Wind-Driven Fires: Lessons Learned in Houston

BY CHRISTOPHER CHAVEZ

Windy days with wind speeds in excess of 10 miles per hour (mph) and gusts from 20 to 30 mph are common in Southeast Texas. Unfortunately, firefighters do not always recognize the invisible enemy–wind–which can create hazardous situations, and herein lies the danger. Veteran incident commanders (ICs) know that the wind is an aggravating problem in fireground operations, carrying the potential for disastrous consequences. Science has recognized the problem; now it is time for firefighters to do so as well.

After all, we will not have a team of scientists standing by on the fireground to tell us when it is too windy to approach from the unburned side and when to pull our firefighters out of the building. We will have to rely on knowledge and experience–knowledge gained through research and experience gained through training. These measures will enable us to recognize a bad risk, especially when no civilian or firefighter lives are at stake. Through examination of case studies of wind-driven fires that have resulted in firefighter fatalities, increased awareness of the local wind problem, self-initiated experiments, and a change in tactics, we will be one step closer to reaching the goal of all firefighters–to save lives, including our own.

THE PROBLEM

The forces behind this article are concern for the safety of all firefighters and, more specifically, the line-of-duty deaths of Captain James Harlow and Probationary Firefighter Damian Hobbs of the Houston (TX) Fire Department (HFD), who died in 2009 when the large picture windows at the back of the house in which they were fighting a fire failed, creating an unrestricted flow path for the fire and creating untenable conditions. Their story is detailed in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation Report “Career Probationary Firefighter and Captain Die as a Result of Rapid Fire Progression in a Wind-Driven Residential Structure Fire.”1 As trained firefighters, we know the problem, we know the solution, and we know that there are viable tactics that will help keep us alive. The key is to stay open minded and remain keenly aware of the problem.

Some fireground officers reading this article may be thinking that it is better to fight fire from the street. They could not be more wrong. Also, some aggressive fireground officers may look on this as a “watering down” of our current tactics. Yes, it is different, but we must adjust our tactics to ensure the best odds for survival. We always have a need for good aggressive officers, but the aggression must be controlled. Fire officers must use their heads more than their guts–in other words, we must become smart firefighters.

WHAT IS A WIND-DRIVEN FIRE?

Many firefighters are uniquely unaware of the problems of wind-driven fires. They have no idea of the circumstances that constitute a wind-driven fire. William R. Mora, a retired captain of the San Antonio (TX) Fire Department, researched the disorienting effects of wind-driven fires and provides a simple explanation concerning The Wind Trap Hazard:

Wind-driven fires are extremely dangerous and can instantaneously disorient and trap unsuspecting firefighters. One disturbing situation involves a fire originating on the Charlie side of a structure under pressurized wind conditions and a misinterpretation of the initial size-up factors.
In this scenario, smoke and/or fire originating at the rear may be visible on the approach or over the roof line from the Alpha side of the structure. This condition as seen during the initial size-up will appear to be ideal to initiate a traditional fast and aggressive interior attack from the unburned (Alpha) side while positive-pressure ventilators (PPVs) are set up at the front door to assist in forcing the smoke and heat forward to vent out the Charlie side of the structure.
However, because the wind is in fact pressurizing the Charlie side of the structure and the venting fire, when the front door is opened and firefighters enter to locate the fire and search for occupants, they will be met by a pressurized fast moving wall of fire having blowtorch characteristics and untenable temperatures. Since the venting fire burning on the Charlie side of the structure will follow the path of least resistance, a rapidly spreading flow path of fire and smoke will be established between the open windows on the pressurized Charlie side (the inlet) and the open door on the Alpha side (the vent point). It is also important to note that the use of PPVs at the point of entry will not be able to overcome the pressure created by the wind. Without an explicit warning, an accurate initial size-up, and predetermined strategy and tactics designed to avoid the danger, today’s firefighters may easily become a part of a Firefighter Disorientation Sequence from sudden exposure to an extremely dangerous wind-driven structure fire.2

This is a factual explanation of what happens when wind-driven conditions are present. This has happened in various cities small and large. Meanwhile, the firefighter death toll is mounting nationwide.

FIRE LESSONS

In the past 12 years, the HFD has suffered seven line-of-duty deaths on the fireground. Three of these deaths occurred at wind-driven events, and we sincerely hope that these lessons paid for in blood are not in vain.

Unfortunately, because of costs of equipment and a reluctance to change, the fire service often must pay a price before making changes. This was the case after the deaths of Firefighters Louis Mayo and Kim Smith of the HFD in 2000, at an arson fire at a McDonald’s restaurant. Heavy air-conditioning units supported by a truss roof that failed as it burned through allowed the air-conditioning units to fall into the building. One firefighter became entangled in wires, and the escape route for the other firefighter, who was found near the back door, was cut off.

After the reasons for the collapse became clear, the HFD aggressively began training on the dangers of the truss. This was further reinforced by NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation Report F2000-13, which made several recommendations including suggestions on accountability, recognizing truss roof systems, and–most important of all–providing radios for all firefighters on the fireground.3

After HFD Captain Jay Jahnke’s death in 2001, we learned that the weather, especially the wind, is a factor in high-rise operations. All fireground deaths are tragedies, but do we truly learn from them? Did we recognize the factors that led to Jahnke’s death? At the time of his death, a weather front with 19-mph winds from the north was moving in. After running low on air, Jahnke and another firefighter exited the fire apartment into the hallway. High heat from a now wind-driven fire was quickly approaching blowtorch conditions. In addition, “hose in large loops was piled in the hallway. Intense heat and zero visibility at the point of refuge (opposite end of the hallway from the fire apartment) may have made it appear to the victims that they had gotten turned around and were heading back toward the apartment and not the emergency stairwell.”4 The intensity of the fire caused by the wind delayed his recovery and contributed to another Mayday called by the rapid intervention team (RIT).

Initially, it was believed that this situation was an anomaly; all the wrong circumstances combined at the wrong time to lead to his tragic death. What we did not learn was that wind-driven fires can happen without a northern wind blowing in, and we have not explored the weather patterns that cause high winds. As you will see, the winds would manifest themselves once again on a tragic Easter Sunday.

As firefighters, we must learn to recognize weather patterns and the inherent problems that come with them. We must become highly attuned to the weather and pay attention to weather forecasts that signify events such as severe winter weather, extreme heat temperatures with their inherent humidity, and especially wind. The National Weather Service (NWS) can help prepare us for what is certain to come. It should be mandatory that the dispatch center have a direct link to the NWS. In addition, the NWS has specialized meteorologists called “IMETs,” or “Incident Meteorologists,” available to assist with wildfires and other special incidents. The IMETs’ duty is to brief the IC on weather-related issues, which can be critical in an extended incident.

CASE STUDIES

Baytown (TX) Fire Department (BFD)

December 20, 2004, an ordinary one-story wood-frame brick veneer residential structure.

On this day, the wind speed was 14 mph with gusts to 31 mph. The IC arriving on scene reported “light smoke from a one-story residence.”5 Typically, a report of light smoke does not set off alarm bells in anyone’s head. Crews were assigned to force entry, make an attack on the fire, and perform a primary search. As soon as entry was forced, the conditions began to terminally change: A continuous flow path was completed. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a flow path is composed of at least one inlet opening, one exhaust opening, and the connecting volume in between the openings. The direction of the flow is determined by differences in pressure. Heat and smoke in a high-pressure area will flow toward areas of lower pressure.

It is estimated that the initial attack crew got no farther than 15 to 20 feet inside the structure before conditions began to deteriorate; flames were reported to be down to knee level. With hellish conditions inside and the structure deteriorating rapidly, the interior crews had no choice but to evacuate. Crews exited the structure with their gear on fire and became mixed and separated during the mad rush to get out. One firefighter did not escape.

Even with a RIT standing by, the firefighter could not be saved. All of this occurred within four minutes of initial entry. By no means is this a condemnation of the BFD tactics. Many departments throughout the country use the same tactics and would have made entry from the same point this initial attack crew used. Indeed, we know all too well the tragedy of firefighter deaths.

Houston (TX) Fire Department (HFD)

April 12, 2009, Easter Sunday, just after midnight, crews from Station and District 26 were dispatched to another ordinary run-of-the-mill house fire.

On arrival, smoke conditions were heavy. Steady 17-mph winds and 26-mph gusts caused the smoke to lie down across the street, obscuring visibility. Immediately, Engine 26 was forced to slow to a crawl to find the correct house. Note: Research by NIST has shown that wind speeds of 10 to 20 mph are sufficient to create wind-driven fire conditions in a structure with an uncontrolled flow path.6 (1)

During the initial attack, Engine 36 followed Engine 26 inside and advanced 10 to 15 feet into the structure while Ladder 29 was performing the primary search. This was the last point where Engine 26 was seen, just in front of Engine 36. Here, things began to go catastrophically wrong. Captain Frank Alcazar, the officer of Engine 36, said that, as he began to pull ceiling, “intense heat forced him to the floor.”7 At the same time, he encountered a strange phenomenon that he had never experienced on the fireground. Suddenly, he began to hear a whooshing or roaring sound that was unfamiliar to him. This sound is believed to have been the failure of the large picture windows at the back of the house (approximately 16 feet × 8 feet) with the result that the gusting winds gained access to the fire and caused flashover conditions as the room contents exploded into fire. (7)

In the meantime, members of Engine 36 were in a fight for their lives as fire flanked their side and back. The hoseline, which was in operation, offered little protection and had little effect on the extreme temperatures they were experiencing. Alcazar explains: “We went from a crouching position to the floor instantly. Waves began to appear on my mask as it sooted up, and I could feel my face burning.” After the fire, it was discovered that Alcazar had sustained facial burns. This indicates that he and his crew were not far from becoming victims.

With some firefighters’ gear actually on fire on exit from the house, all involved described the fire as violent and said that the fire’s noise level overcame their sense of hearing. The intense heat and this level of noise may cause a sense of fear. Firefighters can experience adverse physiological and psychological effects as both the mind and the body kick into survival mode. At this point, firefighters know only one thing: They must get out!

The physiological effect is the intense heat as it begins to burn the firefighter’s body. This, in turn, contributes to the psychological fear of imminent death, which can lead to panic. As the inability to contain emotions takes effect, panic sets in and a firefighter is likely to make a mistake such as not following the hoseline out. This vicious cycle continues until either the firefighter finds safety or dies, which can happen in mere seconds.

It is well known that wind-driven fires create blowtorch conditions and raise the heat of the room beyond that which fire gear was designed to withstand (approximately 1,200°F). When blowtorch conditions prevail, fire gear begins to fail. Our face masks, our weakest link, fail around 430°F. Masks glaze over, bubble, and deform as temperatures reach the 1,000°F range. At this temperature, our fire gear will also begin to fail, though it may still be intact. Unfortunately, this is a moot point, as our masks will have already deteriorated, failed, and been destroyed with the resultant loss of life.

The time span between the onset of blowtorch conditions and death is frighteningly small. In fact, Dan Madrzykowski of NIST estimates that anyone in the flow path has as little as 10 seconds to evacuate. In these 10 seconds, a firefighter must first recognize the danger, react to it without panicking, and hopefully find his way out. This reflex time leaves no margin for error. Moreover, in the mad rush to exit a building, it is critically important that fire officers keep strict accountability of their crews and account for everyone on exit. Why? Crews can become intermingled, lost in the confusion, and misidentified, as is commonly seen on the fireground. Misidentification can lead company officers and the IC to believe that all companies have a complete personnel accountability report when this is far from the truth. In addition, it is important on exiting the building that accountability go so far as to remove each firefighter’s face mask and identify each crew member visually for confirmation.

VENTILATE OR NOT?

With the line-of-duty deaths of Harlow and Hobbs, the HFD became acutely aware of the dangers of wind-driven fires and how they affect fireground operations. We initially recognized this with the death of Jahnke in 2001, but we did not train our firefighters to recognize this. The wind is a monster on the fireground! It affects not only our ability to ventilate but also the method of ventilation. Consequently, the decision involving how or if to ventilate should be on the mind of every fireground officer. As any student of wind-driven fires knows, an unrestricted horizontal flow path for the wind can mean disaster on the fireground. It can be as simple as the wind pressurizing the back of the house while you open the front door to begin your attack. Harlow and Hobbs died in 2009 because the fire had an unrestricted flow path when the large picture windows failed at the back of the house, creating untenable conditions. Nito Guajardo of the Baytown Fire Department died in a similar fashion in 2004.

