On The Job: WASHINGTON STATE

Eighty-four firefighters from 13 departments in three counties responded to a four-alarm fire that destroyed a warehouse under renovation in downtown Wenatchee, WA, on Saturday, June 20, 2009. Workers in another building reported hearing an explosion...


Eighty-four firefighters from 13 departments in three counties responded to a four-alarm fire that destroyed a warehouse under renovation in downtown Wenatchee, WA, on Saturday, June 20, 2009. Workers in another building reported hearing an explosion and saw flames and heavy smoke on the roof of...


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Fourteen engines and three aerials were used to fight the fire. Eight hydrants on the municipal water system supplied 3.3 million gallons of water that was used during suppression operations. The Wenatchee Regional Water Department monitored the regional water system and assisted by opening a valve and turning on additional pumps to meet the demand. The total water flow capacity between the aerial apparatus, ground monitors and handlines ranged between 6,000 gpm to 6,500 gpm from 7:30 to 9 A.M.

The building continued to burn in areas on Saturday and crews maintained the scene and extinguished small fires throughout the weekend. Hot spots surfaced and were extinguished during the week that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) National Response Team was conducting its cause-and-origin investigation. The building was purchased in 2008 for $970,000 and insured for $3.1 million. The temperature was in the 70s during the fire. There were no injuries.

A six-day, on-site investigation was conducted by 25 members of the ATF team and 15 regional investigators from Wenatchee Fire & Rescue, Douglas County Fire District 2, Chelan County Fire District 1, and the Ephrata, Moses Lake and Quincy fire departments.

The warehouse construction, heavy fire load and sawdust insulation created a challenging fire scene. The investigation revealed that smoke was smelled, but discounted on Friday, June 19, at 4 P.M., 16 hours before the first 911 call reporting the explosion and fire. The predominant theme on firefighter observation reports was that the fire had been burning for some time. The earliest photos show fire on three floors. Early investigator photos, at 6:30 A.M., show that the fire had burned out a boarded-up window in the basement on the east side. During the investigation, a 12-by-20-inch beam in the northwest stairway, wrapped in metal, was consumed for 14 of its 16-foot length. Other areas of the solid floor were burned through.

The first reported collapse was at 7:15 A.M., one hour and 15 minutes after arrival, of one of the brick walls in the midsection on the west side. This fire clearly had an unusual head start as well as a significant fire load due to construction materials. When coupled with the tunnels for an air supply, the fire burned intensely. Saving the exposures was considered second to life safety, a main objective and efforts from all the responding units succeeded.

ATF cause-and-origin specialist Dane Whetsel determined that one of the temporary electrical power cords that ran into the basement caught under a three-foot insulated door at the foot of the stairway in the northwest corner of the warehouse. The cord overheated and was the heat source at the point of origin of this fire. After their determination of cause as accidental, the scene was released by ATF and the Wenatchee Fire & Rescue to the insurance companies and owners of the building at 5 P.M. on June 26. Investigators hired by the insurance companies continued their investigation of the scene, including further analysis of the wire and all evidence seized.

Lessons Learned

Old warehouses are of particular concern to the fire department because of limited access, heavy fire load and wood shavings used for insulation. The great success of this fire suppression activity was the relatively limited damage to exposures considering the huge scale and intensity of the fire.

During the post-incident review, the initial and ongoing operations were reviewed with the responding agencies. The incident management personnel that filled Incident Command System (ICS) roles were asked to discuss their experience by evaluating the clarity of the tactical objectives and assignments given; how their requests for resources were addressed; how their radio communications went throughout the incident; how their personnel accountability was managed; and how the rehab of personnel was managed.

Several problems came up during the incident and provided lessons learned in incident management: