Construction Concerns: Fire Containment

By Gregory Havel

For centuries, before the advent of modern fire science and fire suppression, structure fires often were out of control and burned villages, towns, and cities until they reached natural fire breaks like lakes; rivers; or man-made firebreaks like roads, public squares, gaps between buildings, or the edge of town.

When a fire spreads beyond the building of its origin and spreads throughout the neighborhood, it is called a “conflagration.” Today, a conflagration is a large fire that is beyond the capability of the fire service to contain.

Some of the larger conflagrations that have received attention from historians and news media include the following:

  • Rome: 64 CE.
  • London: 1212 (Southwark), and 1666 (Pudding Lane).
  • Boston, MA: 1653, 1679, 1711, 1760, 1824, 1825, 1835, 1872, and 1964.
  • New York, NY: 1835 and 1845.
  • Charlestown, SC: 1838.
  • Pittsburgh, PA: 1845.
  • Albany, NY: 1848.
  • St. Louis, MO: 1849.
  • Philadelphia, PA: 1850.
  • San Francisco, CA: 1851.
  • Plymouth, NH: 1862, 1895, 1909, 1910, 1914, 1917, 1930, 1932, and 1948.
  • Chicago, IL: 1871.
  • Bisbee, AZ: 1885, 1907, and 1908.
  • Racine, WI: 1882.
  • Vancouver, BC: 1886.
  • Milwaukee, WI: 1892.
  • Baltimore, MD: 1904.
  • Chelsea, MA (Boston): 1908 and 1973
  • Dresden, Germany: 1945.
  • Texas City, TX: 1947.

Most of these conflagrations occurred in the 17th through early 20th centuries, as the world’s population became more urban, the urban areas became more crowded, and as space between buildings was reduced because of increasing real estate values. The majority of the fires occurred in the United States because of a high demand for buildings, which were usually made of combustible construction since wood was found locally and was plentiful.

As news of these serious fires spread, people began to be concerned about them and their frequency. Fire department chiefs, elected officials, and insurance executives worked together and independently of each other to address this issue.

The earliest concept of fire containment was to divide towns and cities into neighborhoods using natural and man-made firebreaks; if a structure fire got out of hand, it could be confined and stopped conveniently.

An example of this occurred during the Great London Fire of 1666. The fire that had started in Pudding Lane was out of control and spreading rapidly through the combustible buildings of old London despite the efforts of London’s Lord Mayor and other civic officials in pulling down houses in the path of the fire. Samuel Pepys, the Chief Clerk of the Admiralty (British Navy headquarters), and his neighbor Admiral Sir William Penn (father of William Penn, the founder of the American colony and state of Pennsylvania) made plans to blast firebreaks in the city of London to stop the fire. Admiral Penn’s sailors used barrels and bags of black powder from Navy stores to demolish blocks of buildings in the path of the fire. When the fire reached the piles of rubble left from the demolition, it died down and was able to be controlled and extinguished. For an extended narrative of this fire and containment operation, read The Diary of Samuel Pepys, completed in 1669 and first published in the 19th century (It is currently available in print and online for e-readers).

The next step in fire containment was to limit the spread of fire within a neighborhood or block of buildings by use of noncombustible masonry walls and roofing materials that were less easily ignited and less likely to produce flying embers during a fire. An example of this type of construction is the “mill”; its specification was proposed in the United States by the National Board of Fire Underwriters in 1880 and which included exterior walls of thick masonry and roofs and floors of planks rather than boards.

Photo 1 shows a mill constructed in Racine, Wisconsin, in the early 1880s. The exterior walls are of several wythes of noncombustible brick masonry, and the roof is comprised of wood planks supported by heavy wood beams. Note that the parapet at the top of a fire division wall on the top of the wing in the background (between the fifth and sixth vertical rows of windows to the right of the red brick chimney). The fire division wall extends from the building’s foundations to several feet above the roof; it is designed to prevent the spread of fire horizontally throughout a floor of the building. Any openings the fire division wall are protected by self-closing fire doors.

(1) Photos by author.


Photo 2 shows an interior room in the mill that is used as an employee lunchroom. Note the heavy wood columns and beams and the exposed tongue-and-groove planks that form the ceiling and subfloor for the level of the building above (because the mill specification allowed no concealed spaces). Also note the automatic fire sprinkler piping; these features limit the spread of fire between floors.



The parapeted fire division wall extending from the foundations to several feet above the roof, when combined with the fire doors at all openings in the fire division wall and in stairway and shaft enclosures, greatly limited the possibility of fire extending to a large area of a floor of the building, or between its floors. And the automatic fire sprinkler system reacts in the presence of fire to contain it to the room of origin until the fire department arrives to extinguish and overhaul it.

Photo 3 shows one of the original rolling fire doors on its inclined track and held open by a counterweight and fusible links. It has been supplemented by a more modern fire door frame and fire door that closes automatically whenever anyone passes through it.



The photos used in this article are of building features from the late 19th century. Although more modern examples of fire containment features in buildings are common, keep in mind that there are still thousands of these mill buildings in use in North America because they are built soundly and still solid if they have been well maintained. There have been few serious fires in them if their automatic fire sprinkler systems were functioning at the time a fire ignited.

Fire containment is still a basic concept in fire protection as well as in fire suppression. These fire containment features provide us with structural features that will limit the spread of fire and combustion products as well as allow firefighters to determine the proper places to set up handlines to prevent the spread of fire into uninvolved parts of the building.

Since most modern buildings do not exhibit their fire containment features as plainly as 19th century mills, you must use preincident planning to discover the location of these features and what resources you will need to defend them in case of a fire. Photo 4 shows the types of markings that are commonly used in modern health care facilities above the suspended ceiling to indicate that the wall is a rated fire division or smoke wall.



Most facilities managers will make copies of the plans showing these details and make them available to our fire prevention bureau or fire inspectors; allow you to photograph these construction details; and work with you to ensure that the occupants of the building, including firefighters, will be able to escape or extinguish a fire of any size.


Download this article as a PDF HERE (455 KB)


Gregory HavelGregory Havel is a member of the Town of Burlington (WI) Fire Department; retired deputy chief and training officer; and a 35-year veteran of the fire service. He is a Wisconsin-certified fire instructor II, fire officer II, and fire inspector; an adjunct instructor in fire service programs at Gateway Technical College; and safety director for Scherrer Construction Co., Inc. Havel has a bachelor’s degree from St. Norbert College; has more than 35 years of experience in facilities management and building construction; and has presented classes at FDIC.


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