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A basement or cellar fire can be one of the more challenging types of fires that firefighters can faced. Success can be achieved by using sound strategy and tactics.
Photo credit: Photos by Jay K. Bradish/IFPA
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.
Common cellars are similar to common attics, in which adjoining properties use the same area with no fire walls in between. They can be found in older mercantile areas. Wooden partitions or chicken wire can separate the individual cellar areas. Poor housekeeping by one store owner will jeopardize not only the contents of the common cellars but the businesses above. Locating the seat of the fire can be extremely difficult since smoke may be showing from many properties. The common cellar is not discernible from the exterior.
If unprotected steel is supporting the first floor, a well-involved cellar fire can cause an early failure. Similarly, the increased use of lightweight building components in residential and commercial properties will be a serious concern. With no sprinkler systems, failure of the first floor will occur quite early in the fire. A decision must be made on the stability of the building and whether an interior attack is feasible.
A danger in basements and cellars is the storage of unwanted hazardous items, including paint, paint products, and pesticides.
The cellar can be one large, open area or it can be partitioned into several rooms. One large, open area will let a fire spread to a greater area, but can be more conducive to firefighting. The hoseline can reach most areas from the base of the stairs to knock down any large body of fire, and then it can be moved in to overhaul the area. Having a large open area also makes ventilating the area easier. The reach of a stream will be reduced if the height of storage reaches near the ceiling. In this case, hoseline advancement will be difficult and additional lines may be required.
The kind and location of cellar entrances will vary but can be interior, exterior, or a combination of the two. Interior cellar doorways can be found in different locations within buildings. In residential, multistoried buildings, they usually will be located beneath the stairs to the upper floors. In one-story residential properties, interior cellar doorways often will be located in the kitchen. The location of cellar doorways in commercial properties varies widely.
Exterior entrances can be either in the front of a building with outside stairs and a door located at the bottom of the stairs or a door opening onto stairs leading into the basement. A commercial property might have a metal door flush with the pavement. It can contain stairs, a ladder or a hoistway. If the property is closed, forcible entry will have to be made. If an exposed padlock is present, it can be pried open or cut off. If locked from the inside, the easiest way to gain entry is to break out the concrete in each corner where the door is anchored. The entire door can then be lifted or slid aside. Residential and commercial properties also may have a lift-type metal door located on the side or rear of the property.
The presence of heat and smoke at the first-floor level or on all floors and the absence of visible fire can indicate a cellar fire. Another indicator is smoke emitting from the baseboards on lower floors and banking down on the top floor. Delayed discovery of a cellar fire will let a fire gain a foothold and is a common occurrence.
Strategy & Tactics
The best protection afforded any property is automatic sprinklers. Cellars and basements are no exception. From a strategic point of view, if sprinklers are present, one of the first considerations is to pressurize the system to guarantee a continuous and adequate supply of water.
Entrance to the basement area may be required to shut down the building’s utilities. Care must be taken to avoid extinguishing a fire involving a natural gas meter if doing so prevents shutting down the meter. If the meter is involved, the hose crew should protect the surrounding area from fire extension until the gas supply can be shut off. (Many areas still have natural gas meters in basements.)
From a life-safety standpoint, protection of the interior stairs is paramount. It lets people on upper floors exit the building, enables firefighters to enter the upper floors to assist with rescues and extinguishment, and permits interior access to the cellar. A staircase against an exterior wall is much easier to protect than a staircase that terminates in the middle of a cellar. A hoseline may be required just for that purpose. It may be necessary to place a line outside an exterior cellar door that is being used for ventilation. This precaution prevents fire extension up the outside of the building.
If an outside entrance exists at grade level, it is usually the best method of entering the building and attacking the fire. The firefighters are not subjected to the heat and smoke that accompanies descending interior stairs. If no exterior entrance exists, entry will need to be made from the interior stairs.
When descending cellar steps, there are some basic rules:
- • The hoseline(s) must be able to control the fire
- • After deciding to descend the stairs, there must be sufficient hoseline so the firefighter operating the nozzle can reach the cellar floor without stopping
- • After the hoselines are on the cellar floor, an aggressive attack on the fire must be made; retreating back up the steps is difficult, to say the least
- If fire attack is not being made from the interior stairs, a hoseline protecting the interior stairs must be maintained for the reasons given previously.
