Mayday! Why There's No Such Thing As a "Routine" House Fire

A single-family-dwelling fire is the most common type of structural fire to which most of us respond. While the house fire profiled this month, in the minds of these Pennsylvania firefighters, was a “standard†response, it turned out to be...


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On the second floor, the crew found medium to heavy smoke. The second-floor rooms appeared to be connected by a narrow hallway running the length of the home. The crew split, with Walton going left and Wentzel and Zerr heading right to the longer and deeper area of the second floor. Wentzel and Zerr encountered what appeared to be a master bedroom. Zerr split off and started a search of this room while Wentzel, equipped with a thermal imager (TI), could see an additional room on the opposite side of the bedroom. Wentzel continued straight to the entrance of that room.

Once he was in the doorway, it was clear that the room was under construction and that there was no furniture or carpet, just a stepladder and several five-gallon pails. Equipped with the TI, Wentzel could see fire starting to come up through the rear (side D) walls of the home. This room was directly over the garage.

At that point, Wentzel advised command that fire was coming up through the walls above the garage and that they needed a second hoseline to the second floor immediately. After clearing that room, Wentzel turned to return to the room where Zerr was searching. He asked Zerr whether he had found anyone. Zerr advised that he was “pretty sure†the room was clear; a quick swipe on the room was done with the TI. Being sure that the room was clear, Wentzel and Zerr continued back out of the room and down the hallway to assist Walton.

Immediately after exiting the room, Wentzel and Zerr met Walton in the hallway. Walton advised Wentzel that everything appeared clear. Wanting to make a quick check with the TI, Wentzel advised them to head back to the room to the left of the stairs that Walton had searched and make a quick secondary check.

With Zerr in front, Wentzel handed the TI to him as the crew headed back down the hallway. Partway down the hallway, the crew passed the stairs that they had come up, but conditions had changed; there was now heavy smoke and heat coming up the stairs. Once inside the last bedroom, Wentzel went to the right to search, Walton went left and searched while Zerr swept the room with the TI. Once he was sure there was no one in the room, Wentzel called command and advised that the primary search was complete, no one was found and they would be heading out.

As the crew turned to leave the room and head back down the hallway to the stairs, they experienced extreme heat. Wentzel’s description of the conditions was that “it felt like someone had opened up doors to a blast furnace.†Conditions continued to deteriorate rapidly. Wentzel advised the crew that they needed to find the stairs “now.†Conditions had now banked down to the floor; even with the TI, the crew could not find the stairs.

Concerned that the second floor was about to “light up,†Wentzel yelled for someone to find a window and take it out. Walton almost immediately hit a window, but this provided little relief. Making one more attempt to find the stairs, Zerr turned the TI toward the hallway and the screen on the TI went red. Knowing that they were in trouble, Wentzel yelled to close the door to assist in again, “buying time.†Wentzel again radioed command with urgency, reporting that they were cut off by fire on the second floor and that they needed a ladder to the rear second-floor window immediately.

Finding a window directly in front of Wentzel, which the crew thought was in the rear of the building, the again radioed that they needed a ladder to the rear, that they were cut off by fire. Concerned about possibly drawing more fire toward them, the crew did not immediately take out the window in front of Wentzel; however, with the heat intensifying greatly, Wentzel told Zerr to “take this window.â€

Once the bottom windowpane was broken out, Wentzel made one quick glance out the window to determine the height of the drop. It was decided that the crew would exit via this window using a second-floor-window “hang-and-drop†maneuver. Wentzel yelled for Zerr to take out the remaining sash to clear the entire opening. Looking outside again, Wentzel saw a ladder coming toward the window. Immediately, Wentzel started to hang out the window, beating his hand on the outside wall while yelling, “Right here, right here, right here.†Later, it was found that he had been striking the wall so hard that he broke the vinyl siding and the board behind it.