On June 24, 2010, a smoke explosion occurred during a multi-family dwelling fire in Harrisonburg, VA, forcing six firefighters to rapidly evacuate through an interior stairwell and second-floor windows. Our thanks to Harrisonburg Chief of Department Larry W. Shifflett, Deputy Fire Chief Ian...
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I came down the ladder and Firefighter Showalter went up and found the same conditions. Several others started pulling ceiling and they needed the line as smoke started to come from the attic. Fire blew down from the attic access. Firefighter Showalter was on the ladder and I was holding the ladder. I fell to the ground, crawled to the stairs and exited through the front door.
Master Firefighter Bradley Clark, Engine 28 (in the rear bedroom pulling ceiling) — We were assigned to check the Bravo exposure for extension into the attic. At first, we found light smoke and no visible flames in the attic. After a few minutes, we had a small flame in the attic, where the roof meets the soffit. A line was placed in service and we were able to extinguish that fire. We were not aware of the reverse gable above us where the fire was free burning and our hoseline was unable to access. As this fire burned, it was filling up the attic with superheated gases and smoke. The fire eventually ignited the gases, forcing it all down the attic access hole.
I witnessed total flame engulfment of one firefighter and my escape was cut off. I was not sure if a flashover was occurring, so I retreated to the nearest window and called for a ladder. Another firefighter and I were able to exit the building via "ladder bails" from the second-story windows.
Master Firefighter William Drury, Engine 28 (operating in the area of the stairwell) — We were initially asked to pull a handline off Engine 26 to exposure Bravo. There was no smoke in the exposure building. I was at the bottom of the stairs while others went upstairs to check for extension. Eventually, the line was used to provide a stream to the attic space. I was standing halfway up the stairs feeding hose to the firefighters on the second floor. I suddenly heard a boom and experienced a sudden smoke and extreme heat explosion that overwhelmed me and threw me down the steps to the first floor. At this time, the evacuation tones were being sounded and we were moving to the outside of the building with the help of others.
Master Firefighter Jamie Rickard, Tower 1 (operating in the area of the stairwell) — Upon arrival at the structure fire, Firefighter Smith and I were assigned to secure utilities, search and ventilation of the fire building. We entered the fire building and secured the utilities and did a primary search of all three floors. We then exited the fire building and entered exposure Bravo and secured utilities and did a primary search of all three floors. There was no visible smoke on any of the floors, just a light haze in the attic. We exited the building and secured the electrical utilities at the main disconnect on the exterior of the building. Command then assigned us to salvage work in exposure Bravo. We took some salvage covers and plastic to the second floor of exposure Bravo and began covering the contents of the rear bedroom.
Engine 28's crew came to our location and advised there was some fire on the exterior of the building. Master Firefighter Clark put an inspection hole in the bedroom ceiling and Firefighter Showalter was in the attic operating a 1¾-inch handline. We had some smoke coming from the inspection hole and called for the handline out of the attic to hit the fire from the inspection hole. Master Firefighter Clark made a bigger inspection hole and we noticed smoke pushing from the ceiling and pulling back into the attic.
As Firefighter Showalter was exiting the attic access hole, a smoke explosion occurred from the attic. Four of us were able to exit down the stairs and we noticed Master Firefighter Clark and Firefighter Smith were not with us. Firefighter Showalter and I began to go up the stairs when we were told that they had bailed out through the windows on side D.
The following conclusions and related discussion are based on input from the Harrisonburg Fire Department members in communication with Chief Goldfeder, along with observations and general comments:
This fire, while a close call, resulted in nothing more than a close call and that generally happens in a disciplined fire department that is well led and well trained. The cause of the fire was determined to be a cigarette that had been placed in a plastic trash can that was on the rear deck up against the building. The trash can caught fire and the fire extended up the exterior of the structure via the vinyl siding.