THE “ROUTINE” GARAGE FIRE

BY BRUCE RICHARD

Your engine company is the first to arrive at a fire in a garage attached to a one-family ranch house. The overhead door is open, and the garage and car inside are heavily involved. Your engineer spots the apparatus at the foot of the driveway, and you and the nozzleman pull a preconnected 13/4-inch hoseline straight from the crosslay to the burning garage. You attack the fire through the open door, and it is quickly and easily knocked down. It took just a few seconds and less than a tank of water. The bystanders applaud. Your company looked good, and you feel good about the job.


You were successful at this fire because you had two things going for you. The first was that your local building code required a 30-minute fire resistive door and vertical openings separating the garage from the house. The second was luck. The problem is, luck might not be with you the next time, and the results may be disastrous.

NO-MAN’S-LAND

The typical garage in America is a no-man’s-land packed with a multitude of hazards. Take a look at your own garage. If it’s anything like mine, it’s filled with paint, aerosol cans, liquefied petroleum (LP) gas, insecticides, fertilizer, and overhead storage. In suburbia, a garage becomes the storage area for gasoline-powered lawn equipment and one or more containers of gasoline. With all the storage, it can be hard to even fit a car in the garage. If there is a car, there’s a good chance it will be equipped with a plastic fuel tank, rubber fuel hoses, and at least several gallons of gasoline. Natural or LP gas water heaters are commonly found in the garage. Gas-fueled clothes dryers are also common in some areas. A gas leak is not the only hazard a dryer poses. I’ve seen explosions caused by gasoline-impregnated clothes that were put in the gas-fired appliance to be dried.

Overhead

Now, look up. It’s common to find heavily loaded storage and one or more automatic garage door openers (see photo 1). In South Florida and other coastal areas, homeowners will frequently hang hurricane shutters weighing hundreds of pounds from makeshift racks hanging from the ceiling. The garage is the preferred location for installing folding stairs leading to the attic. These clever devices allow more and heavier storage to be placed in the attic, which could hasten the roof’s collapse, especially if the roof is supported by lightweight wood trusses. A truss is a single but interdependent element of a roof system. Each truss depends on the other trusses to share the load. The bottom chord is an integral part of a system of triangularly arranged 2- by 4-foot (or larger) wood members, designed to vertically support the roof. Extra down loads applied to the bottom chords could quite possibly exceed the engineered load capacities of the trusses and cause the entire roof to collapse early in the incident, especially if the roof holds a heavy load such as barrel tile in the South or snow in the North.


Building codes in most areas require attic scuttles and garage-to-house doors to be metal clad or to have at least some degree of fire resistance. The attic stair assemblies bought at the local home improvement store and installed by the homeowner are unlikely to have any fire resistance whatsoever. They are typically constructed of particleboard or thin plywood and frequently don’t close well (see photo 2). It won’t take long for fire to extend into the attic and spread throughout, fueled by a generous supply of combustible storage and high surface-to-mass wood trusses (see photo 3).

IF LUCK IS AGAINST YOU

Now that we’ve considered some of the hazards of a typical household garage, let’s see what could happen if luck is not on your side.

Scenario 1


Your company arrives on what appears to be another routine fire in an attached garage. Again, you spot the apparatus at the base of the driveway to facilitate pulling the cross-laid preconnect. This time, however, you fail to notice that the overhead door is not in its normal open position; the force of a gas explosion blew it across the street (see photo 4).

A mini van is burning in the garage. You didn’t notice gasoline pouring out of the melted fuel lines; it was being consumed as fast as it leaked out. You extinguish the fire. Natural gas leaking from the water heater and clothes dryer fill the garage, setting the stage for a second, more powerful explosion. Remember, the gas won’t ignite until the gas reaches an ignition source. This could take some time. Any telltale odor of leaking gas will be masked by the smell of smoke or go undetected by firefighters wearing SCBA. The leaking gas and the running gasoline spill set the stage for an explosion and a fire that may involve the garage, the fire apparatus, and possibly unsuspecting firefighters.

Scenario 2


This time, you arrive to find the garage door down; the smoke pushing from around it indicates there is a serious fire inside the garage.

The engineer spots the apparatus past the garage, thus avoiding the downward slope of the driveway. You and the nozzleman advance the hoseline to the front door. As you enter the house, you notice that the inside is almost completely clear of smoke and there’s very little heat. You advance the line to the intact door that separates the kitchen from the garage. You open the door and your hoseline. The fire is quickly darkened down. Just as quickly, however, the entire house fills with hot smoke and steam. In an instant, the damage that was confined to the garage has now multiplied several times over. This damage is directly attributable to the firefighters’ actions and could have been avoided (see photos 5, 6).

POSITION FOR ATTACK


There are two schools of thought about the location from which a fire in an attached garage should be mounted. Proponents of one approach say always fight such a fire from inside the house, typically from a door in or near the kitchen that leads to the garage. This route of attack has a lot of merit. Remember, the first hoseline should always be positioned between the fire and the life hazard. Firefighters maintaining this position are correct in their rationale that says there is no guarantee that the door and ceiling have held the fire to the garage; it may already have extended into the house or attic.

Remember that flimsy cover on the attic stairs? Many homes have no appreciable fire resistance in the door or wall separating the house from the garage. You never know what the home do-it-yourselfer might have done. I remember one case in which a fire, originally in the garage, spread to the house through a wood and glass jalousie door (see photo 7).


The other school of thought says that fires in attached garages should be attacked from the garage. Those in favor of this approach base their assertion on personal experience gained from fighting several of these fires in their careers. These firefighters have experienced the rapid knockdown depicted in the opening of this article without taking the time to force entry and attack from within. It’s hard to argue with success. I’ve seen many fires confined to the garage by attacking from the overhead or side garage door. I’ve also seen some in which this tactic pushed the fire farther into the attic.


Before you criticize, consider staffing limitations. It might be hard to convince a two-firefighter suburban engine company to take the extra time to force entry though the front door, stretch the line into the house, and find the door leading to the garage, especially when the crew members have fire blowing out at them through an open garage door. Some would ask, “Why open a perfectly good door from inside the house and risk filling the entire house with smoke and heat?” If attacking from the exterior-and you have enough personnel-stretch a precautionary line inside to get ahead of the fire. Be sure to coordinate with the interior crew, and don’t have opposing streams.


So, who’s right? Before you take sides, remember there are very few absolutes in firefighting. But consider this: How do you know you have a perfectly good door if you haven’t gone inside to find out? Nobody says you have to do things the same way at every fire, but I can assure you that the arbitrary practice of fighting this fire from the outside sooner or later will bite you. If the house-to-garage door or garage ceiling (if there is one) has been compromised, you’re going to end up with a lot more fire in previously uninvolved areas.


On the other hand, to drag hose through a pristine house to extinguish a small fire in the corner of the garage would be ludicrous. Your actions must be determined by the conditions you find on arrival. What is the time of day (or night)? Are living quarters above the fire? Is smoke pumping from soffits and roof vents? Is the garage open (venting)? How severe is the fire? What are your crew capabilities and staffing?

As implied earlier, there are ways to fight a fire in an attached garage from the inside and to reduce-or even eliminate-secondary damage to the living area. It may take a few extra moments and additional resources, but the commitment will be well worth it.


In the scenario where smoke is pumping from around the overhead door, there obviously is a serious fire in the garage. If no smoke was noted issuing from the roof or soffit vents, experience suggests that the fire has not yet spread to the attic. Once inside the house, other observations can help you determine if the fire has spread overhead. If so, there probably would be a noticeable increase of heat inside the house. Other indications would include soot stains or blistered paint at the ceiling level or smoke showing from air-conditioning ducts (see photo 8), light fixtures, or other penetrations.


Thermal imaging cameras are excellent for detecting fire in an attic without pulling the ceiling. Stretch your line in through the front door, and advance it to the door leading to the garage/fire. Take a few seconds to close all the interior doors. This alone will limit the potential of secondary damage to the common living area. Either way, attic involvement or not, you’re going to be attacking from the correct position-from inside the house.

Positive-Pressure Ventilation

If none of the indicators of attic involvement are present, the next tactic involves positive-pressure ventilation (PPV). Only personnel well trained in its techniques and who understand the consequences of its improper use should be assigned PPV.

