Residential Attic Fires

BY JEFF S. CASE

Sitting around the firehouse dinner table recently, our discussion turned to attic fire horror stories. What was truly scary was that virtually everyone had a story to share (photo 1). I reflected back when, as a fairly new firefighter, I arrived on the scene of a medium-sized home with a working attic fire. I recalled that interior conditions presented very light smoke hovering at the ceiling level. Within minutes, we pulled huge amounts of ceiling and operated nozzles as we worked to put the fire out. Well, the fire went out, but it was discouraging to see the amount of damage that we had done to the home’s interior and its contents. I struggled with determining which caused more damage—the fire or the firefighters (photo 2). Fortunately, I would learn from other company officers and experienced firefighters that we can do it differently and that we can have a positive impact on an already tragic situation.

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(1) Photos by the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department.
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That same discussion produced pretty strong opinions regarding the best way to fight an attic fire. So, who’s right and what’s the best approach? The simple answer is probably all of them. The better question is, based on an accurate size-up and considering the critical fireground factors, which tactical approach is best suited for this fire? The keys to a successful outcome of any structure fire are the organizational values of effective communications and service excellence. These will play a particularly important role when you’re attacking an attic fire. This article has four consistent themes. They may sound basic, but you must employ them consistently. They are the following: (1) Have a plan, (2) communicate that plan, (3) think, and (4) be professional and customer focused.

In this article, the term “professional firefighter” refers to firefighters who act professionally, regardless of their paid vs. volunteer status.

 

TACTICAL PRIORITIES

 

The first priority when attacking a structure fire must always be the safety of firefighters and the rescue of savable lives. Once we have obtained an All-Clear and the fire is confirmed to be an isolated attic fire, we should focus on minimizing the damage to the structure and to the customer’s contents. As professional firefighters, we should work to minimize the primary damage caused by the fire and the products of combustion and the secondary damage resulting from our extinguishment efforts. Attic fires typically provide a unique opportunity to address salvage operations early. A successful and professional attic fire attack requires thinking; communication; and a lot of hard, smart work.

The incident commander (IC) must initiate and maintain control of communications, and the company officers and firefighters must be focused and professional in responding to orders and assignments. The IC should not give assignments such as, “Come in and assist,” which creates the risk that crews will come in and not be on the same page as the IC. Assignments should be specific and part of an incident action plan. Crews should approach attic fires understanding that the IC has several tactical options available. Carefully considering the critical fireground factors should lead to developing an appropriate plan. The first-in company officer’s actions and the information he relays will dramatically impact the residential attic fire’s outcome.

 

CRITICAL FIREGROUND FACTORS

 

The IC must consider several factors in determining the appropriate incident action plan. The most obvious and critical factors include life hazards (rescue profile), the extent and location of fire, the structure (size, construction type, arrangement, and so forth), and resources. The tactical and task options will vary significantly based on these critical fireground factors. The key to a positive outcome is to quickly obtain an All-Clear and then, depending on factors, either attack the fire; conserve property; or, when possible, do both simultaneously. The fire is the most obvious and significant threat to our customer’s property; however, our extinguishment approach can significantly impact the success of our salvage operations.

As professional firefighters, we must remember that the resident’s property priorities are most likely the things in the structure rather than the structure itself. Often, we think we are saving the structure at the expense of the occupant’s valuables, only to see the house rebuilt while the property and valuables are forever lost. Our ability to extinguish the fire while limiting secondary damage is part of being a professional firefighter. The method of attack and extinguishment should be a conscious decision, not just an automatic reaction.

Communications. Regardless of the tactical option implemented, the quality and strength of communications are the keys to the operation’s effectiveness. The initial IC must establish and maintain control of communications and clearly communicate the attack plan to arriving crews. Once he has confirmed the attack plan, the IC should announce over the radio that this is an isolated attic fire and the plan is to attempt conversion from underneath, attack from underneath with vertical ventilation, or use any of a number of options discussed below.

Pulling ceiling. Regardless of the tactical approach used, a few general attack considerations should apply to all residential attic fires. Pulling ceiling is a component of any attic fire operation. The key is to consider where, when, and how much ceiling to pull. Attic fires in an intact attic space can often be successfully converted if the crews open small holes and operate nozzles on a semifog pattern throughout the attic. Firefighters should move furniture and valuables away prior to pulling ceiling when possible. Simply stated, think, plan, and act professionally. You should have a purpose for whatever you are doing, including any destructive action such as pulling ceiling (photo 3).

