Rowhouse and Townhouse Fires: Characteristics and Considerations

Fire was showing from the middle of the block of identical three-story rowhouses. The block contained over 60 dwellings with contiguous porch front roofs the length of the block. Engine 45 saw heavy fire blowing out of the first-floor front windows and...


Fire was showing from the middle of the block of identical three-story rowhouses. The block contained over 60 dwellings with contiguous porch front roofs the length of the block. Engine 45 saw heavy fire blowing out of the first-floor front windows and attacking the underside of the wooden porch...


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Fire was showing from the middle of the block of identical three-story rowhouses. The block contained over 60 dwellings with contiguous porch front roofs the length of the block. Engine 45 saw heavy fire blowing out of the first-floor front windows and attacking the underside of the wooden porch roof. The fire then mushroomed laterally to involve the undersides of the roofs of six properties. Window glass was breaking on the exposures and fire was starting to enter those properties. The captain of Engine 45 immediately struck a second alarm and ordered 2½-inch hoselines to be positioned on each side to stop any further spread of fire. Before the first two hoselines were operating, the fire had extended to four additional properties.

Once the water from the 2½-inch hoselines were flowing, they darkened down the exterior fire. One of the 2½-inch lines was then stretched into the original fire building to control the fire and search for the reported occupants. The fire had started near the first-floor front window and, as the windows broke, the additional supply of air allowed it to extend vertically via the open interior stairs to heavily involve all three floors. As the 2½-inch line knocked down the first-floor fire, 1¾-inch hoselines were stretched to the upper floors.

The only access to the rear of the rowhouses was through a narrow alley. Portable ladders were carried from the end of the blocks to place them for rescue, roof access and ventilation. Hoselines were stretched to the rear to control any extension of fire. These rear ladder placements and hoseline stretches were time consuming and took their toll on the firefighters.

With the fire knocked down on the exterior, the problem now became the spread of fire to the interior of the exposed dwellings. The firefighters knew that the underside of the porch roofs often interconnected with the second-floor wall partitions allowing fire to spread to those common areas. As companies were opening the porch roofs to expose hidden fire, thermal imaging cameras were used to check interior walls and ceilings. Fortunately, there were eight-inch masonry walls separating the dwellings and those walls created a parapet through the roof that acted as a barrier against fire spread in the cocklofts. The search for occupants proved negative.

Characteristics

There are many cities and towns in the United States with block after block of rowhouse or townhouse dwellings. They were built to meet the demand for economical housing. Because they share common party walls, they were inexpensive to build. A block containing over 60 contiguous dwellings is commonplace. The buildings can be either ordinary or frame construction.

Rowhouses and townhouses vary in size. They can be up to four stories high and range from 13 to 20 feet wide by 30 to 65 feet deep, though depths of over 100 feet are not uncommon. The average rowhouse is 14 feet wide by 40 feet deep and two to three stories high; townhouses are typically somewhat larger and average 18 feet wide and 40 to 50 feet deep. Townhouses are not typically set in the same contiguous style as rowhouses. Though long blocks can be found, more often they are in smaller groupings with some open space between sets of townhouses.

The upper floors can be the same depth as the first floor, or they may be set back from the rear of the property. This means that if the first floor is 65 feet deep, the second floor can be set back from the rear one room, or 50 feet deep, and the third floor can be set back from the rear by another room, or 35 feet deep.

Townhouses may be large complexes of buildings. Though commonly built as single-family occupancies, some locales will find multi-family units. They may be built as rental units or condominiums with each floor containing a separate living space. Rowhouses and townhouses can contain flat or peaked roofs. The flat roof has a cockloft formed between the roof and the ceiling of the top floor. The cockloft in the front of the structure is normally higher and the roof pitches to the rear where the roof rafters meet the ceiling joist. This angle or pitch allows rainwater to drain to the rear of the property. The peaked roof may be attic space or contain living quarters. Townhouses may have very large attic or cockloft areas constructed of lightweight construction. These areas will supply ample fuel to a fire that extends to that location.

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