Furniture Warehouse Fire: Lessons Learned

AT 7:29 A.M. ON DECEMBER 19, 2006, FIRE CREWS from Wenatchee (WA) Fire & Rescue received a tone from Rivercom Dispatch reporting a fire in the alley behind Davis Furniture, two blocks from downtown Fire Station 1. As the captain on Engine 41, the first-responding engine to this call, I expected the usual dumpster fire, common in this area.

As we cleared the station, I could see a heavy column of smoke above the rooflines to the east. We arrived at the alley separating the Davis Furniture retail store from the storage warehouse, which was two blocks down on Yakima Street. A ball of fire arising from the alley entrance doors easily reached the heavy power lines and transformers above. Fire had broken through the roof above the entrance, and thick dark smoke swirled everywhere. Some utility lines had already fallen. Pieces of sheet metal were on the ground in the alley. For a split second, I wondered if someone had blown up the dumpster. It quickly dawned on me that I was looking at what moments before had been the steel roll-up doors to the loading dock. This was a raging building fire that had “burn down the block” written all over it.

THE OCCUPANCY

Most of the commercial buildings in this area were built in the 1920s to facilitate the local apple-producing industry. The Davis warehouse building was actually three separate occupancies, separated by firewalls, stretching 300 feet from north to south and 120 feet to the east. The firewalls separating the buildings were all brick-standard construction for the period. The heavy wood-framed warehouse walls on the north and south sides adjoining the tire storage and Hamilton buildings, respectively, had a 12-inch space filled with compacted sawdust. East and west wall construction was brick with spaced concrete columns. These walls ran the length of the buildings, north to south. Attic space had 15 inches of sawdust. Four-foot parapets were throughout.


Figure 1. Davis Warehouse Fire
Figure reprinted with permission of The Wenatchee World.
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The warehouse was built on a slight downhill grade. One level on the west side alley turned into two levels on the east side, facing Columbia Street, which included three additional businesses and car storage.

The southernmost occupancy was known as the Hamilton Warehouse Building, home to Roger Bumps, owner of Davis Furniture and the block of involved buildings. His top-floor residence occupied only part of the mostly vacant and wide-open upstairs. Wood-framed interior walls, north and west, separated the Bumps condo from the rest of the upper floor spaces. Brick exterior building walls were to the east and south. The main floor was rented as office space to the local medical community.


Figure 2. Placement of Apparatus and Attack Lines (Overhead View)
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The next building to the north, separated by a firewall, was the Davis Furniture warehouse and storage building. I had inspected these occupancies months before as part of our department’s company inspection program and found numerous electrical wiring issues, all of which were quickly addressed and resolved. This building was divided into two sections. The east part was fully stocked with mattresses; the front half was loaded with mattresses and furniture such as couches and recliners. Furniture stored here was readied for delivery to customers, including treatment with protective stain proofing. Northernmost was Dick’s Tires, where a large supply of tires was stored.

In the early days, these adjoined buildings were built for the apple industry, complete with heavy timber construction and flooring several inches thick. The masonry exterior walls of block and brick had heavy vertical concrete columns spaced intermittently throughout. Sawdust insulation was found throughout the wall spaces; the main floors were supported by heavy timbers measuring 15 × 20 inches. Sprinkler systems with fire department connections, added in the 1950s, protected the Hamilton building and Dick’s Tires. The middle warehouse did not have a sprinkler system. Heavy overhead power lines were surrounding this block, and a 20- to 30-foot alley separated this building from the Davis Furniture retail store to the west on Wenatchee Avenue.

FIRST SMELL OF SMOKE

At approximately 7:15 a.m. on the morning of the fire, an employee of the furniture store unlocked the roll-up door in the alley, entered, turned on the lights and ceiling heaters, grabbed some paperwork, and exited. He headed across the alley to the retail store and later reported that nothing was amiss. At 7:24 a.m., he heard a loud noise and went to a window, looked toward the warehouse, and saw smoke coming from the area around the loading dock. He yelled to the owner that the warehouse was on fire and dialed 911. While on the phone with Dispatch, he heard a series of loud explosions and saw heavy fire from the loading dock area.

