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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Buildings of ordinary construction have a common party, or bearing-wall that contains a double (eight-inch) wythe of brick or eight-inch concrete or composition block that is shared with the adjoining property. The front and rear walls are normally nonbearing walls. The townhouse may contain fire-rated drywall in lieu of the masonry party wall.

Old Vs. New

The older rowhouses were built with full-sized lumber used for floor joists, roof rafters, flooring and roof planks. The floor joists and roof rafters range from full two-by-10-inch to three-by-10-inch wooden beams. Flooring is full-sized one-by-four-inch tongue-and-groove boards, and the roof planks are an inch thick.

Newer rowhouses and townhouses mimic typical ordinary construction, but include the use of lightweight components. Townhouses are often of frame construction. They may contain brick veneer, which could give the appearance of ordinary construction. There is usually a light and air shaft between the buildings. This allows windows to open onto the shaft in rooms that ordinarily would not have outside light. There are different types of light and air shafts. In large buildings, the windows open onto an enclosed shaft that is open at the top. Shafts can also be formed by having the width of the building at the rear of the structure narrower on one side, leaving the shaft open on the rear.

The rear of the row of houses on one street backs up to the rear of those on the opposing street. There may be narrow alleyways between the rears of the rowhouses and townhouses. In some areas, the small rear yards are lined with fences that abut the rear fence of the yard on the opposing street, limiting access to the rear yard. This may necessitate that units attempting to gain access to the rear go through an adjoining property or climb over many fences with ladders and tools to reach the rear, a time-consuming and sometimes dangerous chore.

Firefighters can be faced with a variety of fences. They can be wood, masonry or metal fabric. They are often to a height in excess of five feet for privacy and may be topped with barbed wire or glass embedded in the tops of walls to deter the criminal element. The presence of attack dogs is another potential concern. Newer townhouses may have ample backyards which are located a distance from the rear of those on the opposing street. A problem will exist if these structures are situated on a waterfront where there is access to only one side of the structure limiting the fire department's approach.

Some newer rowhouses and typically all townhouses have garages at the basement or first-floor level. Garages in the rear have driveways that access the rear of the properties, facilitating the approach for apparatus and firefighters. It is common to find the first floor at the ground level in the front and the basement and garage at ground level in the rear.

Because the basement is at ground level in the rear, it raises the level of the living quarters another story above grade, requiring longer ladders and causing severe injuries if occupants jump from these upper-floor windows to escape a fire prior to arrival of the fire department. These multiple levels can deceive responders and require a 360-degree walk-around to ensure a proper size-up. The garage can also be found in the front of the house on the first-floor level and the rear of the property is situated at the same level.

In many older rowhouses, the bearing walls constructed of brick have wooden wall studs attached to them with the floor butted up against the studs. This creates continuous voids from the basement or cellar to the cockloft or attic, similar to balloon-frame construction. A fire occurring in a cellar or basement with voids leading to the attic or cockloft area demands that firefighters check the void areas above for fire extension. Fire in concealed spaces can burn unnoticed by firefighters. If discoloration of the plaster is seen or if any doubt exists as to whether fire has entered these voids, the area should be inspected with a thermal imaging camera. If any doubt exists, a tool should be used to open the suspected areas to check for spread of fire.