LESSONS LEARNED: FOUR-ALARM HOUSE FIRE

BY EINAR N.U. JENSEN

At 2217 hours on January 6, 2004, the Evergreen (CO) Volunteer Fire Department’s (EVFD) 90 volunteer firefighters received a page reporting a “possible structure fire” at 3864 Mountainside Trail. According to the resident, the master bedroom was full of smoke and the wall around the bedroom’s fireplace was bubbling.

The EVFD, the operations wing of the Evergreen Fire Protection District, serves an unincorporated yet moderately populated area of 125 square miles in the foothills west of Denver. Most of the homes are owned by middle- and upper-income families, and the house on Mountainside Trail was no exception. The two-story, 8,000-square-foot home was located along the eastern edge of The Overlook at Palo Verde, a gated community south of Stagecoach Boulevard and west of Evergreen Parkway. Although a thick forest intermingles with the subdivision, this fire presented little risk of involving nearby pine trees.

As Captain Evan Soibelman approached the home along snow-packed and icy roads, he noted smoke drifting approximately a quarter mile downwind from the address, and smelled the distinct odor of a working structure fire. Dispatch relayed the upgraded status to responding units.

Soibelman, the second firefighter but the first officer on-scene, established incident command on arrival at 2227 hours. He reported heavy smoke from the A/B side and a strong orange glow through the picture windows, which suggested a room-and-contents fire. He immediately contacted the homeowner and verified that she and her four children had escaped safely.

After a quick survey of the house, the incident commander determined that the fire was contained to two front rooms, one of which was the bedroom. He also saw flames at the top of the fireplace vent. Soibelman waited for additional personnel to arrive in their personal vehicles per departmental procedures.

Engine 138 arrived at 2234 hours, responding from Station 2 in Bergen Park, three miles away. Soibelman directed E-138 to park at the A/D corner and supply two interior attack teams with its 500 gallons of water; the attack began three minutes later.

Another crew was ordered to perform a 360-degree survey of the house, cut utilities, and report back to him with their observations. Soibelman assigned other crews to accountability, ventilation, and salvage and a lieutenant to monitor the C side.


(1) View of the master bedroom from the C side. (Photos by Jeff Ashford.)

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Additional apparatus that responded included an engine, Tender 176, and a rescue from Station 1 in downtown Evergreen, three miles south. An ambulance, staffed with an EMT and a paramedic, also responded to the initial tone, as did District Fire Marshal Frank Dearborn.

Although much of Evergreen is hydranted, the gated portion of The Overlook is not. The nearest hydrant was more than a quarter mile down the road on the other side of the gate. In addition to requiring the entire hoselays of two engines, the elevation change would have required an inline engine to boost the pressure. The firefighters never ran out of water but came close, according to Soibelman.

Captain Chris Schleef was assigned to orchestrate water supply. Tender 176 was hauling 2,500 gallons, but Schleef requested additional tenders, which netted 2,500-gallon Tender 174 from Station 2. He also requested mutual aid from Foothills Fire Rescue, a volunteer department that borders Evergreen to the northeast, in the form of a 2,500-gallon tender.

As water resources were coordinated, both interior teams focused their efforts on the two front rooms at the A/B side. Soibelman noticed the chimney was leaning hard to the right, where the interior teams were operating. Because the teams weren’t making good progress on the fire, indicated by what he could see of the steam conversion rate, and because of the listing chimney, Soibelman requested a backout tone from dispatch. Dispatchers didn’t understand his request, which he learned as a career firefighter with the Denver Fire Department, and were unable to issue the tone. However, engineers on-scene also heard the command and blew their air horns according to procedure to signal the change in tactics.


(2, 3) View of the batten wall from the master bedroom.

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Soon after his crews abandoned the structure, the chimney collapsed into the room adjoining the master bedroom. Had the interior attack crews been inside, the chim-ney/chase assembly probably would have landed on them or trapped them in a corner of the house with no other means of egress.

Following the collapse, Soibelman directed firefighters to use a transitional or guarded attack, focusing their efforts on the C side of the fire. Rapid success there allowed Soibelman and Assistant Chief Jay Jackson, operations chief, to visualize beams and other structural members. “Then we felt it was safe to put people back inside,” he said.

It was then that Soibelman began understanding the fire’s cause; the department’s investigators later confirmed the fire had started in the chimney. The fire crept into the walls, which caused the paint to bubble, but it was not a room-and-contents fire; it actually involved structural components.

With air temperatures in the mid-teens, the buildup of ice around the house, under apparatus, and on Mountainside Trail quickly became a safety issue. A few firefighters were tasked with shoveling dirt onto stairways, decking, and sidewalks for traction; the county road department sent a sand truck for the roadway.

Soibelman declared the fire under control at 2330 hours and ordered crews to begin searching for remaining hot spots. During this phase of suppression, firefighters discovered the equivalent of a firewall inside the house. The large house was originally a much smaller cabin with batten walls, which acted like firewalls and kept the fire from spreading into the core of the house.

Soibelman declared the fire out at 0012 hours on January 7.

Although the fire was out, the incident became more complex at 0021 hours when an Evergreen Post Office employee called 9-1-1 and reported smoke in the building’s lobby. The main post office was located less than a half mile east of the structure fire as the wind blows, but more than one mile away by road.