One of the office workers on the main floor of the Hamilton Building was always cold at work. She brought a small portable heater with her to use at her desk. On this morning, which was unusual, she wasn’t cold. She reported hearing a whooshing sound from a large pipe on the wall above her desk and didn’t understand what was happening. In fact, air was exiting through activated dry system sprinkler heads, just ahead of rushing water. She heard other unusual noises from down the hallway and went to investigate. Rounding the corner to the north, she encountered heavy smoke forming and a fire sprinkler activated. She ran back to her office area and yelled for everyone to get out. The main exit from the Hamilton Building to Yakima Street was blocked with smoke and heat. The 20-plus workers used a back stairway to exit onto Columbia Street on the east side of the building.

THE FIRE

As the first-arriving officer, I reported conditions, asked dispatch to strike a second alarm, and ordered next-due Ladder 42 from the North Station to lay a four-inch supply line up the north alley, to extend dual 2 1/2-inch attack lines to protect the tire storage area, and to attack the fire from the north. I grabbed one of my two firefighters and quickly circumnavigated the involved building, looking for an alternative instead of attacking this fire from the south alley with the heavy overhead power lines already burnt and the narrow 20-foot alley within which to operate. However, after a quick look, it became obvious that either we lay down lines in the alley or risk losing the whole block. We took our own hydrant supply and laid 100 feet of four-inch hose with two 100-foot 2 1/2-inch attack lines. The fight was on.


(1) Firefighters had to use a step ladder to reach doorways along the fire building when trying to forcibly breach the doors. (Photos by Cary Ulrich Photography.)
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Operating in front of the loading-dock entrance, where the fire was intense, all I could see was heavy yellow fire extending way into the building, a large volume of fire reaching up to the power lines, and fire from a hole in the roof. The fact that the overhead power lines had been exposed to fire bothered me greatly, so we stayed as far back as we could in the narrow alley. My plan was to try to slow the quickly growing fire enough to get additional heavy stream lines in place and then extinguish the fire and save the involved building. Plan B was to save the adjoining buildings by slowly controlling the fire enough to give the firewalls a chance to do their job.

The on-duty battalion chief arrived a minute later and established command; the command center was at the top of the block at Yakima and Wenatchee Avenues. Staging and rehab were a block to the north. Divisions were established, and other arriving officers were assigned to each of the four sides of the block involved. Chief Stan Smoke arrived shortly and assumed command. Automatic aid from the surrounding counties brought several more engines and another ladder truck. The attack lines ordered to be laid from the north were apparently delayed: Ladder 42 was held up on arrival for the possible relocation of aerial operations. The fire grew in intensity and started spreading. We could not hold it in check without additional resources. My initial assignments given to Ladder 42 were apparently covered up by radio traffic created by the responding second-alarm apparatus. Losing the block was not what we had in mind, and frustration and doubt were gaining a foothold.

SAVING THE BLOCK

As additional attack lines were laid down the north alley from County Engine 17, I saw the face of a firefighter I knew well-my son, who was fresh from the Fire Training Academy and was facing his first big building fire as a volunteer. I assigned him and his partner to attack the fire through the now fully involved north side warehouse doors. The Davis Furniture retail store was in jeopardy from the initial fire; the windows had broken out of the second floor facing the fire. My call to the assigned division supervisor to have a protection line brought into the smoky store was an echo of orders already given, and a sharp firefighter in the alley momentarily turned his stream on the building eaves to prevent the fire from spreading. Engine 61 set up on Columbia Street to boost the sprinkler system in the Hamilton Building. County Ladder 11 was positioned to the north. An aerial operation was initiated.


(2) A single 2 1/2-inch, 250-gpm line was no match for the large volume of fire on the west side of the building.
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The initial attempt to place firefighters on the roof to the north (tire storage) was abandoned early. Egress, because of the parapets, would be too difficult if fire got into the walls. The fire’s progress was observed from the east, facing the windows of the Davis retail store. Firefighters also operated from ladders.

