By Mark Waters
Each day across the United States, fire departments respond to calls for service that I will term “everyday calls.” Everyday calls are plentiful and can be broken down into many types of incidents, including emergency medical services (EMS), water emergencies, utility emergencies, brush fires, car fires, automobile accidents, natural gas or propane leaks, electrical fires, and heating or appliance fires, to name a few. Handling these types of incidents safely often requires a strong background and experience in each particular type of incident.
One type of “everyday call” firefighters respond to are often dispatched as a furnace fire, smoke in the basement, or a furnace backfire. These type of calls start to increase in the northeast United States as the weather changes from cool to cold. One reason for this is that often a furnace has not run for a few months. Another reason can be that the furnace has not been maintained properly.
Firefighters should be aware of and ready for unusual situations when responding to oil furnace emergencies. One such situation is also a relatively rare type of incident generally referred to as the “White Ghost.” I first learned of this phenomenon by reading Fire Department of New York Battalion Chief Frank Montagna’s article on the subject (“The White Ghost,” Training Notebook, Fire Engineering, May 1995)..
All firefighters should be aware of its signs and symptoms so they can protect themselves and the public. The white ghost occurs when ignition fails to ignite the oil, which is then ignited by the high heat of the combustion chamber. This is extremely dangerous because the vapor is explosive and will fill the basement, room, floor, and so on with this vapor. It will seek an ignition source; if one is found, it may cause an explosion. It can also be very noisy and sound similar to an overheated boiler (which can explode if water is added to its combustion chamber). To mitigate this condition, use a hoseline with a fog stream to disperse vapors, if necessary, to reduce the chance of ignition. Do not put water in the combustion chamber; this can do more harm than good and could unnecessarily spread the explosive vapor.
A White Ghost Incident
Luckily, I had read about this situation before I first experienced it. My company had arrived on scene to a dwelling with reported smoke in the basement. On arrival, we found white, grayish smoke coming from a vacant house chimney and the front door. On entry, we found the first floor and basement charged with this smoke. My initial tactics at this incident were to have firefighters don their masks, stretch a hoseline to the basement stairwell, secure the furnace power at the top of the basement stairs, enter the basement, locate the furnace, secure the fuel (oil), exit the structure, and ventilate using a positive pressure fan.
After about 20 minutes of ventilating, we reentered the structure and metered; carbon monoxide levels were still high. We exited and continued to ventilate. As I conducted my continuing size-up, I noticed that a large amount of dense white, grayish smoke was still coming from the chimney. We ventilated another 20 minutes and reentered the basement area, which was now clear. I observed that the furnace was still chugging, and we could hear a roaring noise around the flue. I had my crew stand back approximately 15 feet and called for a dry chemical extinguisher to the basement. One minute later, I heard a roar and watched a 10-foot fireball come out of the draft door on the vent pipe (photo 1). Firefighters outside later told me that they saw flames blowing out of the top of the chimney, making it look like a chimney fire. I had my crew extinguish the fire with a dry chemical extinguisher. I had them take the top of the furnace apart to complete extinguishing the fire.
Thankfully, I remembered the information I had read on the white ghost, and we took the proper precautions and used effective strategy and tactics. The interesting point for me about this incident was that the event occurred 45 minutes after the furnace had been shut down. Other incidents of the white ghost have been described as a sudden change in color of smoke from black to white. In this incident, we observed white, grayish smoke that ignited rapidly. We speculate that an after-fire (the burning of the pooled fire in the combustion chamber occurs after the burner has been shut down) had occurred and turned into the white ghost.
Firefighters should be vigilant in considering that this condition may be present and be cautious about introducing oxygen into this oxygen-starved atmosphere. In this incident, we used positive- pressure ventilation. The photo shows that ventilation had concluded and the basement was clear. We learned from this incident that anytime the potential for a white ghost exists, it should be treated as a gas leak. Using fire department tactics for gas leaks are effective in these situations because of the similarities and explosive possibilities that exist. Protecting firefighters with a hoseline is also essential not only for extinguishing the fire but also for dissipating the vapor cloud to lower the chance of ignition.
Firefighters should often talk about strategy and tactics for everyday type calls. Many times we take these types of incidents for granted because we consider them routine. They can be far from routine if basic safety rules, accurate size-up, effective strategy and tactics, and proper equipment are not used to mitigate these types of emergencies. Training and experience are paramount in ensuring a positive outcome.
Mark Waters has been in the fire service for more than 20 years and serves as a career lieutenant with the New London (CT) Fire Department. He is also an adjunct fire instructor for the Connecticut Fire Academy. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Officer Program and holds a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership.