Outside Fires

Article and photos by David DeStefano

When vocal alarms open or dispatch tones sound in firehouses across the country and the run is reported as an outside fire, the typical response may be a single engine or an engine and a truck. Without any specific information, firefighters may mentally size up a dumpster, trash fire, or other small nuisance fire. Often, this will lead to a laid-back attitude with firefighters assuming they will find a fire of little consequence. Sometimes this complacency can put us behind the proverbial eight ball leaving us poorly prepared to begin a firefight. It is important to remember that applying size-up skills on these seemingly routine incidents may be the key to ensuring a safe outcome for our members. 

(1) This debris pile in the unsecured lot of a shopping mall under renovation contains all types of material pushed out a breached second-floor wall. The material is eventually sorted by a recycler and carted away. However, while on site it creates the potential for a large outside fire that directly exposes the interior of the structure. 

Firefighters should use their familiarity with the district as an advantage. On receiving the street address, members should have an idea of the outside hazards that typically exist in the area. Is it known for dumping and burning stolen cars? Is a dump or scrap yard nearby that may create a large potential hazard? Is new construction, demolition, or renovation underway? Because addresses for these fires are sometimes vague, “investigate the area” reports, a thorough knowledge of potential hazards is beneficial. 

(2) Firefighters responding to outside fires at construction yards or other industrial sites may encounter delays while access issues are addressed. These may also be advanced fires on arrival due to delayed notification during non-business hours. Often they are found by fire companies investigating reports of “smoke in the area.”  

(3) Outside fires in abandoned construction yards create a myriad of hazards. Limited access, all types of combustible material, heavy equipment, and illegal storage of chemicals may pose a danger to firefighters.

When sizing up the need to request additional resources, consider the size and location of the fire in proximity to exposures, as well as water supply and access for apparatus. Single-engine companies dispatched to outside fires in need of extensive overhaul should special-call truck support. Company officers must not hesitate to call the extra help or request a chief officer to supervise multicompany operations. Like any other incident, maintaining effective span of control is important to ensure a safe operation. 

While operating at outside fires, some members may begin to remove articles of personal protective equipment (PPE) with the mistaken idea that these fires are less dangerous because the material burning is outdoors. In warm weather, additional personnel should be employed to relieve members frequently to lessen the temptation for a tired firefighter to remove a self-contained breathing apparatus or a portion of turnout gear. Company officers must vigilantly supervise their firefighters and set a positive example with their use of PPE.

The fuel for outside fires can be as varied and as dangerous as anything firefighters may encounter in a structure. Stored material at industrial plants, construction or demolition sites, and retail merchants may include flammable and compressed gases, bulk lumber or debris as well as hazardous materials that may be dumped illegally on abandoned or unsecured property. When operating at fires in vacant lots, dumpsters, or areas known to be dumping grounds, firefighters approaching outside fires must size up the color of flame, the condition of smoke, and fire behavior for any unusual characteristics. 

The best rules of thumb when responding to and operating at any outside fire are to ensure accurate size-up, request appropriate resources, and be on guard. Complacency kills firefighters.

David DeStefano is a 22-year veteran of the North Providence (RI) Fire Department, where he serves as a lieutenant in Ladder Co. 1. He previously served as a lieutenant in Engine 3 and was a firefighter in Ladder 1. He teaches a variety of topics for the Rhode Island Fire Academy. He can be reached at dmd2334@cox.net.   

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