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As a battalion chief, I once entered a medium-size home where our crews had quickly extinguished a contents fire. The fire had long been declared under control and the home was free of smoke. The crews were outside rehabbing and filling their SCBA bottles when I went in just to take a look. About 25 feet away from the room of origin, in a hallway with no sign of even smoke damage, there was a lone, young firefighter taking an ax to the wall and ceiling. I was careful not to get bludgeoned by the swinging ax. I got the firefighter’s attention and asked, “What are you doing?” The young firefighter, bent over and out of breath, said, “I don’t know” and just stared at me blankly.

So what happened here? A young, aggressive, but inexperienced firefighter with a tool in his hands wanted to work. This emphasizes how important it is that someone is running the show and making sure there is a plan and that everyone is following it.

Older home construction. Many older homes have conventional roofs built with larger dimensional lumber (2 × 6) and a common continuous attic space. In addition, older homes have standard eight-foot ceilings with accessible scuttle holes. Many of the challenges associated with gaining access to the attic space and compartmentalized fire spread seen in newer homes are not issues with older homes. The key to successful attack of these fires depends heavily on the initial IC’s forming a good plan, communicating it, and controlling the interior and the roof activities to ensure the plan is carried out. Once the initial IC determines that the fire is an isolated attic fire, he should communicate this over the radio to arriving crews, along with the attack plan.

Tactical options for older or more conventionally constructed homes include the following:

  • attack from underneath without vertical ventilation;
  • attack from underneath with vertical ventilation;<
  • use a penetrating nozzle;
  • attack from the gable end;
  • coordinated roof attack; and
  • carport or garage attack.

 

A few critical points are important for each option. Forgoing vertical ventilation is a tough decision; when needed, vertical ventilation is critical and remains a high priority. But remember why we vertically ventilate: to improve tenability for victims and firefighters; to prevent mushrooming or rapid fire spread; and to remove smoke and heat from the victims, firefighters, and contents. However, if none of these situations apply, then don’t vertically ventilate. Keeping the lid intact improves your ability to convert an attic fire, which is the quickest and most effective way to extinguish such a fire if it is not at an advanced stage.

Another important consideration for attempting to convert an attic fire is minimizing (i.e., controlling) the amount and location of ceiling that is pulled. Remember that our ladder crews are used to going to the roof and ventilating. So if choosing this option, have an assignment for the ladder crew. The most likely support work assignment is securing utilities and assisting with interior salvage efforts (photo 4).

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Vertical ventilation is critical when the fire is more advanced and no longer confined to the attic space, and the smoke is intense, dark colored, and under pressure. It allows crews to work on the interior and helps channel the heat and smoke away from other crews and house contents. Remember, our goal is to safely save people and their stuff. The initial IC must determine whether vertical ventilation will help accomplish this goal. Interior crews must continue to focus on simultaneous fire control and salvage efforts.

Once the initial interior crew has extended a handline to the interior and confirmed an isolated attic fire, Command should consider having the next-in crew deploy a penetrating nozzle. Under the right conditions and circumstances, a penetrating nozzle can quickly and effectively convert an attic fire. Of course, it would not make sense to take a spear into a crowded, limited-visibility environment, so interior smoke conditions should be light and hovering on the roofline. Most penetrating nozzles deliver approximately 95 gpm, and the tip must extend between six and 12 inches into the attic space to effectively disperse the water pattern. You can place, operate, and reposition the penetrating nozzle throughout the house, causing little, if any, damage to the interior contents, which is what we are really trying to save (photo 5). The penetrating nozzle is particularly effective in homes with lath-and-plaster ceilings. Operations to access these ceilings are labor-intensive and tend to wear out firefighters. Successfully deploying a penetrating nozzle attack requires second-engine companies to wait for this assignment from the interior crew or a later-arriving IC.

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Gable-end attack or attack from above. As mentioned earlier, a gable-end attack can provide quick access to a significant portion of the attic space. This is especially true in a more conventionally framed home with a continuous, end-to-end attic space. If practiced and performed safely, this tactic is a great option. Safety considerations include ensuring an appropriate climbing angle and decreasing the water pressure at the pump panel. The advantage here is less interior secondary damage, which means improved salvage efforts. Remember, we are trying to save their stuff, not their roof trusses. Using a penetrating nozzle from above, you can effectively cover the roof square footage quickly to convert the fire. However, members must ensure that the roof is safe and tenable as the crew works its way from end to end. A lead probing person must sound the roof to confirm its structural integrity before allowing members to set foot on it.

Garage or carport access in older homes may provide you access to the home’s entire attic space. Newer homes are constructed with fire stops (two-hour, fire-rated walls from floor to ceiling). In these older homes, the scuttle hole can allow you access without increasing the interior secondary damage. Take extra caution when attempting to work in a garage, especially one under an attic space. This area is commonly used to store large and potentially heavy items. (Surprise!)

