Fire Department photo by Freddie Spainhouer
Each a controversial subject in itself, aluminum wiring and wood shingle roofs joined forces to give the Dallas Fire Department a “double whammy” last March 21. A fast-moving five-alarm fire heavily damaged one of the city’s largest apartment developments, leaving hundreds of residents homeless. Fortunately, no one was injured.
The first telephone alarm came at 8:39 a m., from an office worker about a quarter-mile south of Willow Creek. He reported a large volume of smoke rising from near Walnut Hill and Central Expressway.
First-due Engine 37, responding with Truck 37 from a station about a mile southeast, reported visible smoke but could not identify its source. These units turned west on Walnut Hill, then north on Weeping Willow. Coming abreast of the smoke source, they entered Willow Stream Court at 8:43 a m. (see map, point A) and could see fire from Building 10. Lieutenant Bill Crawford of Engine 37 called for a second alarm at once.
One of Dallas’ several large-diameter hose engines carrying 1000 feet of 5-inch hose, Engine 37, dropped a large supply line from the hydrant at the court entrance, positioning itself at the blind end of Willow Stream for possible use of the mounted deluge gun. Truck 37 pulled in nearby and at once set up for ladder pipe use to protect Building 9, just west of the fire origin.
However, squarely across the end of the court was the eight-unit Building 38, blocking any use of heavy streams from the ground. Truck 37’s aerial, extended over its roof, kept Building 9 wet down after two 3-inch lines were laid to it from Engine 37. Another line was pulled into Building 10 and up to the third floor and attic.
The fire had broken out in an unoccupied apartment on the third floor near the west end of Building 10. By the time fire fighters arrived it had spread into the attic and roof, and flames were racing east at 20 feet per minute. Intense radiant heat was exposing the two-story Building 7 about 40 feet to the south.
Said Assistant Chief Mike Freeman, “We figure the fire broke through and was outside Building 10 for as long as 5 to 10 minutes before the first alarm.” Even after arrival of the first companies, no call had yet reached the fire alarm office from within the apartment complex itself.
At 8:44 the two-piece Engine 22 and Battalion Chief 2 arrived from the north. The chief drove through Rock Willow Lane into Willow Hill Court (Point B on map). Seeing the involvement there, he called for more help immediately, radioing third and fourth-alarm companies to respond to the south side of the fire area. Meanwhile, he was joined by Booster 22, Engine 22’s companion unit with a 750-gallon tank and preconnected attack lines, which pulled up next to Building 10. Its crew took a line to the top floor, attempting to cut off fire spread in the attic, but the roof was already collapsing and they were driven out, forced to abandon their hose. The second-alarm ladder company, Truck 41, also entered this area to ladder both Buildings 7 and 10.
Meanwhile, Engine 22 laid another water supply line into Willow Stream Court, then stretched a line around Building 38 to cover the area between Buildings 7 and 10. The last first-alarm unit was Squad 42, whose manpower assisted other companies in that same area.
Humidity was 37 percent, dry for the area and although it was not a hot day a gusty 15 to 20-mile wind was scattering clouds of embers, swirling the smoke so that fire extension was almost impossible to see.
“Between the sunlight and the smoke, we couldn’t spot the emljers,” officers said later. And there was no way the fire department could muster enough manpower fast enough to guard all exposed roofs.
“Our first priority,” said Freeman, “was to get a ladder pipe on Building 7, as close to Building 6 as possible.” Truck 57 went into Willow l ake Court for that purpose, where supply lines had already been laid by Engines 2,27 and 55 (all second and thirdalarm companies as was the truck). This master stream, swung from side to side at the end of the court, saved Buildings 6 and 8 (with help from Engine 41, remaining second-alarm engine, which supplied itself from a distant hydrant with 5-inch hose, advancing a 3-inch line to Building 8.
Also responding on the second alarm was the city’s second manpower squad, No. 8, which worked on the southern front, and Battalion Chief 7 who was given command of that front. Training Chief Don Stevens also arrived soon and was assigned to the east side of Building 11, where fire was now racing north against the wind. Only hand lines could be used there. Meantime, Deputy Chief lack Freeman (no relation to Mike) had arrived earlier to set up overall fire command at the preplanned location of the department’s command van (end of Willow Lake Court).
“We couldn’t really set up a specific line of defense,” explained Mike Freeman. “The buildings were so large, so spread out, and we couldn’t see. At first there was simply more fire than we had resources to bring to bear.”
Many residents who were home, especially some who had been burned out by the 1980 fire, began moving their belongings out into open spaces. But others were taken unaware by the speed of fire travel along the roofs. On most of the buildings, an unusual roof design included a central recess or “notch” running lengthwise. Generally out of sight from the ground, this contained some of the building ventilation equipment but was otherwise open, providing a channel feeding air to the fire.
Dallas Fire Department photo by Freddie Spainhouer
To help size up fire spread, the Dallas Police Department helicopter was requested. Assistant Chief (Administration) Gary Lambert went aloft in it to get a better view for directing placement of more companies, arriving after a 9:10 a m. fifth alarm. Embers soon involved the roofs of Buildings 3 and 4, still further downwind. Fire storm conditions caused unpredictable drafts and wind shifts. “My biggest worry then,” said Mike Freeman, “was that Building 1 would get involved. That’s a three-story structure with lots of retail shops on the ground floor, at the southeast corner.” He took command of that area, working from Willow Green Court.
Meanwhile, Building 4 was lost. “It ignited before we could get set up,” Freeman explained. “We had specialed for three engines to add to that front (at 9:35 a m.). Truck 17, another special-call company, was sent into Willow Green Court to cover Buildings 2, 3 and 4, and there was too much roof to cover, and too many embers.
