Many cities throughout the country are known for their architecture and the buildings that are predominant in their neighborhoods. New England, for example, is known for its mills; Philadelphia, for its row houses; and San Francisco, for its “Queen Anne” Victorians. From a firefighter`s point of view, each architectural style presents a unique set of firefighting challenges. However, studying how fires spread in these common structures allows the incident commander to plan strategies and operating procedures that can turn a challenge into a routine operation. One common fire type that can be planned for is the multiple-dwelling wooden rear porch fire.

In many cities and towns throughout the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic region, and Midwest, older multiple dwellings were built with wooden front and rear porches instead of metal fire escapes. Beginning in the 1860s, thousands of three-story wood-frame multiple dwellings have been built. Many are still standing. When built with only a one-family apartment, or flat, per floor, their dimensions were approximately 20 to 25 feet wide up to 70 feet deep and spanned half of a standard 50-foot wide by 100-foot city lot. They were known as three-family or single-wide multiple dwellings. Six-family (double-wide) buildings used a full city lot and measured approximately 40 to 50 feet wide by 70 feet. They consisted of two cold-water flats on each floor. By the 1880s, as the 30-foot-long 224s used to frame the exterior walls became less abundant, taller buildings were built of brick and wood joists with the thought that they would be somewhat more fire resistant. How-ever, because they were constructed before the advent of strict fire codes, many of the serious fire hazards remained.

Heating was provided by a coal furnace in the basement or kerosene stoves in each apartment. The five-gallon kerosene can was characteristically stored in the corner of the rear porch, where there was easy access to the kerosene stove in the kitchen. Over the years, as kerosene was spilled, the wood porch floor became impregnated with oil, which allowed rapid fire spread up the corner of the porches.

Though they may vary in style in different cities and towns, these structures are all characterized by open, unenclosed interior stairs, balloon construction, “railroad”-flat apartments, large open cocklofts, pipe chases, and air shafts. After the unenclosed stairway, perhaps their most predominant construction feature from a fire safety point of view is the combustible rear porch. Many chiefs consider it to be a mini, open-air lumberyard attached to the back of the structure.

Rising from the basement some three, four, or even five stories to the roof, these porches provide an excellent avenue for vertical fire spread as well as a tremendous boost to the building`s structural fire load. With an eight- to 12-foot span running across the back of the building, it also provides an alluring location for storing combustibles. Because kitchens were located in the rear of the apartments, dumbwaiter shafts were often built into the rear porches so that ice (delivered in 50- and 100-pound blocks) could be brought upstairs conveniently, for placement in the icebox. Lined with wooden wainscoting, the dumbwaiter shafts afforded a rapid avenue for vertical fire spread to each floor.

In contrast to wooden front porch balconies, which were constructed primarily as a place to escape the sweltering summer heat, rear porches served a more functional role and provided access to the rear yard. Therefore, each rear porch landing was connected by a flight of stairs. In larger buildings, the staircase encircled the dumbwaiter shaft. Wainscoting was the original interior finish for the shafts as well as the porch`s walls and ceilings.


There are two types of wooden rear porches–open (just railing) and enclosed (boxed in with walls and possibly having wondows). Both types create an avenue through which fire can communicate to the interior of the structure as well as provide a way for fire to spread rapidly from building to building. Of the two, the open rear porch has proved to be a somewhat greater exposure hazard to adjoining structures than the enclosed porch. However, the enclosed porches add greater fire loading, which imposes a somewhat increased exposure problem for the interior of the building of origin. These fires will extend into the kitchen at the rear of each flat via the window or doorway in the back wall. Because these buildings were built side-by-side for blocks, separated only by one- to five-foot-wide narrow alleys, a fire in the rear porch of one building often will extend to a neighboring building prior to or soon after your arrival. In the past, the porches have contributed to conflagrations, and chief officers encountering a significant volume of fire in a rear porch can anticipate rapid horizontal fire spread to adjoining structures.

So hazardous were these wooden rear porches that some states outlawed them. In 1952, for example, the Multiple Residence Law outlawed them in New York state. Under the law`s requirement for two means of egress, the law sought to have open rear porches torn down and replaced with metal fire escapes. Enclosed rear porches could be left in place as long as the wainscoting was removed and replaced with fire rated gypsum board. Under these circumstances, the rear porch could be regarded as a second means of egress. However, legislators failed to consider that 58-inch fire rated gypsum board, weighing 2.2 to 2.4 pounds per square foot, added a substantial dead load the porch was not designed to carry.

Many cities undertook fire inspection drives to have the porches removed. However, most building owners were “grandfathered” and could not be required to remove the porches until the buildings were sold. As a result, many buildings in the older parts of the cities still have open rear porches. Some rear porches were removed as a result of the law. Others were removed, along with the buildings to which they were attached, by fire. Nevertheless, these buildings are still prevalent and present many of the same difficulties they presented to firefighters a generation ago.


Today, rear porches often carry a substantial dead load. In addition to the load imposed by gypsum board, a myriad of combustible and noncombustible storage is kept on them. It is not uncommon to find bicycles, engine blocks, refrigerators, clothes dryers, motorcycles, clotheslines, bureaus, dumbbells, and a variety of other combustibles on them. As mentioned above, the corners of the floors are often impregnated with kerosene that had been stored there for the old kerosene stoves.

As crime rates increased, the rear porches became the preferred avenue for entry by burglars. Consequently, residents have added numerous locks to the back doors leading to the porch. Often the door is nailed shut or blocked by a large piece of furniture, thus rendering the porch an ineffective second egress as well as a poor corridor through which to enter, search, or stretch a handline.

Fires involving the rear porch usually start in one of three places: on the porch itself, in the basement, or in one of the kitchens in the rear of the structure. Fires that start in the porch are often caused by arson and can be very well developed on arrival. Basement and kitchen fires will enter the rear porch through horizontal openings and spread from there with increased intensity. Convection currents will carry the fire vertically to each floor above the level of origin. The top floor and cockloft are particularly vulnerable to rapid fire spread. At the same time, radiant heat will cause early horizontal fire spread to the wood siding on rear porches of the buildings on either side of the fire building (Exposures 2 and 4) as well as any buildings across the rear yard (Exposure 3). Because of their location in the rear of the structure, these fires can gain significant headway even during daylight hours before they are noticed and called in.


As with any fire, the commanding officer`s goals are to locate, confine, and extinguish–in that order. The location of a rear porch fire is not always readily apparent from the front of the building. If the wind is blowing from the rear to the front, the back porch could be free-burning from top to bottom while the front is awash in thick, obscuring smoke. A company responding via the street behind the structure can provide valuable reconnaissance. Once rear porch involvement is verified, the goal becomes centered around confining the fire to the building of origin and, if possible, to the porch itself. Extinguishment usually requires several handlines and often a carefully placed master stream. When sizing up a rear porch fire, the chief should bear in mind that the fire will be spreading in several directions at once. It will move into the building of origin very quickly on every floor. At the same time, it will move laterally into the rear porches on either side, across the rear yard by radiation, and on the leeward side by direct flame impingement.

Because heavy heat and smoke will be rapidly entering the structure on several floors from the rear, the life hazard becomes the first priority. The front windows and fire escapes must be scanned for tenants who might be trapped. A line must be stretched through the front door to protect the interior stairs so that occupants can exit and a truck company can initiate a primary search and evacuation. Exposure buildings must be evacuated early as well.

Once the life hazard has been attended to, the exposure hazard becomes the primary priority. The chief must assess the magnitude of the fire: Are the porches partially or fully involved? How close are the exposure buildings? Are they vacant or occupied? Are they already involved? How much water is available? What are the probable arrival times for the responding companies? In many cases, a line must be stretched to protect the exposure building immediately on arrival. If there is heavy involvement or the potential for it, greater alarms must be transmitted without delay. Two or three alarms may be needed just to control the fire in the building of origin. Greater alarm companies will be needed to relieve crews inside the structure as well as to protect exposures. As each exposure becomes involved, the heat evolves more quickly and the fire spreads faster. It is not uncommon for three buildings to become involved in a short time.

If any natural fire breaks, such as a parking lot or vacant lot, are present, they will provide a location for placing a master stream. Topography and weather conditions will also influence strategy. Fire will spread quickly uphill and downwind. Water supply is another crucial priority. In many older sections of the cities where these structures are found, the water mains are old, encrusted, and undersized. If master streams are required, a relay operation may be necessary. Keep a water supply map handy, and have an engine company respond to the nearest hydrant on a large main to initiate a relay operation. Consider the time and personnel that will be necessary to effect a relay operation. Rear porch fires are very taxing on personnel and the water supply.


Engine company operations will vary depending on the magnitude of the fire involved. However, as a rule of thumb, at least one line must be stretched to each floor of the fire building, beginning with the fire floor and working up. This includes the basement. Engine companies must be aggressive; tenacious; and, most of all, mobile.

Following are some tactical guidelines:

A small fire involving one room that has entered the rear porch will require at least three lines to contain it–a line to the fire floor, a line to the floor above, and a line to the top floor. The first line is stretched to the seat of the fire and then to the rear porch area. The second line can be redeployed to back up the first line if conditions dictate. However, the first priority for the second line is to get above the fire and check the rear porch and pipe chases for vertical extension. If the fire has extended to that level, it must be held there. Similarly, the third line should go to the top floor and do the same.

A heavily involved rear porch fire will require the following lines: one or two lines to the fire floor, one or two lines on each floor above the fire, and one or two lines on the top floor. When stretching in through the front, the first engine company must be careful not to inadvertently stretch to the floor above the fire. The actual fire floor may not always be apparent from the front of the building. A safe and successful attack must begin at the bottom and work up, floor by floor. The safety of companies working above depends on the efficacy of the company (or companies) on the fire floor. If this position should become untenable, all companies operating above must be notified and given time to evacuate before the line is abandoned.

Heavy heat and smoke will be encountered on each floor at the rear of the structure. When conditions dictate, hose teams should not hesitate to take out windows in the rooms in which they are working. However, horizontal ventilation in the front of the structure should be conducted with caution, as it could cause the fire to be drawn to the front.

A double-wide building, with two flats on each floor, will require great mobility on the part of the hose team. As they hit the fire on the right-side apartment, they will push it through the rear porch around to the left-side apartment. Once it is darkened down on the right, they will have to withdraw and hit the fire on the left side. The process of extinguishment will include going back and forth between apartments several times. Though taxing, this can be accomplished by a single, mobile engine company as long as the apartment entrances are in the rear and both entrance doors have been forced. However, if the entrance doors are in the front of the flats, as is the case with one-quarter turn stairwells, two companies must be assigned to each floor–one company for each apartment. Care must be taken not to clog the interior stairs with too many hoselines. When more than three lines are needed, consider an alternative means of getting lines to the upper floors. Ground ladders, front fire escapes, and lowered utility ropes offer effective alternatives to stairwell stretches (see “Exterior Hose Stretches, Part 1,” Single Handline Operation,” by the author, and Part 2: “Multiple Handline Operation,” by Dennis Stoneman, Training Notebook, Fire Engineering, March 1996, 20-24).

If on arrival you find that fire has already extended into the rear porches of an exposure building, lay the following lines: one into the fire building to keep the interior stairs open, one line into the exposure building on the lowest floor to which the fire has extended, one line to back up the first line, one line to back up the second (exposure line), and one line to the top floor of the exposure.

The first line is stretched to protect life and keep the interior stairs open. Although a backup line will be needed for this position as soon as possible, the second-due engine company must stretch a line into the exposure immediately. The third line should be stretched to back up the first line, and the fourth line should back up the second line in the exposure. A line will also be needed on the top floor of the exposure, to confine the fire to the porch and cut off any fire entering the cockloft.

In rear porch fires of large proportion, interior companies may be unable to advance their lines. In this situation, large exterior lines can be effective in cooling down the fire and allowing interior lines to advance. They can also be used as exposure lines to help inhibit lateral spread from one rear porch to the next. One tactic that can be used, especially on open porches that have heavy involvement , is to stretch a 212-inch handline with a smooth-bore tip (118 inch) through the gangway (alley between the buildings) to the rear yard. Smaller departments that lack the resources to stretch several interior lines may have to rely entirely on exterior master streams. Be careful, however, to ensure that the outside stream is directed across the porch laterally and not through the porch into the rear of the structure. If directed at the wrong angle, the stream will serve only to drive the fire farther into the building.

Unfortunately, narrow alleyways make for close quarters in which to handle a hose stream and often make it difficult to flank the porch. The steep angle with which the hose must be aimed can inhibit effective penetration. In addition, gaining access to alleys can require forcible entry. Bolt cutters are usually needed to cut padlocks and chains around gates. Safety is another consideration. Members operating in alleys are at risk from falling debris and glass from activities of companies operating inside the structure.

Another tactic that can be effective in slowing the lateral spread is to spot the first-arriving engine so that the deck gun can be directed between the fire building and the most endangered exposure. Vacant lots and driveways can also provide locations for placing the master streams. Safeguard apparatus when placing it in such a position. Anticipate the direction of fire travel, and make sure adequate water is available. You must be able to move the apparatus should conditions worsen suddenly.