The dispatcher asked the caller whether the smoke could be from the earlier fire, but the employee insisted she only smelled it in the lobby on the east side of the building and not outside. Captain Greg Baldwin and Fire Marshal Dearborn met Engine 134, responding from Station 2, at the post office. They searched the building and determined smoke had indeed wafted over the knoll from Mountainside Trail. In the process they also discovered the building’s fire alarm system wasn’t online.

LESSONS LEARNED

Gated communities. The Overlook at Palo Verde is a gated community, which presented a significant obstacle to each of the 45 firefighters who responded to this incident. Only a handful of them knew how to open the gate, and fewer knew how to keep it open for the duration of the fire. The rural setting of Evergreen and other Colorado foothills communities already compounds the difficulty of battling structure fires because of a fire’s exponential growth rate. A gate blocking access to that fire makes a dangerous situation even worse.

The first officer on-scene with a keybox key must open the gate and provide for its operation. Either the officer leaves the gate open or as-signs a firefighter to control subdivision access. This is a priority.

In fact, several subdivisions in the Evergreen Fire Protection District have gates that require a certain code or have a keybox key override switch similar to that of The Overlook. Each EVFD officer has a keybox key, but officers often are not the first firefighters on-scene. To resolve this issue, district administrators, including the fire marshal, are investigating ways to store these highly valuable keys securely in each of the engines and ambulances so they are readily available to responders.


(4) View of the B/C side.

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(5) View of the master bedroom roof from the C side.

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Additionally, identifying these gated communities and the individual homes with gated driveways is a renewed priority for the district’s fire prevention and communications divisions. The fire inspector and dispatchers are compiling gate locations and codes for the district’s mapping system and its computer-aided dispatch program after its installation. There’s clearly a need to work with homeowners and homeowners’ associations to keep dispatchers and firefighters informed of changes to those codes as well.

Backout tones. Although an immediate hazard to the interior attack teams, the collapsing chimney identified a pair of safety issues for the firefighters: backout tones and rapid intervention teams.

Every department must have more than one way to signal that it’s time to get out of a building. Department procedures provide for continual blasting of air horns as the signal for evacuation. However, if fans and saws are operating, members may not be able to hear the horns.

Also, steep driveways, large setbacks, and rough roads often require apparatus to park a good distance from structures. Always have a secondary means of communicating a backout tone.

Because evacuation or backout tones are broadcast on all radios and pagers, including those worn by firefighters inside structures, dispatchers are integral to the program. After meeting with Soibelman, Shaina Lee, the district communications director and a fellow firefighter, learned how to install such a tone. Her dispatchers are now trained to broadcast the warbling alert with a simple touch of a button on their consoles.

Rapid intervention team. Even with the tones and air horns, firefighters may become trapped in a structure, which has prompted many fire departments to develop rapid intervention teams (RIT).

During the interior attack, another crew of firefighters was preparing for entry in a staging area, but if the chimney had collapsed, it would have been difficult to get them out of there, according to Soibelman. Although the department is in the process of training on accountability and firefighter survival, it’s only in the startup phases of RIT.

Last year, the EVFD converted its SCBA to buddy-breathing capabilities, and one-hour bottles were placed on each of the department’s four engines. This year, Soibelman and other officers have decided to spend more time teaching search and rescue techniques in addition to developing the skills and standard operating procedures necessary to implement a RIT program. The RIT program will be in place this year.


(6) Interior view from the master bedroom.

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Rehabilitation. Firefighter rehab wasn’t a critical issue at this fire, but its slow implementation reminded officers that it needs to be practiced as much as other phases of suppression. On the night of the incident, the temperatures were in the midteens. In such a situation, it’s important to set up rehab immediately. Firefighting crews wanted water; warm beverages; and, in the best possible scenario, a warm vehicle or garage for shelter.

Ambulance crews are responsible for bringing a rehab kit to structure fire responses, but the crew forgot its assigned plastic tub at this incident. After learning of this, Fire Marshal Dearborn stopped at Station 1 and brought to the scene a kit, which included granola bars, sports drinks, and bottles of water.

In the future, initial rehabilitation supplies will be automatic because kits have been placed on each ambulance. If additional supplies are needed, they can be requested from the stations through dispatch.

Driver/engineer program. This incident also reinforced the need for qualified engineers. It’s important to have a proactive driver-engineer program, especially in volunteer fire departments. Officers engineered four of the five apparatus that responded to the initial tone for this incident, which prevented them from acting in command roles.

Most EVFD firefighters respond directly to the scene regardless of the type of incident—medical assist, motor vehicle crash, or wildland fire or structure fire. Members trained as engineers are responsible for bringing the required apparatus to an incident. However, less than half of the EVFD’s members are qualified engineers. The membership needs to take the ball and learn how to operate apparatus.

The hazards encountered at this fire are not unique to this address or this community. Gated communities and blocked driveways are becoming more common as property owners abandon the suburbs for “private” hillsides, meadows, and ridgelines. Identifying those gates has proven an enormous task; updating records of access codes will be an ongoing project for the district.

Implementing evacuation tones is a short-term solution to a communication and safety issue, but developing RITs requires a long-term commitment to training and supplying crews. The department’s rehab program and driver/engineer program are also long-term commitments to firefighter safety. A strong commitment to firefighter safety reflects a strong commitment to the safety of the fire department’s customers, residents, and visitors.

EINAR N.U. JENSEN, a six-year veteran of the fire service, is a fire inspector for the Evergreen (CO) Fire Protection District and a lieutenant with the neighboring Clear Creek County (CO) Fire Authority.

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