Victorians in the ’90s
The rapid collapse of a Victorian/Queen Anne residence in California reminds us of the inherent dangers of this construction style.
At the height of residential fashion design and construction from the 1880s to the early 1900s, the Victorian and its companion style, known as the Queen Anne, graced numerous suburbs across the country. Many still exist. This eclectic style of construction is distinguished by the following external features:
- two to three stories in heiglit, often with a basement;
- steep roofs with numerous gables, ridges, and valleys;
- dormers and/or bonneted turrets;
- raised first-floor front porches and arch supports for lower roof elevations;
- painted spindle-work porches;
Photos by Chuck Modderom.
- a variety of bay windows; and
- brick chimneys.
The basic construction and elaborate details of these structures were made possible by a new technology of the time called “balloon-frame construction,” which replaced the traditional, heavier, restrictive, complicated, and costly mortise-and-tenon timber framing. Balloon framing used standard rough-cut, two-by-four-inch continuous studs between the foundation and roof line, with the floor joists resting on a ledger board nailed to the inside of the vertical wall framing. Although this method enabled architects to construct complex, appealing forms, it also presented the fire service with a unique variety of strategical and tactical considerations.
Let’s examine a recent Victorian/ Queen Anne incident and the unique hazards that fire suppression personnel can encounter.
At 8 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning, the Los Angeles City Fire Department dispatched two engines, one truck company, and one battalion chief to reported smoke in a singlefamily dwelling. The first-arriving engine company found a three-story Victorian/Queen Anne-style structure with fire showing from a second-floor window, heavy smoke issuing from the attic, and potential exposures on the north and south sides. Additional resources were requested.
The arriving battalion chief directed the first engine company to advance an attack line to the second floor and access the attic. Firefighters subsequently advanced a 1 ¾-inch line through the south front door with the intention of advancing to the second floor via an interior stairwell. When they could not locate an interior stairwell, the attack team proceeded through the structure and out the back, where they found a rear exterior stairway to a balcony at the second floor with mulitiple access doors. They stretched the attack line up the stairwell and toward the north door.
As they advanced the attack line into the north doorway, they encountered heavy smoke and flame, accompanied by loud crackling sounds from the heavily involved attic overhead. They removed a hallway scuttle cover and as they directed the attack line into the attic area it became obvious that conditions were deteriorating. As personnel were backing out as ordered, the roof collapsed into the hallway, narrowly missing them.
The second engine company was also directed to take a 13/4-inch attack line to the attic through the north front door. Like the first engine company, they soon discovered that there were no interior stairwells. They then removed the attack line from the structure and took it to the rear exterior stairway and toward the south door. As the second attack team advanced into the door, they also saw heavy fire on that side in the attic. The roof collapsed at that time. A portion of the collapsing roof struck the captain. Though momentarily stunned, he and all personnel were able to exit the structure relatively unscathed.
The first truck company was ordered to ventilate vertically at the roof. Personnel laddered the northwest corner with a portable 35-foot extension ladder and an aerial ladder. They also took a roof ladder to the roof and used it during ventilation operations. They quickly made an opening near the ridge of the roof, and when it was completed, only grey-white smoke was visible. Soon after, however, flames were observed in the ventilation opening.
Personnel were ordered to abandon the roof, but it suddenly collapsed. The captain and two firefighters were able to reach the aerial ladder and climb to safety. However, the apparatus operator slid on the collapsing roof to an area between the two gable lanes at the front of the structure. Personnel on the ground quickly moved a portable ladder toward the trapped member. As he reached for it he fell to the ground. Fortunately, he sustained only minor injuries.
Due to the collapsing roof, the fire rapidly increased in intensity. Within a short period of time, the gabled portions of the roof collapsed against both exposed structures at the north and south sides of the fire structure.
The fire structure was a 50by 75foot, two-story, Victorian/Queen Anne-style dwelling. A front portion of the roof supported two large, gabled dormers. Roof construction consisted of rough-cut, two-by-four-inch rafters butted together. Ihese supported one-by-four-inch space sheeting and multilayered roof covering, consisting of one layer of original wooden Shaker-type shingles over which a new roof of asphalt shingles laid on various thicknesses of composition paper. The interior spaces were modified by previous owners and at the time of the fire were as follows:
- A party wall divided the first and second floors into four separate units.
- The second floor could only be accessed by the exterior stairway and balcony at the rear of the structure.
- The second-floor ceiling joists were covered by wood sheathing that formed a floor for the extensive attic space.