When it comes to vertical ventilation, professional firefighters and science have had a difference of opinion. Madrzykowski advocates that no ventilation be attempted in wind-driven fire conditions until after the fire has been knocked down because of the danger of fire being pushed down on the interior crews.8 For this reason, we must learn to recognize the signs of a wind-driven fire, not to ventilate until the fire has been knocked down, and not to put interior crews inside a building until we can control the situation. This might mean delaying the rescue of victims until after the fire has been knocked down. We cannot rescue the victims if we need to be rescued ourselves.

Some departments advocate breaking windows to ventilate a structure. It is important to recognize that having windows intact is one of the ways to control the ventilation profile of the structure until proper ventilation can be completed. NIST has made it known that whenever we break a window or open a door, we change the ventilation profile of the entire building. This is important when on the fireground and absolutely critical in a wind-driven fire. Never break windows without checking with the IC first, and watch out for freelancing firefighters who deem it their duty to break every window in the building. Remember the flow path!

On the same subject, horizontal ventilation, if used properly, can have positive effects on the fire. When used improperly, it can extend the fire by force-feeding it oxygen. There are several good videos on YouTube that show these mistakes. Firefighters should watch the videos to learn, not to be critical. Everyone, no matter how good, makes mistakes. With that said, one thing that we absolutely must not do is to try and use a positive-pressure fan to overcome a wind-driven event. “Recent research conducted in the United Kingdom suggests that opposing head wind speeds as low as 6 mph may counter the effects of PPV and make it difficult to overcome the natural air flow. Always note the wind strength and direction, and consider them whenever PPV is used on the fireground.”9 Positive pressure cannot overcome the forces of nature, nor should it be attempted when wind-driven fire conditions exist.

Ventilation decisions should always be made with the wind in mind and an awareness that fireground conditions are constantly changing. This means that the IC should constantly monitor the fire and adjust tactics to meet the continuously changing conditions. Keep in mind, and it bears repeating, that Madrzykowski advocates that no ventilation be attempted until after the fire has been knocked down in wind-driven fire conditions because of the danger of fire being pushed down on the interior crews. Even with victims inside, we must recognize that firefighter safety comes first and that we can do the victims no good if we need to be rescued ourselves. Finally, with a heavy body of fire in the attic, there is always the possibility of roof collapse. One thing is for certain: In a wind-driven fire with firefighter casualties, the IC will be closely scrutinized and possibly be held responsible should anything happen.

THE WIND

Some firefighters believe that the wind speed and direction should be given out at the time of dispatch. In theory, this is a great idea; the problem is that dispatch may have access to the wind speed and direction only at one location throughout the response area. This information does not help a fire officer who is not near a weather-monitoring station or who is in a remote part of town. But firefighters must be warned that information such as this is only a snapshot of what is going on and that the wind speed and direction are constantly changing. However, as advocated by Mora, whenever wind speeds are 10 mph or greater, dispatch must notify units, particularly the IC and the first-arriving engine, for the safety of the firefighters. The alert must be fast, accurate, and downloadable to the dispatch computers, or it must be transmitted by voice directly to these personnel.

Fire officers must always be observant of indicators such as flags sticking straight out in a stiff breeze or smoke lying down in the street. An especially dangerous sign is when fire or smoke seems to be pulsing and blowing out puffs of smoke and fire from the structure. This means that the house is already charged with hot gases and a continuous flow path such as an open door or window or a firefighter freelancing on the fireground breaking windows is all it will take to invite disaster onto the fireground. For an example of what pulsing is, NIST provides the excellent video “Evaluating Fire Fighting Tactics Under Wind-Driven Conditions” that details its experiments with wind-driven fires. To obtain a free DVD, send an e-mail to madrzy@nist.gov with your mailing address.

