Building Construction: Just Another Brick in the Wall

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As winter winds down, most of us can say we had a chimney fire or two over the winter months. Whether a home filled up with smoke because the resident forgot to open the damper or you pulled up to a house and the chimney looked like a sparkler on the Fourth of July, I am sure you can probably relate. A few tours ago, we pulled into a block we usually don’t respond to and the moment we entered it, a light bulb went off. Years have passed since we had an interesting run and a possible close call on this street that should be reviewed as a learning lesson.

Responding to a reported “fire around the fireplace” in a large, two-story frame, we had nothing showing on arrival but an elderly resident waving a towel as we pulled in. Walking up the sidewalk, we suddenly got that taste of burning wood. Most of us figured that it was just what was burning in the fireplace, since we saw light smoke issuing out of the chimney on the roof. As we entered the home, we saw a large fireplace set midway back in the main living room. Approaching it, we saw what looked like logs in the fireplace, but the resident was yelling, “You see it coming out the walls.” Getting closer, we noticed some paint was peeling off the wall a few inches off one side of the mantelpiece. Immediately, we called for a line to be stretched into the home. Plus, we began using the can to put out the remaining fire in the fireplace so when we opened up the wall we didn’t have fire below us.

Since nothing was showing near the chimney at the edge of the high-pitched peaked roof, the roof firefighter was directed to go to the top floor and access the attic space to check for extension. The resident informed us that the access panel to the attic was in a closet in the bedroom, which had a wooden access ladder nailed into the wall. Another firefighter who was checking the basement for the fireplace’s cleanout or fire extension from it dropping down found none, then he went outside and reported that paint was blistering off the shake siding about seven feet up the wall. The report from the attic then came in: light smoke in the attic area and no visible fire, but the chimney’s brickwork looked to be in poor shape.

As we began to open up the wall near the mantelpiece, the moment the first tool made a hole and gave it air, the smoke turned to flame. The hoseline was charged and ready to extinguish the fire, but first we needed to open up the wall more. Realizing this was a balloon-frame house, we punched the next hole up toward the top of the wall where it met the ceiling. We wanted to determine if the fire was spreading rapidly through the stud’s void spacing.

When the first member swung the hook back and drove it forward into the wall, it bounced back immediately. Moving over a foot or so, he did it again, and it bounced off again. How far were there bricks in the wall? Switching over to just using the pike end of the hook, the firefighter began to remove the lath and plaster in the bays next to the fireplace. The smoke was getting heavier, and the windows were opened. The hoseline was cracked opened to extinguish the fire; as more wall was exposed, the line was used again.

Meanwhile, outside, the firefighter reported that the fire was now running out from under the shake siding and beginning to run up the exterior wall. A second hoseline was being stretched up the narrow alleyway between the two homes. While the line was getting in position, the firefighter also called the chauffeur to bring up a portable ladder so he could reach more of the exterior wall. Then he began opening up the higher reachable section with his hook, to see exactly where the fire was extending. As the hoseline got to his position and was being charged, without warning the wall began to collapse and fall outward. Seeing it coming, he ran toward the front of the house, but his legs got caught under some of the falling brick. Luckily, the engine company grabbed him and pulled him to safety. After making sure he was uninjured and in a place of safety, the engine cracked opened the nozzle only about halfway to knock down the fire without knocking any more of the brickwork down. Shutting the line down, they heard the other engine members inside the house talking—the brick nogging that existed between the wall studs alongside the fireplace was completely on the ground and you could see from the inside to the outside. Both engines washed down the wall studs, and the remaining wall was opened up off the ladder that had its butt positioned up against the adjoining home’s foundation wall.

Once the fire was out, we began to examine more closely what transpired. First, the balloon-frame home had brick nogging next to the fireplace only in between two stud bays that ran up to the first floor’s ceiling joist and ended. Also, the wall studs were rotted and eaten away by termites, as evidenced by the damage to the uninvolved studs. Over the course of a hundred years, the mortar inside the wall had badly deteriorated, creating mini void spaces between the bricks. Once it was affected by the heat and flames, jarred by the motion of the hooks on both sides of the wall and by the lath and plaster and exterior siding being removed, it became unsupported and collapsed. Always watch out for those bricks in the wall.

MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 29-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 Truck Essentials 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 www.FireEngineering.com.

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