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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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.

 

Pre-Plan Considerations

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.

 

Doorways

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.