In Southeast Texas, wind speed exceeds 10 mph many days during the year. Reviewing historical data supplied from the NWS from April 2010 reveals that wind speed was in excess of 10 mph 14 days. On these days, the wind speed ranged from 10.6 to 15.1 mph; gusts ranged from 22 to 26 mph.10Some times of the year may be worse than others; however, the point is clear that Southeast Texas will experience many windy days and the IC must pay close attention to all the factors that influence the fireground to ensure the survivability of firefighters.

THE EXPERIMENT

Recently, while preparing to go to the HFD’s training academy, the officers of Station 26 got together and wondered whether it would be feasible to reconstruct a wind-driven fire in the training academy’s flashover chamber. The answer went from a simple “we can try” to a full-scale experiment.

The first experiment was rather rudimentary, but personnel tried to make it as scientific as possible. The Mobile Ventilation Unit (MVU) was used as a wind source; it was placed in the back of the opening to the chamber where all fires are set. A standard fire load consisting of five pallets and three sheets of plywood was used. This experiment did not include a scientific measuring device such as thermocouples, wind speed indicators, or a way to accurately measure the fire load. However, firefighters, being the resourceful individuals they are, began to improvise, adapt, and overcome. We used a thermal imaging camera (TIC) to measure heat readings on the floor, four-foot, and ceiling levels. Firefighters consulted the manufacturer of the MVU and were able to measure wind speed by the fan’s number of revolutions per minute (rpm).

The first floor of the flashover chamber is a C-shaped structure constructed of metal shipping containers consisting of three legs fused together. Firefighters initially measured temperatures at the floor, four-feet, and ceiling levels. It was a hot June day, and the TIC readings were consistent with the ambient temperature of 95°F: The floor level read 95°F; the four-foot level, 104°F; and the ceiling level, 126°F. Note: The fire had to be restoked every time the fan speed changed. The experiments were conducted at 1,000 rpm or 11 mph; 2,000 rpm or 15 mph; 3,000 rpm or 22 mph; and the fan’s maximum of 4,000 rpm or 34 mph. At 4,000 rpm, the fan can displace 250,000 cubic feet per minute (cfm).

As Figure 1 illustrates, the results of the experiment were disappointing. Although it demonstrates that the wind has an effect on the fire by increasing the rate of burning, it does not accurately depict a wind-driven fire and the blowtorch conditions prevalent in an event such as this.

Figure 1. Effects of Wind-Driven Fires on Temperature, Experiment 1
Charts by Captain Michael Flannigan, Houston (TX) Fire Department Val Jahnke Training Academy, June 2010.
Charts by Captain Michael Flannigan, Houston (TX) Fire Department Val Jahnke Training Academy, June 2010.

The second experiment was conducted in much the same way as the first experiment, with just a few changes. First, since the results from the first experiment were inconclusive, we realized that we had forgotten that a house has a fire load in addition to the room that is on fire. A fire load consisting of a sofa, a love seat, and a desk that was more metal than wood was placed in the middle leg of the flashover chamber. Second, a pocket weather tracker was used to measure the force of the wind being blown directly into the opening of the flashover chamber.

Madrzykowski from NIST and Stephen Kerber of Underwriters Laboratories had conducted their own scientific experiments. In one set of experiments, Madrzykowski found that a single upholstered chair generated more than 330 megajoules (MJ) of energy and had a peak heat release rate of 1.8 megawatts (MW) and a sofa generated more than 840 MJ of energy and had a peak heat release rate of approximately 2.5 MW. (6) He also points out that based on the ventilation limits of a single open doorway in a residential sized room, it takes one or two pieces of burning furniture, about 2.0 MW of energy, to cause flashover.

