By Scott Ehlers
Leslie P. Ennis,
Emilio F. Salabarria
On May 19, 2000, Tampa (FL) Fire Rescue personnel were called to a report of electric lines down that would soon become a fire the likes of which hadn’t been seen in Tampa for more than 80 years. The initial call, reporting electric wires down near an apartment complex under construction in the Ybor City portion of the city of Tampa, came in at 0854 hours. Over the past several years, this area has undergone a huge transformation from a section of abandoned structures to a thriving business area revolving around a stretch of bars and nightclubs (known as 7th Avenue), resembling Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The apartment complex, to be known as “The Park at Ybor,” was to have been a 450-unit complex covering more than four city blocks just north of the 7th Avenue business section. This complex, like many others in the area, was rapidly built of wood-frame construction. Since the Park at Ybor complex was under construction, it did not have the benefit of installed firestopping, draftstopping, or drywall at the time of the fire. It was at its most vulnerable point, with nothing but exposed wood-frame construction extending more than three stories high.
Engine Company 6, normally the second-due company in this area, initially responded to the “wires down” call. Engine 4 (normally first-due and located only a few blocks away) was out of service on receipt of the alarm. Engine 6 arrived at 0900 hours and found that the arcing of the wires had been caused by a crane used to lift trusses into place-the crane had come in contact with the overhead wires, which in turn energized the vehicle. The surging electricity ignited nearby grass, construction debris (piled next to the structure), and a palm tree that would soon spread the fire to the upper floors. Engine 6 deployed an initial 13/4-inch attack line and requested a full alarm (consisting of two additional engine companies, an aerial company, a rescue unit, and a district chief). Because the still-arcing wires hampered the advancement of the initial attack line, the fire quickly ignited the unprotected frame construction. To compound the already vulnerable state of the wood construction, the Tampa area was experiencing a dry spell: It had not rained in more than six months. This made the entire structure as well as surrounding structures very dry.
At 0904 hours, the captain of Engine 6 requested a second alarm, after he found that the fire had already made its way up into the three-story structure. He then ordered that his truck be repositioned and large-caliber streams be put in place to help keep the fire from extending. As the remainder of the first-alarm companies arrived (Engines 4 and 10, Aerial 1, Rescue 4, and Battalion Chief 1), the overall strategy was to attempt to keep this rapidly moving fire (which was being assisted by the wind) from engulfing the remaining portion of the fire building. Engine 10 laid a five-inch supply line to the north side of the structure and deployed several 13/4-inch handlines as well as a deck gun in an attempt to slow the fire’s progression. As the fire started to consume the initial structure, the radiant heat became so intense that 13/4-inch lines were deployed just to cool down personnel and equipment. Additionally, the radiant heat melted high-power lines located directly over Engine 10’s position and started to impinge on two structures: a post office and a brewery located across the street from the apartments. The strategy of containing the fire to a portion of the fire building would prove futile-it was now a question of attempting to prevent the spread of fire to other structures.
Aerial Company 1, which initially responded to the north side of the structure, quickly realized that to remain in its chosen position would be extremely dangerous because of the high-power lines overhead and the fast-moving fire. Aerial 1 repositioned to the southwest corner in an attempt to get its tower ladder into operation. This position also had to be abandoned when attempts to supply the large-caliber streams were unsuccessful.
A burning truss suspends from the crane, which initiated the fire. Fortunately, the crane operator was able to jump to safety without injury. (Photo by Chuck Sutnick.)
At this time, the fire now had total control of more than two city blocks and was crossing over 19th Street. Command had hoped that 19th Street would be a barrier to help stop this conflagration. All efforts now were directed at protecting the surroundings structures, most of which were built at the turn of the century and had historical value.
On the northeast corner of the complex was the Ybor Brewing Company, directly across from the fire’s origin and protected by Engines 6 and 5. On the southeast corner was the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, protected by Engine 1. To the west was a “mirror image” of the fully involved portion of the apartment complex. Command had no choice but to “write off ” this unburned portion of the complex. There was no saving it because of the amount of radiant heat and unprotected surface area. A third alarm was transmitted at 0911 hours and brought in Engines 7 and 18 and Rescue 5.
As the fire moved across 19th Street to engulf the other half of the apartment complex, other exposures became a top priority: a U-Haul complex to the northwest with a 5,000-gallon LP gas tank less than 50 feet away from the apartments; Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church Academy to the west, and the Oliva Tobacco Company as well as several wood-frame historic homes maintained by the Ybor City State Museum to the south.
All of these structures were built in the early 1900s and had great historical value. Museum workers even removed artifacts from the homes to protect them from the approaching fire. Large amounts of staffing and equipment were utilized to protect these structures: Aerial 1 and Engine 16 on the south and west sides as well as Aerial 9 and Engines 7 and 18 on the north side.
A fourth alarm was transmitted at 0928 hours. This brought in Engines 3, 11, and 12 and Aerial 14. These units were used to “fill in” remaining areas surrounding the complex. Hillsborough County Fire Rescue and Temple Terrace Fire Department responded to the scene as well.
A CONFLAGRATION NEARLY DEVELOPS
New technology in the form of a “gyrocam” mounted on a Tampa Police Department helicopter proved to be very useful during the height of the fire. Flying overhead, the helicopter sent real-time aerial images to a display monitor located adjacent to the command post. Command was able to “see” the initiation of brush fires as well as a fire on the roof of the U-Haul building caused by brands dropping from the sky. Units were dispatched to these locations to extinguish the incipient fires.
At this point, the fire was consuming four city blocks. Firefighters had drawn their last line of defense with the protection lines set in place. These lines were continually reinforced: Off-duty and mutual-aid firefighters relieved the Tampa firefighters for rehabilitation.
