Firefighters Engulfed! Garage Fire and Explosion

Single-family-dwelling fires. For most of us, that's the most common structural fire we respond to, also know as a "bread-and-butter" run when the tones go off. But while in some minds the response can be considered "routine," unless this is the first...


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The Thompson Valley EMS crew was directly behind me and immediately deployed to the downed firefighters. I requested another ambulance, followed by a second alarm. Dispatched on the second alarm were Engines 3 and 6, an off-duty battalion chief, Berthoud Fire District Engine 2, Poudre Fire Authority Engine 14 and a Thompson Valley EMS supervisor. Accountability of everyone on scene was accomplished quickly; from my position, I still had a visual on everyone who had been operating on scene before the explosion. Crew 5 backed out of the house and was now positioned in the front yard. The right side of the garage door was open and heavy fire was visible in the back corner of the garage. At 9:38, a 2½-inch attack line was deployed to the driveway to attack the fire. Schuetz and Marker were walked to the ambulance for treatment. Hessler was not injured; in fact, he initially began the attack on the 2½-inch line.

Engine 2 arrived on scene just as the explosion occurred. The crew secured a hydrant water supply to Quint 5 and then staffed the 2½-inch line on the driveway, relieving Hessler. I sent Hessler to the paramedics for evaluation. The fire in the garage was knocked down with the 2½-inch line. The only visible explosion damage to the structure was to the garage door. At 9:40, Gilbert reported that the primary search was "all clear" and advised of moderate to heavy smoke in the attic. Crew 5 was redeployed into the house to assist Crew 1 in checking for extension.

When Engines 3 and 6 arrived on scene, they were assigned to vertical ventilation over the garage; the open ceiling was holding a tremendous amount of smoke that I felt was contributing to the smoke condition in the attic space. This crew also secured the utilities to the house. Training Captain Michael Cerovski arrived and was assigned as the safety officer. Ventilation was complete at 9:50 and the conditions in the attic improved. Poudre Engine 14 arrived and staged; and Berthoud Engine 2 was canceled and moved up to our Station 1. At 9:53, Crew 1 reported no fire extension into the rest of the house. The fire was placed under control at 9:54.

Crews began to overhaul the garage area and the Fire Prevention Bureau started the fire investigation process. Crews completely removed the garage door for access. The garage was loaded with storage, including shelving units that were six feet high. These shelving units lined the walls and also were placed in the middle of the garage, almost dividing it into two separate areas. The fire origin was in the back corner farthest from the walk-in door from the house to the garage; a large shelving unit/divider was between the fire area and this door.

Fire Prevention Bureau investigators determined the fire started in or on a propane-fired heater that was attached to the top of a 100-pound propane cylinder. The fire spread to the storage on the shelves, the heavy smoke banked down and eventually suffocated the fire, letting raw propane flow onto the floor of the garage. The most likely cause of the explosion was the sparks from the circular saw igniting the propane.

Additional observations:

  • Crews did not detect an odor of propane outside of the structure prior to the explosion. The fire presented as a normal garage fire.
  • The firefighter safety/survival training done by the department over the past few years paid off at this incident. The explosion occurred, the injured firefighters were immediately cared for and all other crews continued with their assignments.
  • The scene remained calm, everyone remained focused.
  • We do not have a formal policy on notifying family members in the event of an injury. Hospital personnel gave very limited information to members of the injured firefighters' families, causing undue stress. This is being addressed by our department.
  • Hessler took the most direct fire during the explosion. Because he was fully bunkered out, he received no injuries.

This account is by Lieutenant Vance Stolz, the Quint 5 officer (first due):

I was assigned to Quint 5 as the company officer along with Engineer Kevin Hessler and Firefighter Rick Summer. Upon arrival, we found a residential structure with moderate smoke coming from the attached garage. The main garage door was closed and the walk-in door was inside the residence; there were no other openings such as doors or windows in the garage. Smoke was visible around the main garage door and the eaves of the structure. The homeowner met us and stated he had a large fire in the garage with propane possibly on fire as well. The owner stated all occupants were out of the structure and accounted for. Summer pulled a 200-foot 1¾-inch pre-connect to the front door, Hessler staged tools and charged the line in preparation for Summer and me to go interior for a "fast attack." Battalion Chief Greg Ward arrived on scene as we were preparing to enter the structure and established command.