Extremely Dangerous Large Enclosed Structure Fires

The tragic event that unfolded in Charleston, SC, on June 18, 2007, marked the worst case of firefighter disorientation ever recorded in the United States. Since the details surrounding the deaths of nine firefighters have a direct and immediate impact on...

  1. Fire in an enclosed structure with smoke showing
  2. A fast and aggressive interior attack
  3. Deteriorating conditions
  4. Handline separation or entangled handines encountered
  5. Disorientation

During the early stage of the Charleston fire, heavy smoke and fire was visible from the rear, or Delta side of the structure and an attack with the use of a handline was quickly initiated. Due to deteriorating conditions however, the crew evacuated and the attack was subsequently made from the exterior. During this effort, entry was also made from the Alpha side and an investigation of the interior found it to be clear with the exception of light smoke seen at the ceiling at the right rear of the store. Subsequently, a deep interior attack was made from the unburned side of the structure in an attempt to cut off fire spread into the main areas of the structure. As conditions deteriorated, heavy smoke gradually filled the interior resulting in prolonged zero visibility conditions. Those firefighters working on the interior of the structure at that time and without the benefit of a handline, to serve as a lifeline out of the structure, became disoriented and depleted there air supplies attempting to reach the safety of the exterior. Thus, the disorientation sequence tragically unfolded in Charleston. The interior of the store then flashed over followed by a collapse of major portions of the roof.

A Multitude Of Factors
Any working fire involves a multitude of fireground factors which are considered by arriving firefighters during the initial size-up and throughout the course of the fire. Many factors are routinely considered and may have no bearing on the incident. Others however, which may be critical to the incident, may on occasion be seriously overlooked.

In addition to such size-up factors as the time of day, the type of occupancy, the type of construction, the use of truss construction, the life hazard present as well as the amount and location of fire and smoke showing on arrival, other important factors must always be considered. One factor pertains to whether the involved structure has an opened or an enclosed architectural design. An opened structure has an adequate number of windows or doors to allow prompt ventilation and emergency evacuation of firefighters. The opposite is true however, with an enclosed structure. An enclosed structure does not have enough windows or doors for ventilation or emergency evacuation and for this reason should be considered extremely dangerous. In addition, it must be clearly understood that during fast and aggressive interior attacks, enclosed structures have exposed firefighters to life threatening hazards such as violent flashovers, backdrafts, collapses of roofs and floors and to prolonged zero visibility conditions, any of which may cause disorientation which may lead to firefighter fatalities.

A second factor pertains to the size of the structure, while a third pertains to the weather. In regards to the weather, this is associated with firefighter awareness of the wind speed, direction and of any possible changes that may occur during the course of the incident and of the impact it may have on the incident action plan. In objective terms, The Charleston incident was one of the most dangerous type of enclosed structure fire for the following reasons.

The Sofa Super Store building fell into the category of an enclosed structure in which the associated danger was not recognized. It was a large enclosed structure defined as one measuring greater than 100-by-100 feet in size which adds to the overall complexity of an incident. Enclosed structures of this and greater size have been associated with numerous multiple firefighter fatality events in the past. And finally, the Charleston tragedy, like the Phoenix grocery store fire of 2001, was not only a large enclosed structure fire, it hampered firefighters because it was also a wind driven structure fire which initially caused prolonged zero visibility conditions and eventually pushed the heat and fire to the broken windows and opened doors at the point of entry which served as vents points for the products of combustion. This situation in both incidents, placed firefighters, who were initiating an attack from the unburned side, in the flow path of smoke, heat and fire which eventually forced them out as fire rapidly consumed all of the fuel in its path.