Using master-stream appliances effectively, of course, depends on the availability of an adequate water supply. It is, therefore, very important that engine companies responding to this type of fire flush the hydrant before hooking up and stretching in. The greater the volume of fire, the more imperative it is that the hydrant be flushed. A soda can or plastic bag in the hydrant barrel can clog a supply line and render an engine company operation ineffective. Taking the extra moment to check the hydrant requires discipline when heavy fire is showing, but it is time well-spent if it prevents an engine company from committing to an ineffective water source.


The first truck company priority at an occupied rear porch fire is to remove any trapped occupants. The rear means of egress will be cut off. Therefore, the front windows should be scanned on arrival. Tenants may be awaiting removal from the front porches or fire escapes, if pres-ent. Those in imminent danger will need to be removed.

The second truck company priority is to provide forcible entry and begin a primary search beginning at the rear of the apartments and working forward. All search procedures must be coordinated with the engine company operating on the fire floor, especially if searching above the fire.

The third truck priority is to effect vertical ventilation. Because of the pitch of the porch roof, convected heat and smoke will be directed up and into the top floor and cockloft. A good place to begin is to pull the scuttle on top of the porch roof, if present. Do this with extreme caution, however. Porch roofs are framed with nominal two-inch by six-inch joists that will not carry much weight, especially if exposed to fire. Also, as mentioned earlier, the porches are already sustaining a heavy dead load and are very old. The truck company officer must make a judgment about the stability of the porch before introducing the additional live and impact loads a truck company would impose.

Once the scuttle has been pulled, take out the top-floor windows in the rear, on either side of the structure (provided they do not promote the spread of fire to the adjoining building). Another early priority is removing the skylight over the interior stairwell. Although it may draw the fire forward into the structure to some degree, it will make the top floor more tenable for occupants. Next, cut an inspection hole in the rear of the roof to determine if the fire has entered the cockloft. If it has, initiate at the minimum a 424 hole over the kitchen area(s). Push down as much of the ceiling below the hole as possible. Enlarge this ventilation hole as needed. If driven away by fire conditions, drop back toward the middle of the building, and start another ventilation hole. When operating on the roof, bear in mind that there may be no fire escape access and therefore no second way off the roof. A roof ladder can provide an adequate means for bridging across to an adjoining building. It is also a terrific tool for pushing down ceilings below the vent hole.

The fourth truck priority is to work with engine companies inside the building to pull ceilings. This is especially necessary on the top floor, where it is crucial to stay in front of the cockloft fire as it spreads toward the front of the structure. The ceiling should be pulled from where the fire is rolling, to a point forward of the fire in the direction in which the fire is traveling. Once companies are ahead of the fire and the ceilings have been pulled, the hose stream can be opened up so that the fire can be driven back to the rear of the structure. In addition to hooks, a pickhead ax or halligan is useful for overhauling the wainscoting on the rear porch.

Because of the close proximity of these buildings, it is not uncommon to find fire in two or more buildings on arrival. If the fire is that extensive, containment becomes the primary consideration once evacuation has been completed, and a defensive, exterior attack must be initiated early on. Normally this means using elevated master streams. However, because the fire will be in the rear of the structure, the effectiveness of ladder pipes from the street will be limited. An elevated platform, with its greater discharge and mobility, will be somewhat more effective, but the best option is often a portable deluge set in the rear yard.

In summary, multiple-dwelling rear porch fires can present a daunting challenge. They are a challenge to contain and can quickly involve several structures. The keys to controlling them are the following:

rapid hoseline deployment,

early exposure protection,

lots of personnel, and

plenty of water. n

(Top left, right) Fire in the rear porches of a three-story frame quickly spread across a five-foot alley to the rear porches of a similar structure and required four alarms and an extensive relay operation to control. (Photos by John Folkerts.) (Bottom left) Fire in this rear porch was controlled from the interior by two engine companies using 134-inch handlines on the top floor. Although there was extensive damage to the porch, there was only limited extension to the interior of the building.

DOUGLAS LEIHBACHER, a 16-year veteran of the fire service, is a captain of Engine 303 of the Yonkers (NY) Fire Department. He is a New York State-certified fire instructor and municipal training officer level 2.

WILLIAM WEBSTER, a 30-year veteran of the fire service, is a battalion chief with the Yonkers (NY) Fire Department. He has an associate`s degree in fire science and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer program.

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