Madrzykowski explains that modern fire gear has a thermal protection performance rating of 35 that will protect you for approximately 17 seconds. This gear is tested to 84 kW/-m2 under ideal conditions in a lab and with clean gear.11 In a more ominous warning, based on his research, Madrzykowski states that if you get hit with this kind of energy, you are not going to get up. (6)

The results of the first three burns of the second experiment were less than dramatic; the same cannot be said for the final burn. For the final burn, the fan was set at 4,000 rpm or 34 mph. As soon as the fan was turned into the vent opening, things began to change dramatically. In less time than it takes to read the preceding lines of this paragraph, the sofa, loveseat, and desk had all lit off, and the room temperature from floor to ceiling was more than 1,000°F. At this point, the IC ordered the fan shut down and all doors and vents opened. When the exterior crews opened the middle leg of the flashover chamber, it looked like a well-involved house fire because of the fire load of the middle leg. The fire was then extinguished and the experiment concluded.

What the crews had to report (Figure 2) was sobering. As soon as the fan was turned on, the contents of the room lit off and the temperature went from approximately 250°F to more than 1,150°F. Face masks placed inside the flashover chamber failed, radio antennas began to deform, and there was obvious extreme heat.

Figure 2. Effects of Wind-Driven Fires on Temperature, Experiment 2
Charts by Captain Michael Flannigan, Houston (TX) Fire Department Val Jahnke Training Academy, June 2010.

Some may view this experiment as a commonsense issue. Nothing is further than the truth; firefighters have little information on this subject, although we have firsthand experience through the deaths of our firefighters.

To prevent another occurrence, we must understand the wind factor on the fireground and the conditions that create it. One thing is certain: This is a floor-to-ceiling event, and there may not be a means of escape.

SOLUTIONS

When the windows fail and the front door is open, fire has an unrestricted continuous flow path throughout the entire house, which greatly accelerates fire and makes conditions untenable. These are the conditions fire officers must recognize. Shortly after the death of Harlow and Hobbs, the HFD created 10 commandments for the fireground; perhaps it is time for an eleventh in the form of Mora’s Wind-Driven Fire Action Plan, which follows.

Keeping in mind Mora’s explanation of the Wind Trap Hazard, whenever wind conditions become extreme, an attack from the unburned side is not the solution. If a hard wind is blowing (10 mph or greater) from the burning side and is blowing the fire directly on top of us, it is not worth risking death by entering from the unburned side. When a captain performs a 360° walk-around, he should report large openings such as windows or doors because a hard wind and the failure of the windows may mean that the interior crew does not have a chance. The 360° walk-around may be one of the ways to prevent another fireground death.

In the week after Harlow and Hobbs were killed, I became aware of details concerning a Wind-Driven Fire Action Plan developed by Mora, which included data provided by Madrzykowski. Possibly, this Action Plan can serve as an outline for a future plan of attack in wind-driven fires. According to Mora, prior to plan implementation, all firefighters and dispatchers must be trained to understand that a wind speed as low as 10 mph pressurizing fire venting from the side of a structure can cause sudden life-threatening fire conditions on the interior should an unrestricted flow path and vent point be established on any other side of the structure. With that understanding, firefighters may consider the following steps of the Wind-Driven Fire Action Plan to safely manage extremely dangerous wind-driven structure fires.

Wind-Driven Fire Action Plan

1 As a warning and reminder to consider a wind-driven fire condition with a 10-mph wind, dispatchers must transmit the wind speed and direction to responding companies at the time of dispatch.

2 Command must be notified of any forecasted change in the wind speed and direction and make tactical changes accordingly.

3 A 360° walk-around should be conducted to determine if venting fire is being pressurized by the wind; if so, on which side of the structure.

4 When a wind-driven fire condition is encountered, responding companies must be advised of the situation in a face-to-face exchange or by radio communication.

5 When possible, engine companies should quickly attack the fire from the exterior on the pressurized side of the structure (with the wind at your back) to knock down the main body of fire.

6 When knockdown is accomplished, and if the building is structurally sound, search and rescue crews may enter the structure through the extinguished side to conduct a primary search as other firefighters advance to check for fire extension.

Note: An exterior attack of vented fire on the pressurized side of a structure should be initiated during both rescue and nonrescue scenarios, since, as determined by NIST, advancing through an opening such as a door on the opposite side of the structure will create a vent point that will place firefighters and occupants in the dangerous flow path of fire.

