Fighting Fires in Balloon-Frame Construction


All firefighters, not only officers, must be well-versed in building construction. The driver, officer, and every firefighter, including the rookie, must know what type of building they are walking into and whether it has been through formal preplans and drills. The incident commander should do a 360° walk-around and size-up and notify the crew of his findings before they enter. The construction of the building and fire conditions on arrival will determine the strategy and tactics that will be used during firefighting operations and aid the incident commander (IC) in understanding the fire spread and collapse potential of the building. The type of construction is an important component in determining how long a team of firefighters will be able to work safely in the building. This article focuses on balloon-frame construction.


The term “balloon frame” was derived because people said it was as light as a balloon. Others said the interconnected voids resembled one large balloon. Because these voids run continuously from the basement or cellar to the attic without any firestopping in the vertical void spaces (in contrast to platform framing, which has inherent firestopping), fire will extend rapidly through the wall spaces. Fire will also travel quickly following the utilities such as electric wiring and plumbing.

It is rumored that balloon-frame construction was invented in 1833 by George W. Snow, a carpenter from Chicago. During this era, carpenters simplified their line of work through rapid construction, known today as “balloon-frame construction.” The frame of this type of construction consisted of 2- × 4-inch or 2- × 6-inch boards that ran continuously from the foundation to the eave line (photo 1). A horizontal board was nailed to the studs at the foundation. The vertical studs rested on this board and were attached to the floor joists. Windows, doors, and trim were merely fit into these channels, bays, or cavities created by spacing of the studs. The roof rafters are usually 2 inches × 6 inches (photo 2) and the floor joists are at least 2 inches × 8 inches, or 2 inches × 10 inches (photo 3). Normally, the floors consist of 1- × 6-inch decking. The roof decking is 1- × 4-inch-wide tongue-and-groove boards; it’s also not uncommon to find materials of other sizes.

Fighting Fires in Balloon-Frame Construction
(1)Photos by author.
Fighting Fires in Balloon-Frame Construction
Fighting Fires in Balloon-Frame Construction

Windows and doors were fit into the channels of the studs. This is one of the easiest ways to identify a house or structure of balloon-frame construction. If the windows on the first and second floor appear to be “stacked” directly above each other, this is a very good indicator that the building may be balloon frame (photos 4, 5). At one time, it was common to assume that any building more than one story in height and built before 1940 was most likely balloon-frame construction. Post-World War II, the majority of wood-frame buildings were constructed of platform-frame construction, and since the mid-1970s, of lightweight wood-frame construction.

Fighting Fires in Balloon-Frame Construction
Fighting Fires in Balloon-Frame Construction

Understanding regional construction methods and the age of the neighborhood or part of your community will assist you in determining which buildings are of balloon-frame construction. If buildings constructed of balloon frame are being razed for newer houses or developments, your department has an excellent opportunity to remove the interior finishes from the building to study the construction features and to train on truck company and engine company operations in balloon-frame buildings.


A fire inside of a balloon-frame building has the potential to spread horizontally and vertically. The fire may extend vertically through the balloon-frame wall studs and horizontally in the floor joist bay (photo 6). The spaces between ceilings and floors created by the 2- × 8-inch or 2- × 10-inch floor joists (photo 7) are also interconnected to the balloon-frame wall studs, which will allow a fire to quickly spread and possibly cause floors to fail.

Fighting Fires in Balloon-Frame Construction
Fighting Fires in Balloon-Frame Construction

Removing the interior finish of plaster and lath or drywall will be easier than removing the exterior siding. Working from the exterior of the building is more time-consuming and difficult and should be employed only in certain conditions, such as when the stud bays are blocked by a chimney in the building. Firefighters must work diligently to open the walls and ceilings to expose the fire running in these affected areas. A fire in a balloon-frame building will be extinguished only if the fire is confined by cutting off the fire in all of the avenues of extension. A small fire in a cellar wall will quickly spread vertically to the attic. Pay close attention to vent pipes and electrical and plumbing chases that will allow the fire to extend rapidly. On each floor, with the aid of a thermal imaging camera (TIC) if you have one, open up the walls and ceilings, and make inspection openings directly above the fire to check for fire extension. By using a hook, you can quickly punch a small hole in the drywall or plaster and lath to determine if the fire has extended beyond your location. If you find insulation in the walls, remove it. This will help you determine if the fire has extended above or behind it.

Depending on your department and its equipment, piercing nozzles or the older-style bent tip nozzle (or bent swivel tip) may be your best option to quickly attack a stubborn fire in a balloon-frame building or to at least contain it until additional personnel arrive to aggressively open void spaces. A piercing nozzle won’t get the same penetration or distance up the void space as a bent tip nozzle, which will enable you to quickly give it a dash up and down the bays. This is not as easy to do with today’s equipment.


