Township K-mart warehouse in in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, 1982.

A Falls Township K-mart warehouse in in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with a total structure and contents value of $113 million was severely damaged in a 1982 fire. The previous month, K mart had submitted an application to the township to construct a 900,000-square-foot addition. At that hearing, William J. Mulholland, the township’s fire chief, declared that a serious fire at the existing structure would destroy it because the facility’s water supply was inadequate address such an incident.  

Fire crews at the scene of the 1982 K-Mart warehouse fire.

According to the article, the fire seemed to have started when some aerosol cans containing flammable liquid fell from a height, and the liquid was possibly ignited from a spark from an electric fork lift. The fire fed on butane lighter fluid, paint, and propane tanks small arms ammunition stored in the area. But despite a quick fire department response, the fire spread quickly and overwhelmed the inadequate fire protection. Since there were no sprinkler connections, responders could not supplement the sprinkler system. About 1½ hours into the fire, the incident commander ordered firefighters to make an orderly retreat. Read the complete story in the August 1982 issue of Fire Engineering HERE.

Fire Engineering’s Technical Editor Glenn Corbett, offered the following comments on the incident.

The 1982 K-Mart warehouse fire put the issue of rocketing aerosol cans squarely in the fire code spotlight. Exposed to fire, the cans ruptured along the seams at their bases, and with propane and butane as propellants, went flying through the air with a blazing tail like a comet. The cans sailed right through the unclosed fire doors, spreading fire quickly throughout the building.  

Subsequent research indicated the need to upgrade fire protection of bulk aerosol can storage, including in-rack sprinklers and separate fire-rated rooms with maze-like entrances to prevent the cans from leaving these specially designed rooms. The cans themselves were classified by the product the contained, from Class 1, the least problematic (includes water-based cleaning products), to Class 3 (includes paints and other flammable materials) as the most dangerous. The challenge of bulk aerosol can storage was so great that it even warranted its own chapter in our model fire codes and in National Fire Protection Association 30B, Code for the Manufacture and Storage of Aerosol Products  (NFPA 30B).

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