Finally, all major cities and many smaller ones have high-rise buildings. Houston television station KPRC Meteorologist Mary Lee had this to say about the tunneling effect of the wind:

High-rise buildings can create a tunneling effect for wind, causing winds to increase as they exit. In meteorology, it’s called “confluence” and “difluence.” As winds enter the space between high-rise buildings, the air piles up, since the space is limited with a smaller area. That’s confluence. All the air wants to exit and funnel through the space as quickly as possible, so when the winds finally make it through, they speed up as they exit. It’s like traffic on a highway when the lanes reduce from five lanes to two lanes. Cars start piling up in traffic when the lanes decrease, but once the lanes increase back to five lanes, cars speed up. That’s difluence. The more high-rise buildings the wind has to funnel in between, the faster the winds will be once they finally exit.12

Any city with a large high-rise district should keep these facts in mind.

•••

In the past 10 years, we have suffered too many deaths on the fireground. We must learn to protect our own because the construction industry is not making buildings any safer for firefighters. Just as we learned to recognize the dangers of the truss, we must also become proficient in recognizing the conditions that contribute to wind-driven fires. If you have been in the fire service any length of time, you have seen these conditions on the fireground. The problem is that we have never been trained to recognize the conditions that can signal an impending catastrophe.

Because of the nature of the job, firefighter deaths happen. Someone once said, “The further we are from the last one, the closer we are to the next one.” This was said in reference to fires, but it also holds true for firefighter deaths.

Before his retirement from the HFD in 2009, Senior Captain John Zepeda had this to say about the firefighting profession, “We can make the job safer, but we can’t make it safe!” Short and simple! No, we cannot make the job safe, but we can make it safer by studying the problem so that we do not inadvertently create more widows and fatherless/motherless children.

References

1. “Career Probationary Fire Fighter and Captain Die as a Result of Rapid Fire Progression in a Wind-Driven Residential Structure Fire – Texas.” Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation Report F2009-11, CDC/NIOSH. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NIOSH. May 5, 2010. Accessed Web Dec. 9, 2010. <http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face200911.html>;.

2. Mora, William.”Wind Trap Hazard” and “Wind-Driven Fire Procedures” message to author, July 2012.

3.”Restaurant Fire Claims the Life of Two Career Firefighters–Texas.” Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation Report F2000-13. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Feb. 7, 2001. Accessed on Web Aug. 3, 2012.

4. “High-Rise Apartment Fire Claims the Life of One Career Fire Fighter (Captain) and Injures Another Career Fire Fighter (Captain)–Texas.” CDC/NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation Report F2001-33, Oct. 31, 2002.

5. “One Probationary Career Firefighter Dies and Four Career Firefighters Are Injured at a Two-Alarm Residential Structure Fire – Texas.” Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation Report F2005-02, CDC/NIOSH.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NIOSH. Oct. 4. 2005. Web. Accessed Web Aug. 15, 2010. <http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face200502.html>;.

6. Madrzykowski, D. and S. Kerber, “Fire Fighting Tactics Under Wind-Driven Conditions: Laboratory Experiments.” TN 1618, NIST, Jan. 2009.

7. Alcazar, Frank. Harlow and Hobbs. Personal interview. June 2010.

8. Kerber, Stephen and Dan Madrzykowski. “Fire Fighting Tactics under Wind-Driven Fire Conditions: 7-Story Building Experiments.” TN 1629, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Gaithersburg, MD, April 2009.

9. http://www.firetactics.com/PPV-GRIMWOOD.htm.

10. “Climate_iah_top10_apr.” National Weather Service Southern Region Homepage. 3 May 2010. Web. 29 June 2010. http://www.srh.noaa.gov/hgx/?n=climate_iah_top10_apr>;.

11. Peacock, Richard D, John F. Krasny, John A. Rockett, and Dingyi Huang. National Institute of Standards and Technology, Center for Fire Research. Aug. 1990. Accessed on Web. Aug. 9, 2012.

12. “Wind.” Message to Mary Lee. Dec. 13, 2010. E-mail.

CHRISTOPHER CHAVEZ is a 33-year veteran of the Houston (TX) Fire Department, where he is a district chief assigned to Station 26. He has an AAS in arson and fire investigation and an AA in criminal justice.

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