Gaining access for fire streams through two warehouse doors just north of the main fire area was exceedingly difficult. The doors were five feet above the ground with a 12-inch landing. They were eight inches thick, for cold storage insulation. A step ladder and good balance were needed. Forcing through these doors in this situation was more of a circus act than routine forcible entry. A Public Utility District power crew happened to be in the area; at 7:50 a.m., the power in the alley was turned off. This greatly reduced the danger and facilitated the mobility of the handlines and forcible entry. The tire storage area was not a fire problem we needed, and so far we were successful in preventing its involvement. We breached doors and set up fans in the alley to pressurize this occupancy; a hoseline was available for immediate attack should the firewall have failed.

Approximately 45 minutes into the fire, the rapid involvement and huge fuel load dashed all hopes of saving anything in the fire building. At 9:43 a.m., a third alarm was sounded; we geared up for potential fire in more than one building. I was aware that the Hamilton Building had been searched, but I was concerned that the fire would penetrate one or both of the fire doors on the south wall separating the two buildings. These fire doors covered former openings through which conveyor belts shipped boxed apples from the packing area to cold storage when apples were the primary local industry.


(3) Heavy overhead power lines, common in warehouse districts, complicated the operations and added greater risk for firefighters.
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The fire doors were metal clad, approximately seven feet by seven feet, and on rollers. They had fusible links. The west fire door, located where the initial heavy fire occurred, was found to be open 15 inches. It failed to close fully for an unknown reason. This allowed the fire to spread into the Hamilton Building through the old elevator shaft. There was no penetration of fire through the east fire door. The mortar around the pipes breaching the walls was old and failed to seal, especially where the fire penetrated into the sawdust, mid-building south.

I grabbed my crew. We headed south to the Hamilton Building to investigate, leaving the alley firefighting up to the firefighters there. Their job was to slow the fire as much as possible and to try to cool the areas next to the walls separating the buildings. Sprinklers were still going off in the south building, and we looked hard at the walls separating this building from the fire.

I was amazed to see how the fire had spread into the Hamilton Building and the elevator shaft. Fire had spread through the elevator shaft, going from alley grade up into the roof area. Twenty four sprinkler heads tripped and extinguished this fire, but not before there was considerable heat damage and extensive smoke production throughout the south building. I had a crew lay a 2 1/2-inch hoseline with wye into this building from the south entrance, extend two 1 3/4-inch lines to protect both floors, and bring up entry tools and extra self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) bottles.


(4) Fire continued to breach the roofline, south aspect of the involved area and adjacent to the Hamilton Warehouse building.
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We carefully examined the walls. To our amazement, we found an area that was getting hot and starting to issue smoke. We were witnessing a fire breach that had gotten into the walls and had the potential to burn the Hamilton Building down right around the sprinkler system. We tore into the wall and were greeted with an immediate fireball that rolled out at us like a rudely awakened, angry dragon. The fire had burned for awhile in the eight-inch sawdust-laden void between the walls. Quick attack and overhaul extinguished the fire. A further search found a similar penetration, this time around a two-inch pipe going through the wall. I called for another crew to relieve us; they were instructed to continue to guard these two floors. We exited the area wet, tired, and covered in sawdust.

The division supervisor assigned other firefighters to retrieve purses, car keys, Christmas presents, and personal possessions for the grateful office workers waiting patiently on the cold sidewalks just outside. Since this south fire was under control and the area in the Hamilton Building was safe, the building owner asked if he could make a quick visit to his personal quarters on the top floor to retrieve important business records and a few family heirlooms. He was given permission and was escorted by firefighters.

COLUMBIA STREET SIDE

Fire, which had gotten into a couple of businesses on the east side of the involved block, had caused considerable damage before it was brought under control. A rock-climbing/outdoor sports store was hardest hit. It became involved as a result of embers dropping down from the fire above. Firefighters had extensive construction, such as double-wall entrances, to breach before attack lines could be placed in operation. They had to keep their distance and be wary of potentially falling walls from the fire raging on the floor above. A small area of floor on the northeast side of the fire had burned through and was serving as a giant drain for the heavy water being applied above. This probably prevented a huge accumulation of water, which might have caused even a tough old warehouse floor to fail, bringing the walls with it.


