Fire swept through a 200-by-300-foot sprinklered metal warehouse, destroying millions of dollars' worth of boxed furniture and challenging Houston, TX, firefighters to protect the company's adjoining 100,000-square-foot building housing its showroom, offices and a smaller warehouse. Gallery...
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District Chief Josef Gregory, in charge of water supply, monitored engines being supplied by six nearby hydrants, each pumping through two four-inch hoselines, supplying at least three aerial master streams and multiple 2½-inch handlines. He confirmed with fire dispatchers that the city's water department had been notified to boost pressure in the mains in the area, a routine for multiple-alarm fires.
District 6 Chief Arthur Broussard was given command of the showroom (D-side) division. He sent Engines 4 and 6 inside to assess the situation and take action. Engine 4 took a 2½-inch line inside and put a ground monitor on it in the north end of the walkway next to the burning warehouse. Engine 6 took another 2½-inch line to the north end of the showroom and manned it.
"The doors from the showroom to the walkway were basic pedestrian doors and the exterior wall of the showroom was metal," said Engine 6 Captain Kirk Tolliver. "We set up with a 2½ in one of those doors and made sure the fire didn't get in the showroom."
Partially downwind from the fire, the showroom filled with smoke. The crew of Ladder 38 was sent to its roof to open windows on cupolas atop the structure. Smoke cleared quickly from most of the building. Eventually, HFD's "Big Blow," an airboat fan mounted on a trailer, was set up to clear the showroom completely of smoke.
A resident of an apartment complex across Rosamond Street on the north side of the warehouse told investigators at the fire that she heard an explosion before seeing flames on the northeast corner of the warehouse. By the next day, a multi-agency team of investigators began combing through the debris. The investigators looked closely at an auxiliary power generator that sat against the northeast wall of the warehouse. They were particularly interested in determining not just the origin of the fire, but why a sprinklered warehouse could have experienced such a fast-moving and devastating fire.
On May 28, Rob Elder, the case's lead investigator from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), told news media that arson was the likely cause of the fire. Flanked by the HFD's lead investigator on the case, Allison Stein, Elder estimated the total damage caused by the fire at $15 million to $20 million. Neither Stein nor Elder, though, would say any more about how the fire spread so quickly through a fully sprinklered warehouse or who might be suspected to have started the blaze.
A Strategic Review
This fire presented a number of challenging strategic issues, especially in its early stages, as is often the case. The HFD responded effectively with early recognition that the primary structure was headed for full involvement and, thus, quickly shifted its approach from an attempted interior knockdown inside a large warehouse to protecting the even larger exposure beside it.
- When the water supply being developed for a massive fire such as this taxes the hydrant system's ability to supply the required fire flow, crucial decisions must be made quickly to chose which devices and hoselines must be supplied versus which ones could be supplied. Obviously, such decisions must focus on the lives and property still most threatened by potential fire spread. Likewise, in a rapidly changing major fire like this, assign additional resources strictly to duties that will maximize their potential to save threatened lives and property, not just squirt water on what has already burned.
- If in command of a rapidly spreading fire such as this, give divisional and group commanders clear and concise instruction as to the goals you wish to achieve. On the other hand, keenly listen to reports they give in return to help paint a picture in your mind of how the event is progressing and what the greatest needs are at any given moment.
- Taking an overall defensive posture at a fire like this should not prohibit offensive measures from being taken from protected positions in adjoining exposures, such as quickly placing unmanned monitors where fire exposure is the greatest as well as placing charged 2½-inch handlines inside such exposures ready to combat any fire spread immediately and effectively.
- Maximize the use of aerial devices at fires of this magnitude by positioning them at points where their streams will have the most exposure-protection benefit as well as knockdown ability. Use them at low angles and maximum extension to avoid having to place the vehicle itself too close to intense flames or within the collapse zone.
- Request a small army of police early when it appears traffic and onlookers may hamper firefighting operations. Also, have a police supervisor sent to the command post so that, through unified command, you can quickly address traffic and crowd control issues and not have to do it through a series of dispatchers.