Rapidly Changing Conditions — Part 1

On June 24, 2010, the Harrisonburg, VA, Fire Department was dispatched to a multi-family dwelling fire in the Copper Beech townhouse community on the eastern edge of the city. The initial-arriving engine company reported fire showing from the rear of two townhouses. The fire involving the townhouse of origin was quickly controlled and search for extension and overhaul operations began immediately.

Approximately 34 minutes into the incident, a smoke explosion occurred in an adjacent townhouse, forcing six firefighters to rapidly evacuate the structure through the interior stairwell and second-floor windows. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries.

Our sincere appreciation goes out to Harrisonburg Chief of Department Larry W. Shifflett, Deputy Fire Chief Ian J. Bennett, the officers and members of Hose Company 4 (Rockingham County) and especially the members of the Harrisonburg Fire Department who provided their accounts so that other firefighters can learn and benefit from their experiences.

The Harrisonburg Fire Department protects a community of approximately 47,000 people within an area of just over 17 square miles in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The community has a strong presence of college students and associated college housing as it is home to two universities, James Madison University and Eastern Mennonite University. The fire department operates out of four stations with four engine companies, one truck company and one battalion chief on duty. Minimum staffing is three personnel on each engine company and four on the truck company. The department responded to over 4,400 calls for service in 2009.

The Harrisonburg Fire Department has an aggressive automatic and mutual aid agreement with Hose Company 4, a fire department that serves the surrounding areas of Rockingham County, but houses its apparatus within the City of Harrisonburg. One engine from Hose Company 4 is added to all city structural assignments, one city engine is added to all Hose Company 4 structural assignments and the two departments cover for each other when one is unavailable on another call.

The Copper Beech townhouse community consists of three-story townhouses with a predominantly college student population. The units are constructed with wood-frame materials with wood-truss roofs. Due to a variety of construction methods, only a portion of the buildings are sprinklered, with no sprinkler heads in the attic space. The townhouses involved in this incident were about one year old.

The following is an overall account of the fire provided by Chief Larry W. Shifflett and Deputy Chief Ian J. Bennett:

June 24, 2010, was a warm day in the middle of a week-long heat wave. Temperatures were in the mid-90s with heat indexes approaching 100 degrees. At 10:32 A.M., a structure fire was dispatched by the Emergency Communications Center. A normal structural fire response for the city is three city engines, one Hose Company 4 engine, one truck company, one ambulance and the battalion chief. At the dispatch time, one city engine was on a medical call and one city engine was unavailable conducting pump testing. A second Hose Company 4 engine was dispatched to fill out the first-alarm assignment. Engine 26 arrived on the scene at 10:35, took command, and transmitted an initial size-up with fire on the rear of the structure extending up in to the second floor and attic. The incident was made a "working incident," which triggers several activities, including adding the additional city engine, notifying off-duty personnel, requesting utility companies to the scene and dispatching surrounding departments to fill city stations for any additional emergency calls. Engine 28 terminated the pump testing and responded to the incident. Engine 23 cleared from the medical call and also responded to the incident.

It was confirmed that no one was inside the structure. Realizing that there was no life hazard and the next engine company would not arrive for a few minutes (therefore, the two-in/two-out requirement would not be met), Engine 26's officer made the tactical decision to deploy handlines to knock down the fire from the outside in an effort to keep the fire from spreading to adjacent townhouses. This was successful and kept the fire in check until the next company arrived.

Fire Chief Larry W. Shifflett was the next to arrive on the scene. He obtained a briefing from Engine 26's officer and then assumed command of the incident at 10:39. It is noteworthy that very little smoke was evident throughout the duration of this fire. Companies that arrived on side Alpha of the structure saw very little evidence of any fire. As companies and personnel arrived, an incident management system was set up, assigning units to fire attack, Division Charlie, Division 1, exposure Bravo and ventilation. Search operations were conducted in the fire building and adjacent exposures with negative results. Both exposures were also checked for extension, especially in the attic area, and none was noted. Based on the hot weather and the significant amount of overhaul that was necessary, two additional engine companies were requested to the scene.

The fire had been primarily on the outside of a townhouse with extension into the attic of the same building. Tower 1 cut a ventilation hole in the roof of the fire building, interior crews pulled the ceiling and the remaining fire in the attic was extinguished. Salvage and overhaul operations were initiated and crews began to rotate due to the extreme heat. There were no smoke conditions evident in the fire building, exposure buildings or from the exterior as crews entered to perform these operations.

Conditions Change Rapidly

While crews were operating in the fire building and exposure building, Division Charlie reported that there was some smoke evident from the eaves of exposure Bravo. The crews inside exposure Bravo reported they could see a little bit of insulation burning and were in the process of pulling ceiling and would take care of the fire.

Within minutes, the situation went from light smoke conditions to fire showing from the ridge vent on the roof and the eaves on Division Charlie. Command was on side Alpha and witnessed a dark-gray ball of smoke exit the structure down the interior steps on side A and immediately ordered the evacuation of the structure. As he was transmitting his message, a smoke explosion occurred in the attic area and second floor of Exposure Bravo, engulfing these areas in smoke, then fire.

Six personnel were operating in exposure Bravo at this time. Four were near the interior stairwell and able to get out down the interior steps and exit on side Alpha. The other two firefighters were pulling ceiling in the rear bedroom and their access to the interior stairwell was cut off by the fire. These two immediately went to the windows on side Charlie for egress. There were two ladders on side Charlie, but they had been most recently used for overhaul operations on the exterior of the fire building and not in place for a rescue situation. These were quickly moved to the two windows and the personnel executed successful ladder bails out the windows.

Command immediately initiated a personnel accountability report (PAR) and all personnel were rapidly accounted for. A quick evaluation of the affected personnel revealed no serious injuries. The fire was quickly knocked down from the exterior on Division Charlie and crews re-entered to complete extinguishment. The situation de-escalated as quickly as it had begun. The fire building and exposures were once again checked with the no additional extension. The incident was marked under control within 15 minutes of the evacuation.

Next: Accounts by the firefighters

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com. Goldfeder may be contacted at BillyG@FirefighterCloseCalls.com.