(5) The roof failed on the main fire building, signaling a complete loss; however, both buildings to the sides were saved.
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Before being assigned to rehab, I asked if my crew could search the underground car storage on Columbia Street. We walked down a short ramp and entered the parking area. We noticed several old collectible cars almost completely submerged in runoff water. A 20-foot pleasure boat was floating, still tethered to its trailer; it was the only vehicle not waterlogged. The warehouse roof failed about an hour and a half into the incident. Fire crews were left to extinguish a 120- by 125-foot pile of heavy burning debris. Most of the floor remained intact, and the heavy-duty masonry walls held solid, which was remarkable considering that the fire had burned against them for such a long time. In the end, we saved both ends of the block, losing only what was already heavily damaged. Losses amounted to $3 million, and there were no injuries.

HEATER ELEMENT THE CAUSE

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) was asked to assist with the investigation; representatives arrived within a day. An investigative team of local fire service members met with the ATF agents and initial fire crews to gain perspective into the cause and origin of the fire. Building occupants were interviewed, which made it possible to focus on a specific area of the fire building. Wenatchee firefighters maintained scene security while dousing hot spots and suppressing flare-ups during the investigation. Recovery and lab testing of items found in the suspected area of origin, coupled with witness interviews and observations from firefighters, gave a clear picture of events that day.


(6) The middle building burned while adjacent side buildings were saved.
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Mattresses and furniture, some of which had been recently sprayed with a chemical fabric protectant, a highly flammable product with petroleum distillates and silicon fluids, comprised the large fuel load. The product was applied with a two-gallon sprayer. Two plastic 30-gallon drums were in the immediate fire area, as was furniture sprayed with the protectant the night before.

Three infrared radiant ceiling heaters were in the front room; one of them had had overheated element problems the day before. On the morning of the fire, these heaters were turned on as usual; one of the elements failed and fell onto furniture and started the fire. The recently treated furniture, along with a drum of chemical fabric guard, caused the fire to accelerate and undoubtedly caused the roll-up door to blow out into the alley.

(Note: High-piled storage was not an issue in this fire. We have a code addressing high-piled storage and check for it during our building inspections.)

LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED

  • Face-to-face contact. The second-due fire apparatus, City Ladder 42, never heard the orders given by the first-in engine company officer, because dispatch radio traffic was sounding a second alarm and responding units were getting on the air. Having no initial assignment, Ladder 42 was forced to wait for orders and tried to get through on the busy airwaves. In these situations, face-to-face contact with on-scene officers and firefighters is essential and ultimately saves time and reduces confusion. Consider that the priority radio frequency may be tied up for an important few minutes with dispatch traffic and responding units; therefore, make all assignments prior to requesting additional units or alarm assignments, and quickly switch to tactical or working channels.
  • Incident command system efficiency. Make sure the incident command team is made aware of the firefighting situation as soon as possible. The initial-arriving companies will develop an immediate plan of attack and implement it with the idea that it may be good only for the first 20 or 30 minutes. Command must have this plan to create a system for the long haul, based on what the current situation is and what is being done about it.
  • Practice big building fires. Many fire companies spend substantial drill time practicing fighting house fires and handling other small incidents, like car wrecks. When a large fire comes along, they are less efficient at setting up the systems for large water flow. Have fire crews drill on delivering large water supplies regularly, and make up specific evolutions that fit a standard heavy-stream scenario.
  • Get ahead of the fire. Good fire officers should always plan for what the incident will look like 10 or 20 minutes ahead and envision what will happen with a fire if it gets away from efforts to stop it. Place extra suppression crews and other resources in areas ahead of the fire for early warning and intervention. If you do not do this, you run the risk of reacting to what is already happening and having to chase a fire instead of being there waiting for it. Assessing all the possibilities and getting ahead of the game early are always the best approaches for a good outcome. Our crews worked hard to do this on both sides of this burning warehouse and were successful in saving adjacent buildings that constitute a beautiful historic piece of Wenatchee’s history.

MICHAEL HUGHES is a captain and 28-year-veteran of Wenatchee (WA) Fire/Rescue. He is a graduate of Eastern Washington University and a hazardous materials technician. He instructs local fire departments in hazardous materials, fire tactics, and company operations.

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