Firefighters were not successful in containing the fire to the building of origin, however. Intense thermal radiation from the fire heated the metal deck roof of a post office facility across 12th Avenue to the north at around 1100 hours (see illustration on page 105). Although an aerial stream and a master stream were played on the roof, radiant heat still “cooked” the metal deck, which in turn ignited wooden structural roof members inside the structure. Smoke was noted coming from underneath the roof and began to grow in intensity. Forcing entry into this structure was delayed due to its inherent security, slowing down access to the roof area. Attempts to ventilate the roof and attack the fire from below proved unsuccessful because of the numerous false ceilings present. Firefighters were ordered out of and off the building. Master streams were brought in to attack the growing fire, which destroyed the postal facility.
At 1607 hours, the incident commander declared the fire under control. In all, the fire consumed the entire apartment complex covering four city blocks and a United States Post Office.
Fortunately, no other exposed structures caught fire. Several of the exposures were damaged. The Oliva Tobacco Company had its vinyl siding melted. At the U-Haul building, numerous vehicles, the propane tank, and the water tower had scarred and bubbled paint. The brewery had outside damage to the façade and roofing and interior water damage from activated sprinkler heads. The church academy sustained minimal damage. Damage to fire department apparatus was in excess of $54,000.
At the peak of the incident, more than 150 firefighters and 40 units from two counties were battling the fire. Additionally, brush units were called in from other departments to extinguish spot grass fires that were being ignited from burning brands, including along nearby Interstate 4.
Four firefighters were hospitalized-for a broken arm, a leg injury, chest pains, and heat exhaustion. Several other firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion at the scene.
Quick deployment of 13/4-inch handlines (supplied by tank water) by first-arriving units to cut off a rapidly spreading fire in a wood-frame building under construction can prove beneficial in some instances. In this case, however, the fire outpaced the handline. Company officers should always establish a water supply even in this situation to ensure a continuous supply and for eventual master stream use. Rapid master stream “blitz attacks” with mounted deck guns can also prove beneficial in situations where the fire is spreading from the “outside to the inside.”
Once a fire of this type (a wood-frame building under construction) has gained the upper hand, all efforts must be made to contain the fire to the building of origin. This entails applying cooling master streams on the structural exposures. Forget the handlines on the original fire building! Quickly establish water supplies to support this mode of defensive strategy.
Radiant heat is the “silent and invisible” precipitator of a conflagration. Unlike convective heat currents that typically show themselves in the forms of flames and smoke, radiant heat can jump natural barriers and irradiate the exposures unseen. Brands, no less a conflagration breeder, must be controlled through the use of roving brand patrols downwind. At this incident, the “eye in the sky” gyrocam helped Command locate the landing areas of these embers but did not take the place of the brand patrols.
The propane tank adjacent to the U-Haul building was severely exposed. Master streams were placed on the tank, and a constant vigil was kept to ensure the tank shell was not being compromised by the radiant heat. This observation included watching for blistering paint, looking for the amount of water runoff from sides of the tank (compared with steam generation), and the operation of pressure relief valves.
During the incident, water supply soon became a great concern because of the large fire flow. Each engine company had at least a deck gun as well as several large handlines flowing, straining the grid system in the area, which consisted of mainly six-inch and eight-inch mains. Consider that it is estimated that nearly 10,000 gpm were flowing at the height of the fire.
One thing that many officers overlook at incidents such as this is that even though we have had tremendous capabilities that allow us to deliver large quantities of water at our disposal, the hydrant system that supplies us has had very few changes since it was installed. Command and company officers need to consider the size of the water main and the needed supply for the “big guns.” Additional large-diameter hose may be needed to get to the larger water mains.
As with all major incidents, communication capability between units becomes extremely stressed. Because of the limited frequencies and the numerous units responding, radio traffic soon became difficult. In large fires such as this, sectoring must be established as soon as possible and, if available, each should have a different frequency.
During this incident, the radiant heat along with the hot, dry outside temperature took its toll on the firefighters battling the fire. Several firefighters had to be treated for heat exhaustion, and others were just “worn out.” The need for firefighters to maintain a certain level of fitness cannot be overstated. The demands that normal, routine fires, as well as incidents such as this, put on the firefighter are physically and mentally overwhelming. A well-rounded fitness program is a necessity. Additionally, on the fireground, it is paramount that a rehab sector be implemented early.
During this incident, numerous departments responded to assist, each having different radio frequencies, different hose appliances, and different operating guidelines. Even though incidents of this magnitude are few and far between, departments still need to train with mutual-aid departments prior to the incident to work out any deficiencies that may arise in operational aspects.
Scott Ehlers is a captain and 16-year veteran of the Tampa (FL) Fire Rescue, assigned to Aerial Company #1. He previously spent four years with the MacDill AFB Fire Department. He has two associate of arts degrees, one in emergency medical services and one in fire science. He is a contract instructor with Hillsborough Community College and Hillsborough County Schools/Leary Technical Center.
Leslie P. Ennis, a 23-year veteran of the fire service, is a firefighter and 12-year veteran of Tampa (FL) Fire Rescue, assigned to Aerial Company #1. He is a contract instructor for Hillsborough County Schools/Leary Technical Center as well as the National Fire Academy.
Emilio F. Salabarria is a 15-year veteran of Tampa (FL) Fire Rescue and a driver engineer assigned to Aerial Company #1. He has two associate of science degrees, one in emergency medical services and one in fire science technology. He is a contract instructor for Hillsborough Community College and Hillsborough County Schools/Leary Technical Center.