Pre-Fire Plan, Aid Speed Lumberyard Knockdown

Pre-Fire Plan, Aid Speed Lumberyard Knockdown


Many lumberyard fires become conflagrations due to the nature of the materials on the premises. Pre-fire planning, coordination and a well-designed mutual aid system contributed to the rapid knockdown and control of a lumberyard fire in Cheltenham Township, Pa.

Cheltenham is a highly populated township bordered on two sides by Philadelphia. On August 20, two of the township’s five volunteer fire companies responded to the Glenside Lumber and Coal Co. on West Mount Carmel Avenue. A fire had been reported to Cheltenham Police/Fire Headquarters by the assistant manager of the lumberyard and coal operation.

It was later learned that there had been a delay in turning in the alarm. Apparently, Glenside Lumber and Coal Co. employees noticed smoke at the far end of the lumberyard. Thinking nothing of it, they went about their work. As the smoke intensified, workers ran to the office building at the opposite end of the yard to report the fire. When they returned to the outside, the southwest end of the lumberyard was fully involved.

Calls for second alarm

Cheltenham Township Fire Station 1 (Glenside Fire Company) and Station 2 (LaMott Fire Company) responded on the first alarm at 1:42 p.m. Before leaving the firehouse, Glenside Chief 1, A. Bud Wilbur, Sr., saw smoke billowing into the sky. He immediately called for a second alarm which brought in the Edge Hill Fire Company from neighboring Abington Township. This mutual aid response came at 1:44 p.m. Since the lumberyard is located at the extreme west end of the township, the remaining three Cheltenham Township fire stations were left to cover the rest of the township.

Booster 1 arrived to find a storage building and adjacent lumber piles fully involved in flame. The storage building contained plywood paneling, drywall board, cement mix bags and related combustible items. The building also housed a forklift truck, which witnesses said blew up prior to the fire departments’ arrival.

Booster 1 dropped one 2 1/2-inch line (its largest line) at the hydrant in front of the lumberyard property. The hydrant pressure was 90 psi. The booster truck proceeded into the yard off Mount Carmel Avenue until it reached the perimeter of the fire. Pumper 1 immediately picked up the line at the hydrant and pumped the supply line to Booster 1. Booster 1 led off with two 1 1/2-inch lines and eventually added a 2 1/2-inch master stream.

Lumber pile is hit by hose stream handled by LaMott fire fighters. Tanks of the Benson Fuel Oil Co. are in the background

—photo By Robert s. Wilmot, Jr.

Storage building debris in Chelten Township, Pa., is soaked by fire fighters. Chief A. Bud Wilbur, Sr., is at extreme left of photo.

Cheltenham Police Dept. photo

Intense heat

Meanwhile, Ladder 1 was positioned behind Booster 1. At this point, heat from the fire was so intense that the plastic warning lights on the front of Booster 1 melted. A booster line was also put into service as a water curtain to protect the pump operator and Booster 1. A clear, windless, 90-degree day contributed to the heat.

Booster 2, under the direction of Chief L. Joseph Bates, Sr., went into the lumberyard after dropping a line at the hydrant located at Mount Carmel and Tyson Avenues. It positioned itself between Booster 1 and Ladder 1. Supplied by Pumper 2, which hooked up to the Mount Carmel and Tyson Avenue 95-psi hydrant, Booster 2 augmented Glenside fire fighters’ efforts with two 1 1/2-inch lines.

LaMott fire fighters set up a deluge gun which was supplied by two 2 1/2-inch lines. Chemical 2, a specialized apparatus, stood on the street next to Pumper 2. Water pressure was excellent due to a boost in pressure supplied by the local water company. All other utilities were notified of the fire at Wilbur’s request.

At 1:56 p.m., Wilbur special-called the Weldon Fire Company from Abington Township. They were needed to help Edge Hill Fire Company set up a ladder pipe operation and protect exposures on the northwest side of the fire. Handlines were also put into service. There was a potentially hazardous situation on this northwest side as the Benson Fuel Oil Co. property bordered the lumberyard. Eight large fuel storage tanks were protected by the Abington companies.

Fire fighters were threatened by a 33,000-volt electrical line which ran parallel to the edge of the fireground along railroad tracks. A quick exit was necessary when the line, and a pole supporting it, burned through. The line supplied power to a residential area and electrical service was momentarily interrupted until the Philadelphia Electric Company’s automatic rerouting equipment was activated. Wilbur had requested that power be cut to this 33,000-volt line and it was.

Conrail train service was also shut down at the request of the fire command. Railroad service was interrupted for over an hour and a half prior to rush hour. Two train lines were affected by the shutdown to allow fire fighters to work from the track side of the fireground. In addition, Pumper 2 was supplying a line stretched across the railroad track on Mount Carmel Avenue.

Fire knocked down

With the coordination and quick action of the four fire companies, the major fire was knocked down in less than 45 minutes.

“We utilized our pre-planning for this operation and it worked beautifully,” said Wilbur.

Bates added, “Despite the delay in the initial alarm, sufficient manpower, apparatus and the lack of wind contributed to the quick extinguishment on this job.”

There were 122 men in service, seven pumpers, two ladder trucks, one heavy rescue unit, one light rescue unit and one chemical unit. Wilbur reported that 1450 feet of 3-inch line, 2850 feet of 2 1/2-inch, 1150 feet of 1 1/2-inch and 750 feet of booster line were used.

A first aid station was set up behind Pumper 1 on Mount Carmel Avenue. Ambulances were supplied by the Cheltenham police and Second Alarmers Rescue Company. Only five injuries were sustained. Of these, three fire fighters were taken to the hospital for heat prostration.

Fireman Otto Koenig, Glenside’s first aid officer, said, “We were extremely fortunate that the injuries were kept to a minimum considering the size of the fire.”

Contractor donates aid

Overhaul operations occupied the next seven hours. Glasgow, Inc., a local contracting firm, supplied fuel and overhaul assistance free of charge as a donation to the volunteers.

A large front-end loader and two forklifts were used. In lieu of their weekly training session, members of the Cheltenham Hook and Ladder Company (Cheltenham Township Fire Station 4) arrived on the fireground at 6 p.m. to assist in the overhaul. Many offers were received from area fire companies to assist in the time-consuming job. Fireground operations were concluded at 9:23 p.m.

Despite the tons of water and precautions taken, Glenside Fire Company returned to the scene for a rekindle at 12:05 the following morning. The company was in service 55 minutes.

According to the Cheltenham Township fire marshal’s office, the fire loss was kept down to $50,000 on property valued at $750,000.

The fire history of the lumberyard is very limited and consists of small rubbish and woodpile fires. The cause of the August 20 fire is still undetermined but arson has not been ruled out. Several youths were seen around the lumberyard just before the alarm.

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