It’s Just a Pile of Leaves

By Michael N. Ciampo

It is not uncommon for fire departments to pull up to a pile of burning leaves during the fall season. Many communities have leaf removal collections where residents rake their leaves to the curb for pickup. These leaf piles can catch fire in a number of ways—from a carelessly discarded cigarette, youths up to mischief, or an automobile’s catalytic converter heating the leaves to their ignition point. Although these fires may seem insignificant to the seasoned veteran, they can be a real learning experience for others.

Firefighters who haven’t had much nozzle experience can turn a small pile of burning leaves into a calamity of errors if they don’t operate the nozzle properly. You’ll see it time after time: Water is started in the line, and the nozzle firefighter stands there staring at the flames; he quickly pulls back on the bail, and the discharged air rapidly blows the pile of leaves, increasing the flames and spreading burning embers all around. And if he doesn’t check the pattern on the nozzle and leaves it in the straight stream position, aiming it at the base of the pile, he will send burning leaves flying in all directions, possibly causing fire extension to other areas while scattering firefighters seek safety.

To revamp this simple operation, you as the nozzle firefighter should have a set game plan in mind when approaching something as simple as a pile of burning leaves or even a pile of burning rubbish. First, if the burning pile is impinging on or possibly causing extension to a building, position the line to drive the fire away from the exposed item. If this means moving the hoseline up onto the sidewalk to use the stream to push the fire away from salvageable property, it should be your first concern. Second, pull back slightly on the nozzle bail when water is started, keeping it pointed away from the direction of the fire to release the air being forced out of the hose.

Many firefighters will face the fire with the hoseline positioned under one arm and out in front of their body about two to three feet. If you just extend the hoseline toward the opposite side of your body, you will take the air problem out of the equation. Remember, keeping the line out in front of your body allows you to redirect and operate it from side to side, up and down, or in a circular motion—this is better than the pistol grip stuck under your armpit.

The next major concern is the position the nozzle is in: Is it in a wide fog, narrow fog, or straight stream position if it’s a combination nozzle (that many of us prefer on our front bumper trash lines or booster reels)? Remember, whenever you turn the nozzle to the right, it will go to straight stream position. Also, some nozzle brands have the pattern displays on them; glance down to see what pattern you’re using. Normally, a narrow fog pattern will give you more coverage and penetration into the seat of the leaf pile than a wide fog. In addition, it will not blow the burning leaves in all directions as you extinguish the fire. Remember, while discharging the air to the side, you can also quickly check the stream’s pattern.

Now that you have eliminated the air problem and selected the shape of the stream, you’re ready to attack the fire. If you fully open the nozzle, you’ll blow half the pile around the neighborhood. Unfortunately, pump pressures or the pump operator may make the stream a little too powerful for this simple operation. As you open up the nozzle on objects that have a tendency to become airborne or move around, pull back on the nozzle bail slowly to see the power of the stream vs. the objects you are extinguishing. Remember, the bail controls water flow; putting it in the right position can make you look like a true professional if you choose the right option. Also, the way you operate at the smaller fires is the way you’ll operate at the larger fires.

Another leaf pile incident involves automobiles parking on top of the leaves and the catalytic converter igniting the leaves beneath the car. Many times, firefighters will arrive to find a small leaf fire or a fully involved auto with leaves burning up and down the block. One smart tactic some departments use is the low-velocity applicator (often referred to as the extension pipe on the Navy nozzle). This is a bent pipe and comes in many sizes and lengths, with a tip threaded onto the discharge end. The tip emits a spray pattern, almost mimicking a sprinkler head. The other end attaches to the nozzle with pins or a twist lock motion or can also be threaded into the nozzle head, depending on the type.

On your arrival, if a car is exposed to fire from burning leaves underneath, place this nozzle under the car; the stream will bounce off the car’s undercarriage, extinguishing the fire. This nozzle works very well and has other applications—for example, placing it on the ground under the engine to knock down an engine compartment fire. Unfortunately, the stream does not offer a good knockdown punch for a larger or a rapidly extending fire. In those situations, make sure the first line you pull is capable of knocking down the fire, and use the low-velocity applicator as a backup line. Remember, flowing two hoselines at fires like these can rapidly deplete the booster tank, so seek out a water source. Plus, throw some metal leaf rakes on the apparatus; they’ll help with your overhaul operations.

MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 24-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York. Previously, he served with the District of Columbia Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the lead instructor for the FDIC Portable Ladder H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladder chapter and co-authored the Ventilation chapter for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on


More Fire Engineering Issue Articles



Fire Engineering Archives


No posts to display