“Building 4 was just an inferno, burning from the top down. But we did get hand lines in between it and Building 5, at the south end and were able to make a good stop there.” Another cutoff succeeded in Building .3, which sustained little damage below the roof.
Men were sent to the east side of Building 2 to attack spot fires observed there by the helicopter. But access was difficult. Fortunately Truck 17’s pipe was able to swing around and douse these in time. Several other spot fires broke out south of Willow Green Court, atop Building 51, but these were knocked out by booster lines.
Added Mike Freeman, “All this time, we had civilians coming up to us, calling out this or that roof was going, how can we get our cars out, things like that. There were piles of furniture on the lawns, in the courts. It was really a mess. We were fortunate this happened during the day. If it had been the middle of the night, we would have had a disaster on our hands.”
Three more engines were special-called, to supply an additional ladder pipe should the fire take hold in Buildings 1 or 2. For that purpose, Truck 37 had been moved to the southeast corner of the property – fire having been knocked down at its original position. Luckily, this was not needed.
Dallas Fire Department photo by Shawn Kelley
The blaze was brought under control at 11:57 a m. Companies from throughout the city continued overhauling until 3:30 the following afternoon. Altogether, flames destroyed or damaged 72 apartments; 49 more were damaged by smoke or water.
Cause of this fire, according to a public statement released March 28 by the Dallas Fire Department, was “a malfunction of electrical wiring in an exterior apartment wall… The fire originated in a section of aluminum wiring … from a baseboard wall outlet to the ceiling plate … The fire spread upward in the wall contents; it did not break through to the exterior side of the wall.”
Interviews with building tenants, including residents of the apartment where the fire began, established that complaints about “sparking fuse boxes” and “smoking wires” had been frequent at Willow Creek, as recently as 1982. Assistant Chief/Fire Marshal Lambert, himself a master electrician, asserted that “things there indicate a need for systematic overhaul of the entire electrical system.”
DALLAS fire Department photo by Freddie Spainhouer.
Continued on page 18
The aluminum wiring devices available at the time of original construction have been the subject of long debate. Terminal connection design on newer devices has been changed for better compatibility between copper and aluminum. To avoid the shortcomings of the older devices today, “pigtailing” is used (see illustration). This is now required by the Dallas code when aluminum wiring is employed. Examination of wiring throughout damaged areas at Willow Creek shows that many outlet or switch boxes did have pigtail connections, but many others did not. Their absence was not a code violation when the buildings were built.
A series of coincidences related the Dallas blaze to a similar, still larger conflagration (the Woodway Square complex) July 1979 in Houston. Each property was completed the same year (1971). Each fire, occurring on a working day, was first reported by an office worker in a high-rise building some distance away. Initial involvement overpowered the first-in companies. Wood shingle roofs were the major reason for rapid spread of both fires. The bulk of personal property loss was uninsured. And in both locations, a major remodeling project was in progress.
The Willow Creek complex was built during 1966-71 in booming north Dallas. On a 42-acre site across Walnut Hill Lane from the former Glen Lakes Country Club, its 100 buildings included 824 two and three-story apartment units. Construction was basically wood frame and stucco, with 25 percent exterior wood trim as well as wooden balconies, porches, and open stairways. Fire wall separations extending into the attic were pierced with numerous openings for utilities. The property was sold to its present owners in August 1982 for $50 million, and a $10 million remodeling project was about one-third finished.
Willow Creek was almost 10 years old before the Dallas building code was amended to ban ordinary wood shingles in new construction. (Houston took similar action following the $24 million Woodway Square blaze.) Effective April 1980, Dallas mandated class C fire-retardant shingles for all new construction or for any replacement beyond 50 percent of total surface.
Not long afterward, on Aug. 18, 1980, Willow Creek’s 45-unit Building 11 was heavily damaged by a five-alarm fire. Tests confirmed that the replacement roof following that fire did use the fire-retardant material. Examination following the more recent blaze, which spread into the same structure, showed shingles still in place in some areas despite heavy charring to the supporting roof sheathing. However, this was no help for the other buildings.
No through streets extended across the bulk of the property. Instead, individual apartment buildings are grouped around sides or ends of 10 dead-end “courts” extending inward from perimeter roadways. Spaces between the buildings, separating those around one court from units adjoining the next court, are either inaccessible to vehicles or too narrow for fire apparatus maneuvering. One large open area exists in the east central part of the property (see Point F on map), but this sloping, grassy expanse is also not accessible to heavy vehicles.
Hydrants in Willow Creek (generally on 6-inch mains) are at or near the open end of a court, or some distance away on perimeter streets. Thus, although water supply was good during the latest fire, according to Assistant Chief (Operations) Mike Freeman, “We could have used more hydrants.” Tandem pumping (long a standard evolution in Dallas, Washington and several other cities) maximized the output of several hydrants.
California’s Similar Catastrophe
Untreated wood shingle roofing, dried palm tree fronds and high winds were responsible for the rapid fire spread that leveled 17 acres of buildings in the center of Anaheim in April 1982 (Fire Engineering, Sept. 1982).
The fire, with an estimated $50 million in damages, was considered the worst in the area’s history.
As a result of that incident, the City of Anaheim now requires that wood shingle roofs on new construction be pressure treated to render them fireretardant. Also, an ordinance covering Anaheim’s wildland section has been extended into the city. Tire ordinance mandates the use of fire-retardant class C or better roofing material, protection of exterior walls, horizontal surfaces and openings, and spark arrestors.