The Cause, Prevention and Control of CONFLAGRATIONS

The Cause, Prevention and Control of CONFLAGRATIONS


Chief Engineer

TRAINING in command control stood out as the most glaring need of the fire service today in recent conferences with the Governor’s Conflagration Committee. This committee will recommend to the governor that command schools be established in each of California’s disaster regions so that all fire officials may be able to attend. I’m sure this will come about, and when it does, I urge all chiefs to attend. You will find, when an overwhelming fire occurs, that there will be many items which never came to your mind before. This training will provide you with information and an outline of what to expect.

Periodic pre-fire training in largescale emergency operating procedures, by all agencies and personnel who may be involved, is essential if there is to be an organized attack on any largescale fire. And, don’t forget that with all this preparation, there must still be the ability to handle simultaneous fires elsewhere in the city. Just because you have a large fire going in one part of the city doesn’t mean you can abandon all fire protection for the rest of the area for which you are responsible.


When these simultaneous fires occur, communications play a most important role in a city’s fire defenses. Adequate radio frequencies must be reserved and obtained by the fire service to cope with a conflagration or any other kind of emergency which might be expected. Monitoring equipment, for the various jurisdictions which are likely to be called upon to respond, must be available. Such equipment is being developed through the State Disaster Office, and it is recommended that all fire chiefs become acquainted with its use.

Another important arm in our fire defense is the police department. The evacuation of civilians is basically a police problem, but where lives are endangered, it becomes a fire problem, also. Traffic control, keeping sightseers out of the area, removing vehicles from narrow roads, and prevention of looting are all police problems.

Fire fighting

It is recognized that improved structural conditions and strengthened fire defenses are responsible for keeping the vast majority of fires out of the conflagration class. But the infrequency of such disastrous fires tends to give a false sense of security. Therefore, the amount of planning, preparation and training essential for coping with such fires is often neglected or underestimated.

Experience has shown that all available resources in a given area will be needed, either directly or indirectly, to control a conflagration. Maximum manpower and equipment will be used directly in fire fighting operations, leaving scattered protection in the uninvolved areas for additional fires that may occur. For example, while we were fighting the Bel Air fire we had 12 greater-alarm fires elsewhere in the City of Los Angeles.

To reiterate, abundant supplies of water, manpower, apparatus, communications equipment and a welltested, large-scale, emergency operational plan are the primary requisites for conflagration attack. Heavy streams in large numbers are essential to control a conflagration in congested areas, while numerous mobile water tank units with small equipment are necessary for the protection of exposure areas of the conflagration.

In this part of the country, experience indicates that we are most susceptible to the residential type of conflagration. Fire defenses, plus physical layout and structural conditions in congested high-value districts, have kept the big ones from reaching conflagration proportions downtown, and it is not likely that such a conflagration will occur in the foreseeable future.

But the possibility of earthquakes and nuclear attacks that could nullify the preventive measures developed over the years in these areas is always present. In such an eventuality, broken water mains, blocked streets and destroyed communications systems may render ineffective all remaining fire defenses in the area of damage.

It would then become the problem of surrounding communities to contain any remaining fire within the damaged area. Under such circumstances there is probably little that can be done, other than to pull back to a point where a stop may be possible. The problem would be to protect all exposed property and stop the fire at an advantageous location. Fire fighting forces in any single jurisdiction will seldom be sufficent to accomplish this feat.

Under such adverse conditions, the effective fire fighting force can be expanded by a number of methods which include: Manning all reserve apparatus by off-duty men; splitting two-piece companies and making separate units of each; requesting the use of all pumping vehicles used by other city departments, such as street flushing, sewer, utilities, contractors, etc.; obtaining assistance from surrounding fire departments; and educating all residents in methods to protect their own homes, should the need arise, and cautioning them on the judicious use of water while a fire is in progress.

Now what about fire fighting strategy? Prepare to make a stand, well in front of the fire head or at other advantageous locations, such as wide streets, prepared fire breaks or natural barriers, such as rivers or lakes.

Where high winds prevail, spot men and equipment well in advance of the fire. In the Bel Air fire, burning brands were flying 1 to 2 miles ahead of the fire lines. When the fire jumped the San Diego Freeway, it blossomed up on the the other side of the mountain in about 50 locations at the same time. These fires quickly joined and caused the conflagration to proceed through the Brentwood area. Conflagration fires have been known to bum at tremendous speeds. For instance, the Bel Air fire burned at a rate of approximately 13 to 25 acres per minute for the first eight hours. It takes time to deploy forces in the desired area and to make preparations for a stop. So these are important factors to be considered when deciding where your attempted stop will be made.

When you have determined the location to make a stand, concentrate forces along a wide front with hose lines charged. Back these forces up with others to control flying brands which may overtake them. Work bulldozers continuously, widening a fire break. In the daytime, utilize air drops from water bombers to slow down the fire and coat combustibles in its path with fire-retardant materials.

Fire line forces must be highly mobile and often are spread quite thin. However, one man can often save a single-family residence by himself. Larger properties might require complete companies, and the officer at the scene must determine what priority he is going to place on the property which he might be able to save.

Men who are spread out on a street to protect residences should move combustibles away from the structure, close windows and garage doors, etc., and then get inside before the fire sweeps over the building. As soon as the fire has made its pass, they should go out and extinguish the fires on the roof or under the eaves, check the attic and under the house to see if any sparks have entered through the vents, and as soon as certain that the structure is safe, move on to the next one.

Companies deployed, to protect larger properties should move combustibles and prepare the structure for the fife run, as well as time permits. Where the water is plentiful, they will try to wet down the combustibles and structures and man their hose lines and heavy-stream appliances preparatory to making a stand when the fire sweeps. If the weather is too severe, they may have to retreat inside the structure until the fire passes, then come out and extinguish large fires with heavy streams and mop up with small lines.

It is most difficult to outline a control strategy for a hypothetical fire, which none of us has seen. You must understand that you may have something going that is beyond the capability of 10 or 15 or 50, or perhaps 100 fire companies to control. The logistics for handling the whole situation are great, so you must think big. Most of the mistakes made in handling conflagrations have occurred because the officers in charge underestimated the potential of the fire.

In conclusion, as long as there are people who insist on building in areas of tinder-dry brush, where the humidity drops to 3 or 4 percent for long periods and sometimes to zero; where winds often exceed 50 mph and temperatures go over 100° for a considerable part of the year; where homes are built at the end of box canyons which have one access road and limited water supplies—as long as these conditions continue, we must continue to lay plans for handling a major disaster.

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