Basement and Cellar Fires

As Engine 36 arrived on the scene of the tightly closed-up two-story dwelling, smoke was pushing from around the doors and windows on both floors as well as from the attic vents. There were no cars in the driveway or interior lights on to indicate that...


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As Engine 36 arrived on the scene of the tightly closed-up two-story dwelling, smoke was pushing from around the doors and windows on both floors as well as from the attic vents. There were no cars in the driveway or interior lights on to indicate that anyone was in the building, but due to the early-morning hour, the captain knew that a primary search would be needed.

The dwelling was built in the 1920s and was of balloon-frame construction. The captain quickly performed his 360-degree walk-around. He saw smoke pushing from the window frames of the blackened basement windows on both sides of the dwelling. He found an outside doorway leading to the basement in the rear. He anticipated a basement fire, but with the amount of smoke that had heavily charged the building, he was concerned that conditions indicated the potential for a backdraft.

The captain ordered the first-due truck company to perform horizontal ventilation on the top floor. He ordered Engine 14, the second-in engine company, to stretch a hoseline to the first floor and ensure that the interior door to the basement was closed.

Engine 36’s hoseline was stretched to the basement door. Ladders had been raised and the window glass was being broken on the second and first floors and then the basement windows. The outside basement door was forced open and there was a release of heat and smoke through the now-opened windows and doorway as the firefighters entered the basement. They found a large amount of storage where the contents were heavily involved. The hoseline’s nozzle was opened and the fire was knocked down. The nozzle was adjusted from a straight stream to a fog stream and the smoke was pushed out the basement windows.

Engine 14 was reporting that the cellar door at the first floor had been closed, but there had been some extension of fire on the first floor which they were able to control. The truck company reported that the primary search was negative.

As the smoke started to lift in the basement, it showed an unfinished area with a large amount of storage of all sorts. As the captain suspected, it was a balloon-frame structure and his concern now was the upward spread of fire. The chief had arrived and ordered a company to the top floor to open the ceiling to the attic. The fire had extended to that location and the firefighters were able to control it. The next-arriving truck company took its thermal imaging camera and checked the building for hot spots and assisted in the secondary search. Proper strategic decision making, combined with teamwork, led to a successful conclusion at this fire.

 

Basement Vs. Cellar

A basement or cellar is described as a level of a building partially or fully below grade. One definition of the difference between a basement and cellar is that a cellar is more than 50% below grade or ground level and a basement is less than 50% below grade. Another definition is based solely on the use of the area. If unfinished, it is referred to as a cellar. If a finished room, it is called a basement. In either case, the basement or cellar requires some type of descent to reach, whether entering from an exterior or interior door. In the following discussion, the terms will be used interchangeably.

A fire occurring below ground level will present problems. Fighting basement and cellar fires is like crawling down a chimney with a fire burning in the hearth below. Heat and smoke slam into you as you open the basement or cellar door. The fresh air introduced by opening the door feeds the fire below, increasing its intensity. It is hoped that the pent-up heat will be released and make it bearable to enter the basement to extinguish the fire.

Responding firefighters may be confronted with subcellars, which present additional dangers. Usually, there is only one way into the subcellar, which makes entry during a fire very hazardous. There may be drainage problems if the subcellar is below the sewer lines. The presence of a French drain (a drain that allows water to leach into the soil) may be suitable for minor water runoff, but it will allow a water buildup during a cellar or subcellar fire. This water buildup could catch unsuspecting firefighters off guard should they step into an area of deep water.

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