 

NEW CONSTRUCTION CHALLENGES

 

The type of residence (e.g., old construction, new construction, one- or two-story, vaulted ceiling, tile roof) has a huge impact on selecting an appropriate attack plan. Across the country, new home construction often means vaulted ceilings reaching 20 to 30 feet at their peak, compartmentalized attics that can conceal fires and make extinguishment extremely challenging, and heavy clay or masonry tiles that limit ladder crews’ ability to work safely on the roof (photo 6).

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The standard interior firefighting tacticsand tasks are often extremely ineffective in this style of home construction. Ask any firefighter who has tried to use a long pike pole to pull a vaulted ceiling how effective it was. It is usually described as trying to poke a hole with a water wiggle (a limp hose). How about using ladders inside homes with vaulted ceilings? Again, once you’ve worked through the challenges of placing and securing the ladder (often on tile floor) and work to gain access to the attic, you’ve really only gained access to a small portion of a compartmentalized attic. So logically, smart firefighting would lead us to a different approach.

Considering different and more creative tactical options should not alter first-arriving engine company actions. It is critical that the first arriving crew make a fast aggressive interior attack to ensure an All-Clear and to confirm that the attic fire is not the result of a contents fire that has extended to the attic.

Gable-end attack.A gable-end attack coordinated with effective salvage efforts on the interior will minimize interior secondary damage and give you access to a significant portion of the attic space. An attack from both gable ends may be necessary to reach the entire attic, and crews must ensure that they use an appropriate climbing angle for the ladders or this operation can be extremely dangerous (photo 7).

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An additional safety concern with gable-end attacks is the nozzle backpressure, which can and has launched a firefighter off the ladder. Anchoring the nozzle pistol grip on a ladder rung and decreasing the psi at the pump panel can minimize this risk.

Attack from above with a penetrating nozzle. Attacking the fire from above with a penetrating nozzle is an effective way to move quickly across the roof while interior crews address life-safety and salvage-control efforts. Crews must be cautious and ensure roof tenability by sounding the roof with a pike pole as they work their way across the house. The extent of attic involvement and the intensity of the fire may make this operation unsafe. Effective size-up and communication are critical to a safe operation.

Another option for effectively and safely using a penetrating nozzle from above is to work off an aerial ladder platform (photo 8). This approach requires smart apparatus placement to ensure a critical spot for the ladder and practice by the ladder crew to make sure the evolution can be done quickly and safely. The most effective and timely way to deploy this attack is for the ladder crew to obtain a hoseline from an engine pumper. This is not a common attack, but with practice, smart apparatus placement, and effective communication, it can beeffective.

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OVERHAUL

 

The two primary goals of overhaul operations are to seek out and extinguish all remaining fire (hot spots, or “hidden fire”) and to control loss. Loss stop is the final tactical objective on the fireground. Attic fires present unique challenges for crews when working to complete this benchmark. The confined nature of attic fires and the presence of insulation require extensive overhaul efforts to ensure members have not missed any hotspots, embers, smoldering debris, and so forth that could result in a rekindle.

On confirmation of All-Clear and Fire Control, command must control loss-stop tasks to ensure that these efforts create any unnecessary secondary damage. Command controls these activities by slowing things down and communicating the loss-control plan. Crews must be professional and remember the priority is to save the occupants’ belongings. At some point, a firefighter should enter the attic and physically confirm there are no hot spots. The IC should arrange to have a crew return to the fire scene within a few hours of the end of the incident to check again for any signs of smoldering insulation. The last company officer to leave the scene is responsible for ensuring total fire extinguishment.

 

CUSTOMER SERVICE

 

As with all structure fires, our most important customer service goals center first on saving lives and then extinguishing the fire. As professional firefighters, we must be willing to risk our lives in a calculated manner to save lives and property. Fast, aggressive interior operations provide the greatest opportunity for us to meet these goals. As discussed, the nature of attic fires (fire above us with clear interior conditions) provides firefighters with a unique opportunity to truly address property conservation (salvage efforts). Our customers will remember that we got there fast and that we were nice; we saved people’s valuables and helped them return to some state of normalcy. Once, a customer could barely express her appreciation. She was crying and could not believe the care and attention we took to box up her personal items and cover her furniture. She had basic belongings, such as clothes, shoes, paperwork, pictures, and so forth, but they were valuable to her.

Added-value customer service efforts start with initial-arriving companies and continue throughout the operation as crews communicate with each other and the IC and fireground tasks are carried out in a calculated, thinking, and professional manner. Key points to remember include the following:

  • Coordinate simultaneous fire control and salvage efforts.
  • Minimize secondary damage when possible.
  • Communicate with the customer to identify salvage priorities.
  • Assign an occupant services sector.
  • Look for “added value” opportunities.