Position a PPV fan so that it blows into the front door of the house. Have a crew standing by ready to take out a garage window or the garage side door or to cut an exhaust hole in the overhead door. You’ve already closed the interior doors. Now, close all the common area windows to contain the pressurization. The few seconds it takes to accomplish these tasks will pay off in decreasing damage to an otherwise undamaged house. The garage and its contents were almost certainly a total loss when you arrived anyway. Once everyone is in place, order that the PPV fan be started and its flow be directed into the house. Open the exhaust vent in the garage, and then attack the fire from inside the house, at the door leading to the garage. With the interior of the house pressurized, no smoke should be entering the house, provided a large enough exhaust vent was opened.

If, on the other hand, you found evidence of attic involvement when you entered the house, depending on the degree of involvement, PPV could possibly cause more harm than good. The introduction of pressurized fresh air can intensify the fire burning overhead, possibly even precipitating a flashover or backdraft. Now, your tactics are going to be determined by your estimate of how severe the fire is. Unless you have evidence to indicate that the smoke and heat in the house are the results of an open or burned-through door, you have to assume that the fire is spreading by way of the attic. You should make your attack from inside, in conjunction with outside ventilation-but without PPV.

Once the fire is knocked down, you will have to visually inspect the attic. That is the only way you can confirm noninvolvement or extinguishment. If the garage ceiling above the main body of fire appears to be intact and interior damage is minor, pull the garage ceiling. If you find extension or if the garage ceiling appears to have been penetrated by fire, make your examination opening inside the house. At this point, you’re not too concerned about minor secondary damage. Make sure the fire is out, or you may be back in a few hours.

It is understood that many rural and suburban departments do not have the resources necessary to perform the above tactics. These departments will continue to extinguish these fires as best they can with what they have. At times, depending on circumstances, secondary damage can’t be avoided. A nighttime fire in an apparently occupied two-story house with living quarters above the garage should necessitate an immediate attack by the fastest and most direct means possible to protect life and facilitate rescue. When lives are at risk, property damage becomes secondary.

SAFETY CONSIDERATIONS

A few things need to be emphasized concerning this type of fire.

  • Remember gravity when spotting the apparatus. Avoid the down slope of driveways.
  • Check for a gas meter or LP bottle. If either is found, turn it off.
  • Once a serious garage fire is controlled, don’t be too anxious to go into the garage. Limit the number of personnel allowed inside the fire area. Keep escape routes open and clear. There’s no reason to rush in; everything in there is already destroyed. There’s nothing in there but hazards:

•electrical: Open breaker panels (photo 9), and exposed wires.

•explosion: The gas we’ve already talked about (photo 10).

•flammable liquids: They may be in damaged and leaking containers; be wary of them. Have you ever seen what happens to a full, plastic gasoline container in a fire? It melts and burns down to the level of the liquid until it is consumed. If the fire is extinguished before it’s all consumed, you’ll have an open-topped container of gasoline just waiting to get kicked over.

•poisons, insecticides, and residual fire gases: Make sure you wear your SCBA throughout the later stages of overhaul.

•mechanical: Don’t get trapped in a burning garage. Fire can weaken overhead door torsion springs, and doors can unexpectedly roll down.

Electrical short circuits or errant radio signals can trigger a door to close, injuring or trapping you. With today’s wind-load standards, overhead doors are extremely heavy. A door exposed to fire will be too warped and too heavy to lift. If found in the open position, prop up overhead doors with tools. Use a pike pole for height and a halligan or other heavy bar in the guide track for safety.

The heavy fire loads found in a typical attached garage present the firefighter with significant risks and challenges. Where and how to attack such a fire depend on many factors. Some can be learned before an incident through training, prefire planning, and becoming familiar with local construction and building codes. Many factors, however, can be analyzed only on arrival at the scene. A thorough size-up is critical to selecting the proper strategy and tactics. There are just too many variables and hazards at a fire in an attached garage to “wing it” and hope for the best, especially if luck isn’t on your side.

BRUCE RICHARD is a battalion chief, paramedic, and SCUBA diver in Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue.

Photos by author.

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