Features, Firefighter Training

Training Bulletin: Garage and Attic Fires

Some firefighter training insights and thought experiments on residential structure fire response.

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Another view of a burnt vehicle that ran into a California fire apparatus
Photo courtesy the Moraga-Orinda (CA) Fire District.

Burning Vehicle vs. Apparatus

Recently in California, a burning car rolled out of a garage, down a sloping driveway, and collided with an engine. One consideration is that to perform any definitive overhaul, vehicles will have to be pulled out of the garage. Any apparatus blocking the end of the driveway will have to be repositioned to allow a wrecker or winch-equipped apparatus access to the garage.

Don’t Block the Driveway

Engine 4 is first to arrive on a working fire in a garage attached to a large two-story home in an affluent suburban neighborhood. The officer directs the driver/engineer to position the apparatus at the end of the driveway so that a crosslay preonnected hoseline can be stretched at a direct right angle from the apparatus and arranged in an “S” configuration on the driveway.

Suddenly the fuel tank of a vehicle parked in the garage fails and a wave of burning gasoline runs down the sloping driveway.  The crew is helpless; the driver/engineer has to abandon the pump panel as the apparatus is engulfed in fire. This fictitious scenario illustrates the point that it is not a good idea to position apparatus at the end of a driveway.

Garage Fire Hazards

All of the hazards of a modern vehicle fire are magnified when the vehicle is parked in a garage. Firefighters are trained not to approach a burning vehicle directly from the front or rear to avoid being in the trajectory of exploding gas-filled struts on hoods trunks and hatchbacks. Spotting an apparatus at the end of a driveway puts the apparatus and possibly the pump operator within range of projectiles.

Attic Fire Tactics

One of the most challenging fires for a suburban fire department is in the attic of a “McMansion,” an extremely large two-story house.  These fires are often caused by lightning and can burn a large portion of roof off of a palatial home before firefighters gain an upper hand. Extremely high vaulted ceilings and multiple converging rooflines of hips, valleys, and dormers can make it very difficult to get water on the fire.

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Once fire breaks through the roof, which is intended to shed water, directing an elevated master stream into a hole burned in a roof has little effect on fire that is not directly below it. A much more effective tactic is to direct a powerful elevated master stream into second-floor windows, hydraulically blast through a plaster board ceiling, and deflect it off the underside of the roof sheathing. Some suburban fire departments purchase short wheelbase aerial apparatus that can be maneuvered in narrow, winding driveways, specifically for attic fires in high-end homes. Accordingly,  when the first-arriving company is an engine, it must be positioned with consideration for subsequent-arriving aerial apparatus and not block the driveway with an their apparatus or large diameter supply hose.

BILL GUSTIN is a 45-year veteran of the fire service and a captain with the Miami-Dade (FL) Fire/Rescue Department. He began his fire service career in the Chicago area and is a lead instructor in his department’s Officer Development Program. He teaches tactics and company officer training programs throughout North America. He is an advisory board member of FDIC International and a technical editor of Fire Engineering.

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