The proper use of resources will facilitate fighting a cellar fire. Placing a firefighter at the door to the cellar near the top of the stairs and another at the bottom of the stairs will assist hoseline advancement
In fires above grade, a firefighter who becomes disoriented often can locate a window to gain his or her bearings. This is not feasible in a cellar fire. Closer contact must be maintained among personnel operating in below-grade locations. Contact with the hoseline or the placement of guidelines for search personnel is necessary to ensure the location of exits.
An associated problem with cellar fires is that water buildup on the floor, storage strewn about by firefighters operating in confined areas and the disarray of the contents caused by hose streams can bury the hoseline and make it impossible to follow the hoseline to locate an exit. In any case, accountability of all personnel minimizes the possibility of someone becoming lost.
The presence of what appears to be only light smoke in a basement or cellar still requires the continued use of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). The safety officer, before allowing removal of breathing apparatus, must test for carbon monoxide (CO) levels.
It is important with cellar fires to check all floors above for extension of fire. This is necessary due to the presence of pipe chases and other connections between the basement and the upper floors through which fire can travel. It may be necessary to open walls and ceilings and stretch hoselines to these locations.
If it is impossible or impractical to enter a cellar, the incident commander may decide to use cellar pipes or distributors. This involves feeling the floor for the hottest spot to discern the location of the fire and cutting a hole between the joists. Water must be at the shutoff of the cellar pipe or distributor and at the tip of a backup line before cutting the hole. If using a cellar pipe, it then is inserted into the hole, and the tip is opened
A distributor is a large sprinkler head that is attached to a hoseline (usually 2½ inch) and lowered through the opening created into the cellar until it touches the floor or an obstruction. Then it is withdrawn half the distance and raised and lowered to cover the maximum area. A hoseline is stretched for the protection of the firefighters operating cellar pipes or distributors.
There has been some success in extinguishing cellar fires with high-expansion foam. Ventilation must be provided in front of the foam for proper distribution. The major drawback is that the foam is restricted greatly by walls and closed doors, and hoselines must be shut down to prevent breaking down the foam.
If adequate ventilation is not provided by an outside cellar door or sufficient windows, an alternative method is cutting a hole in the floor beneath a window on the first floor. Knowing the approximate location of the fire will assist in choosing the location of the window or windows to be used. If at all possible, the location of this hole should be directly over or just past the fire. If incorrectly placed, it can endanger the hoseline crews because the fire will be drawn to the ventilation hole.
The opening should be the width of the window and extend out from the wall approximately one foot. Ventilation can be enhanced by installing a fan in the window (negative-pressure ventilation) or stretching a hoseline, placing it on fog and directing it out the window (hydraulic ventilation). This will pull the smoke and heat from the basement and let the crews operating in the basement advance on the fire. A hoseline should be stretched to monitor for any extension of fire onto the first floor. This protective line must not be directed into the cellar while firefighters are operating there; doing so would drive the heat back onto them, jeopardizing their lives.
A cellar fire in a store containing showcase windows offers two additional ways of effecting ventilation. The showcase is an elevated floor. There is normally no additional flooring between it and the cellar. The windows can be broken out and the floor opened. An easier method of ventilation is to break out the material on the exterior under the windows, allowing immediate access to the cellar.
The material under the showcase windows can be masonry, marble or wood. After removing this material, probe the opening to see if any ceiling exists in the basement. If a ceiling is present, it will have to be pushed down. Care must be taken if the front door is recessed with showcase windows in the recess. Breaking out under the windows alongside the door entrance can cut off any exit from the front door if the cellar fire extends to that location.
Older commercial buildings often have basements that extend out past the front of the building and under the sidewalk. Deadlights were installed in the sidewalks to provide natural lighting. These deadlights are made of round, thick glass, embedded in the sidewalk. They can be broken out to effect ventilation.
Recessed window wells allow for natural lighting where a cellar is wholly beneath grade. These wells often have a metal grate cemented into the sidewalk. Ventilation can be effected by reaching a tool down through the openings between the grate or by removing the grate. The grate can be removed by breaking the concrete at each corner where the metal is attached. If maintenance of these wells is ignored, they become catchalls for trash. Many times, “the smell of smoke in the basement” can be traced to a carelessly discarded cigarette starting a fire in accumulated trash in a window well.
A basement or cellar fire can be one of the more challenging types of fires that firefighters can be faced with. Early detection and notification of the fire department does not always occur. Finding the exact location of the fire will be compounded by smoky conditions that normally occur in these below-grade locations. Success can be achieved by using sound strategy and tactics when confronted with basement fires.