When arriving on the scene of a fire in a balloon-frame structure, immediately send a firefighter to the cellar or basement to check the conditions below for any fire or embers that may have dropped down in the bays and into the space below and started a fire. In addition, when arriving on the scene of a call for “smoke in the building” of a balloon-frame structure, send a crew to the cellar or basement to determine if the fire had originated in the space below.

While attacking a fire in a balloon-frame structure, will you have access to all sides of the structure with portable ladders or apparatus to remove the siding? How difficult will it be to operate off a portable ladder or an aerial ladder? Does your jurisdiction have a tower ladder so you can work out of the bucket? If so, you may want to special request it early in the incident. Older structures, such as these, may have oil tanks or septic tanks in the ground around the building. Because of this, it may be much easier to work from the fire floor and punch off the siding. Using a reciprocal saw will also help in cutting the siding into sections. By cutting the siding into sections and punching it out with hooks, you will reduce the physical stress on your firefighters. Another quick note to think about: Many of these buildings have the older asphalt siding that burns rapidly and might be buried under the newer vinyl siding if it was never removed.

Interior Operations

Opening up the walls through interior operations will obscure your visibility with smoke and steam. Work with the engine company and perform hydraulic ventilation with a hoseline; have the engine company direct its line up the bays to extinguish any fire extension or perform a washdown. It is easy to miss one of the many channels or voids, as the fire will spread rapidly. Do not be misguided, though. It is still imperative to have crews on both the inside and outside.

It is also common to find that the attic space has been converted into a bedroom and is not used for storage only. Check every doorway during your investigation; you may find that a “closet door” is actually a door leading to the attic. Many times, these doors may be in unusual locations. The stairway will most likely be small and narrow, increasing the difficulty in gaining access to the attic. If the attic has been renovated into a bedroom, you will find “knee walls.” On arrival, have a crew with a charged line and TIC open up these areas by punching small inspection holes. You may find that fire has traveled behind them.

The walls in these houses, unless they were renovated, will most likely have the traditional plaster and lath or have drywall over the plaster and lath (photo 8). Many of the ceilings were constructed with wood or wainscot coating (paneling style constructed from tongue-and-groove boards) nailed to the rafters, which is very difficult to remove or open for inspection holes.

Several of these homes have most likely undergone renovations or additions. Houses in this era weren’t insulated and didn’t have air-conditioning, but some used the wall bays as hot-air ducts from older forced-air systems. Through the years, many homeowners installed central air-conditioning. To eliminate work and save money, the homeowners left cathedral or “high” ceilings intact and built a secondary lower ceiling to hide the air-conditioning ductwork. If you begin pulling the ceiling and find it is gypsum board, do not be surprised if you find the original ceiling several feet above what you just pulled concealing the attic. Use caution if this is the case. These ceilings will fall in the same way a suspended ceiling would and possibly trap members below. Some of these structures will have suspended ceilings with just acoustical tiles.

Be sure to coordinate ventilation with the firefighters and to verify that the fire has been extinguished and will not spread into any confined or concealed spaces. Uncoordinated ventilation will create a disaster. Ensure a line is in place before indiscriminate ventilation occurs. Roof ventilation operations must also be coordinated; they can pull a fire quickly up the wall bays. Positive-pressure ventilation should not be an option at fires in the walls of a balloon-frame structure—at least not until the fire has been completely extinguished.

One other important point: Don’t forget about the chimney. Not only are the chimney and mortar more than 100 years old, but now they have been subjected to fire. You must be cautious when opening up the outside walls around brick. Many times in the older buildings, the mortar is disintegrating and the potential for a collapse increases. Ensure that a chief officer or safety officer keeps a careful eye on the surroundings.


At a recent fire in a 2½-story residential structure of balloon-frame construction, companies arrived to discover smoke showing from sides C and D. The occupants of the house advised the firefighters that a plumber’s torch had ignited the insulation in a wall between the first and second floors in the laundry room. The first-due engine company stretched a hoseline to the laundry room, since this was where the fire was reported to have originated. The second-due engine company stretched a hoseline to the second floor in the area immediately above the laundry room and discovered fire running vertically in the walls. The placement of the second line quickly provided a containment hoseline, prevented further vertical fire extension, and effectively extinguished the fire.

You may not be fortunate enough to train in an acquired balloon-frame building. You may not have many members in your first-due, but with the proper education and formal hands-on training, you will be ready for battle.

JONATHAN RIFFE is a sergeant for the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department and the chief of the Huntingtown (MD) Volunteer Fire Department. In addition, he is the chair of the Chief’s Council. He has an A.A.S degree in fire science from the College of Southern Maryland and a B.S degree in fire science from the University of Maryland-University College. He instructs in firefighter training through the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute and has assisted in teaching Mayday training throughout the country. Most recently, he assisted in the redevelopment of the USFA Leadership I, II, and III classes. He has several certifications, including firefighter II, fire officer IV, nationally registered EMT-B, hazmat tech, and instructor III. He has contributed to Fire Engineering and is the co-owner of Southern MD CPR & First Aid Training.


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