 

Customers will not remember that you saved their trusses or their beautiful attic and roof. But they will remember that you got there fast, you were nice, and you saved their belongings!

 

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Residential Attic Fires

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Residential Attic Fires

DEPARTMENTS

Volunteers Corner

As more and more residential homes spring up across the country, the number of attic fires also increases. In older homes, the insulation on wiring deteriorates, more and more combustible materials are stored in the attic, and woodburning stoves tax the flues. In newer homes, utilities are placed in the attic, unsafe clearances are built around heating and fireplace vents, and poor construction techniques are used. Construction with lightweight trusses will lead to an early collapse under fire conditions. All in all, the firefighter must be aware of the prevalence of attic fires and know how to handle them.

Residential attics usually have peaked roofs on dwellings and apartment buildings. Many row homes, town houses, condominiums, and some apartments have flat roofs with various sizes of cockloft. Both types of roof are often constructed without fire stops, allowing the fire to quickly spread horizontally and involve a maximum area.

In order to limit the damage from one of these fast-spreading fires, you must apply two basic firefighting principles: adequate ventilation of the attic space coupled with a vigorous, heavy interior attack. Both of these must be initiated immediately and in a coordinated manner by first-arriving crews.

Although most attic areas today have some type of built-in ventilation, it is not sufficient to remove the heat and gases from a well fueled fire. Much of the venting is at the lower portions of the attic space, rather than being located at the top where the heat accumulates, and feeds additional oxygen to the inferno.

Some buildings may be equipped with topside ventilators or gable vents. Neither of these systems approximate the square footage of a 4 X 4-foot well-placed hole.

If there has been considerable preburn, the roof may burn through. This will provide good ventilation as long as an engine company does not put a capping fog stream into the hole. The stream from that hose line and the steam it produces will push the heat and smoke throughout the interior exposure below and could spread the fire to the occupied portion of the structure.

Generally, the recommended practice is to open the roof at the highest point directly over the seat of the fire w’hen safely possible. Larger attic areas on multiple dwelling buildings may require an opening up to 8 X 8 feet.

In order to protect the interior exposures, the attack on the attic must be made from below the fire. In most structures this will require pulling the ceiling. So, the attack crew should use pike poles, rakes, or Sheetrock hooks. Short or D-handled devices work best in dwellings or apartments with low ceilings. Most departments prefer to use a scuttle opening or attic access when one is available. This will necessitate using an attic or folding ladder to reach the fire area.

The attack should be made with a hose line of sufficient size for the attic area. Because the 1 3/4-inch line can be easily maneuvered and has a larger flow capacity, it is ideal for the majority of these fires. If you are dealing with extremely large attic spaces, a 2 */2-inch line may be necessary.

In some cases, it may be possible to make a horizontal attack through a dormer or the end of the gable. This requires ventilation on the other end of the attic and, of course, a line below the fire to check for fire extending downward. The position below could be precarious if excessive water was placed in the attic and the ceiling begins to drop. In almost all cases, an attack through a ventilation opening should never be ordered!

Overhauling the attic fire can be difficult. Many attics are small, and the cockloft type may require extensive ceiling pulling to check all areas. There may be much damaged material that will have to be removed and only a few small openings to use.

Excessive use of water for washdown may cause water damage in the area below or bring about a collapse. Smouldering materials may burst into flames when brought into a more oxygen-rich atmosphere below the attic.

Do not overlook salvage at attic fires. Cover the furniture in rooms below the fire. If possible, “bag” the area before pulling the ceiling. After extinguishment, any holes in the roof will have to be closed or covered.

The proper use of water is an important method of performing salvage during an attic fire. Once the fire is darkened down, close the nozzle and then use it intermittently for final extinguishment of spot fires. Judicious nozzle usage will minimize water damage and lessen overall cleanup and water removal.

There are several things you must keep in mind when fighting an attic fire:

  • Sometimes people will use the attic as a bedroom, and rescue will be necessary. This can be difficult, and makes coordinated attack and ventilation operations even more imperative.
  • There is always the possibility of collapse due to the utilities, such as water heaters and furnaces, and other materials that are often stored in attics. Officers must be aware and watch out for this.
  • Those working in the attic must be careful not to miss a rafter and fall through. Serious injury can result. There also can be electric lines and gas pipes in the attic, which compound the injury and fire problems.

Attic fires can be very serious. They require the proper application of several basic techniques in an orderly fashion by a well-trained crew working together as a team. Before your next attic fire, make sure to review your department’s procedures, the types of local construction, and the hazards that you may encounter.