Fires Involving Roofs

By Michael M. Dugan

Members of the Chicago (IL) Fire Department responded to a report of a fire involving the roof of a building built in 1905. The building was a two-story 40 × 100 of ordinary construction. The fire was reported on the roof. What made the fire unusual was that the building was a former firehouse that was closed by the city and sold. It was made famous because of its use in some motion pictures. The building currently houses a restaurant.

Members are ascending an aerial ladder to the roof of exposure 4 to assist in operating two handlines as two tower ladders operate at the fire. One tower ladder operates onto the roof and the other through a second-floor window. (<i>Photo by Gordon Nord Jr.</i>)
(1) Members are ascending an aerial ladder to the roof of exposure 4 to assist in operating two handlines as two tower ladders operate at the fire. One tower ladder operates onto the roof and the other through a second-floor window. (Photo by Gordon Nord Jr.)

Two Common Causes

A fire in a restaurant on or involving the roof usually starts in one of two ways.

Ductwork. Fires often start in the ductwork (used to remove the grease-laden vapors from the cooking area) when the grease in the duct ignites. This happens frequently, and the ducts will move the fire throughout the structure wherever the ducts run. The fire in the ducts will expose all areas the ducts traverse to the heat and possibly the flames escaping the ductwork. You will need a diagram of the run of the ducts and units to open the ceilings and expose the ducts as quickly as possible. Getting water into the ducts is the engine company’s primary task. Water is the best way to control a fire in ductwork.

(2) Members operate a handline off the roof of an exposure. Members used a portable ladder to get onto the roof of a penthouse-type structure in the rear of the building. (Photo by Gordon Nord Jr.) (3) Two articulating boom platforms, two tower ladders, and two handlines operated to control this fire. (Photo by Gordon Nord Jr.)

Roof repair. Workers using a torch are another common source of roof-involved fires. Torch-applied or torch-sealed roofing helps roofers seal the seams in the rolled-on roofing material. This was the cause of the fire in Chicago. The roof support structure is wood that is more than 100 years old and dried out; it is so dry that it is highly combustible and burns very quickly. For this reason and because so many fires were started by improper use of the torch, New York City has made torch-applied roofing illegal.

(3) Two articulating boom platforms, two tower ladders, and two handlines operated to control this fire. (Photo by Gordon Nord Jr.)

Chicago Incident

The first-arriving units initiated an aggressive interior attack and stretched two lines up the stairway to the second floor. The truck exposed the ceilings, and the engine started to operate lines. Members of the truck crews assisted the engine companies, and some members went to the roof and started to operate. The officer of one of the truck crews on the roof questioned the stability of the roof based on his size-up, the fire conditions, and the equipment the roof supported. The incident commander (IC) heard this report and confirmed that the roof stability was questionable at best. He then ordered an emergency evacuation of the building including the roof; all interior members withdrew, and the roof was evacuated.

(4) Sections of the roof of the building have collapsed, and the equipment on the roof is in danger of causing additional collapses. (Photo by Gordon Nord Jr.)

Note: If you give up a part of the building because of worsening fire conditions, you have to give up an offensive attack. The IC ordered a defensive strategy, and members operated lines from the exterior.

(5) The amount of damage to the roof structure and support system is visible. The equipment on the roof has damaged it, and it is almost totally gone. (Photo by Gordon Nord Jr.)

Crews set up and placed in service elevated master streams and operated lines. Two tower ladders and two articulating boom platforms operated onto the roof and into the top-floor windows to get water on the underside of the roof. Crews set an aerial ladder to the roof of the exposure and stretched and operated two handlines from there.

(4) Sections of the roof of the building have collapsed, and the equipment on the roof is in danger of causing additional collapses. (Photo by Gordon Nord Jr.) (5) The amount of damage to the roof structure and support system is visible. The equipment on the roof has damaged it, and it is almost totally gone. (<i>Photo by Gordon Nord Jr.</i>) (6) Members use the aerial ladder to get to the roof of exposure 4. They use the exposure's roof to operate the handlines onto the involved roof. (<i>Photo by Tim Olk.</i>) (7) Chicago Squad 1 operates on the rear corner of the building where the fire is; fire is visible at the roof line and in the second-floor window. (<i>Photo by Tim Olk.</i>)
(6) Members use the aerial ladder to get to the roof of exposure 4. They use the exposure’s roof to operate the handlines onto the involved roof. (Photo by Tim Olk.)

The fire was contained to the roof area; a large portion of the roof collapsed. The equipment on the roof also stressed the roof support system and was heavily damaged. There were no injuries to operating forces at this fire. The building was saved, and the owner has vowed to repair and reopen the restaurant.

(7) Chicago Squad 1 operates on the rear corner of the building where the fire is; fire is visible at the roof line and in the second-floor window. (Photo by Tim Olk.)

MICHAEL M. DUGAN is a 27-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York, where he served as captain of Ladder Company 123 before retiring in 2012. As a lieutenant, he served in Ladder Company 42 and was a firefighter in Ladder Company 43. He has been involved with the fire service for 39 years.


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