- The occupiable attic area was
- extensive due to the severe pitch of the roof.
- The structure used “knob-andtube” wiring, which was common practice during the construction of these structures. Prior to the use of conduit and romex, a pair of wires were run throughout a structure to provide electricity to the various rooms. These wires were suspended on ceramic insulators and passed through ceramic tubes when it was necessary to pass through studs/ plates. This type of electrical wiring is known as knob-and-tube.
The fire was started by an electrical short in the attic. Rapid extension of fire in the attic caused the failure of a portion of the ceiling in a secondfloor room on the north side of the structure. This room quickly became involved with fire and, as a window failed, fire rapidly extended to the exterior of the structure. Although the initial size-up indicated a fire in a second-floor room on the structure’s north side that was extending into the attic, the reverse was true. Furthermore, the fire progressed considerably in the attic prior to the arrival of initial companies.
This incident is typical of common firefighting hazards associated with Victorian/Queen Anne construction.
Balloon construction. Modern wood-frame structures are of platform-type construction: Each level is finished to the bearing wall before an additional story is erected on top of it. This effectively provides horizontal fire blocking in the walls by plates at the top of wall studs that eliminate continuous, open vertical voids to the attic space. Unlike modern construction, balloon construction does not have any horizontal fire blocking in walls from its base to terminus into the open attic (see “Victorian: Beauty or the Beast?” Eire Engineering, September 1988).
Balloon construction allows rapid vertical travel of fire up the walls and into an attic. In addition, the presence of wood lath and/or paper-backed insulation will provide additional fuel for a fire, thereby increasing fire intensity and spread.
When firefighters encounter or suspect balloon construction, they should make openings in the walls above the fire to check for fire extension. A charged line must be available when opening walls and other hidden areas to check for the presence of fire.
Remodeling. Over the years, many Victorian/Queen Anne homes have been modified considerably, resulting in significant changes to original floor plans (removal of interior stairways or addition of partition walls), additional areas and openings that will enhance fire spread, and —the most popular— the addition of wood sheathing to the top-floor ceiling joists to create additional storage/living space in the attic. The presence of sheathing between the open top-floor joists and the attic may delay access into the attic when personnel anticipate opening the ceiling with pike poles. Sheathing usually will signal the presence of storage and/or additional occupants in the attic area. Remember that these structures are capable of housing many people. Thirty-four occupants were removed from the incident describe in the article. A similar fire in another Victoria/Queen Anne structure several weeks later resulted in the removal of 40 occupants.
Ladder placement. Proper ladder placement cannot be overemphasized. Ladders should be in position not only tor roof access but also to provide a secondary means of escape in the event of sudden extension of fire within the structure. Always consider the use of an aerial ladder or tower to gain access to the roof. The pitch of these roofs is usually severe and the use of roof ladders for safe operation during ventilation is a must.
Let’s consider three additional Victorian/Queen Anne hazards that were instrumental in this fire and early roof collapse.
Construction. Rough-cut, two-by-four-inch studs and rafters were commonly utilized during the construction of these houses. This derived from “bungalow construction” that was predominant in small, single-family dwellings. Of particular interest is the use of two-by-four-inch rafters for roof structural members that in some cases abut a one-by-six-inch ridge rafter and in others simply abut themselves, with no ridge rafter. This construction can be classified an an “old type” of lightweight construction.
One of the reasons for the steep roof pitch and numerous ridges and valleys in Victorian/Queen Anne structures is to gain strength when using two-by-four-inch rafters. These factors allow for short rafter spans. However, similar to modern lightweight construction, two-by-fourinch structural members can collapse rapidly when exposed to fire.
Roofing. The presence of termites and multiple layers of roof composition can seriously affect structural stability. The roof in this incident was covered with a layer of shingles and at least five layers of composition paper: Each 10-foot-square section of the roof carried approximately 1,100 pounds of undesigned load!
Electrical wiring. Because most Victorian/Queen Anne structures are so old, it’s common for the ceramic insulation of the knob-and-tube wiring system to become brittle and in many cases fall from the wires, leaving them exposed—an obvious electrical hazard to personnel opening walls or ceilings during fire suppression. When this type of hazard may exist, particular emphasis must be placed on eliminating electrical service to the involved structure.
The Victorian/Queen Anne residence is one of the most common types of construction in the United States. Only through a combination of prefire planning and awareness of hazards will you increase the effectiveness and safety of your fireground operations when confronted with a fire in such a structure.