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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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.

Cellar Pipes

And Distributors

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.