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As with any incident, mistakes were made and we can learn from them. Do not assume that a residential garage fire can not have the same type and quantity of hazardous materials as a commercial garage. This garage had numerous cutting and welding equipment, compressed gas cylinders and a 100-pound propane tank, which was the source of the BLEVE (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion). Fortunately, no civilians or firefighters were injured by the explosion.
Firefighters at the scene experienced a delay in getting their handline charged, which kept them back from the garage and the explosion. The first attack line got hung up in the crosslay, so the crew pulled a second attack line for the exposure house. (The department had recently changed nozzle types, to larger models.) Once the line was deployed, the can man called for the line to be charged, but the message was not received due to a dead battery in a portable radio. The firefighter had to walk over to the pump operator to tell him to charge the line.
After any type of explosion or fireground â€œemergency,â€ you should check all of your equipment, even the equipment that was left on the truck or engine. At a later fire, when we had to lay out more large-diameter hose (LDH) than we did at this fire, several sections of LDH had holes burned in them. This became readily apparent when the LDH was charged. The sections of hose that had holes burned through were still in the hosebed at the garage fire. Flaming debris had landed in the hosebed after the explosion, unknown to anyone.
This account is from Captain Cliff Boxer III, the Rescue 5-9 officer:
Walking up to the incident commander, I noticed arcing wires lying on the ground coming from a utility pole. I also heard an extremely loud venting noise coming from the garage. Three 40-foot-tall pine trees were well involved, and their canopies overhung the garage and the house. I have a new respect for our wildland firefighter brothers and sisters after seeing how a pine tree becomes a 40-foot-tall roman candle, let alone three of them!
A large explosion occurred while I was kneeling down putting on my airmask. The explosion was extremely loud, as friends of mine that lived several streets away later told me the explosion woke them out of bed. I felt a concussion and a blast of hot air go by me. Flaming debris from the explosion landed on the roof of the house and in the street. Initially, it was hard for me to believe that what had just happened actually happened and how fast it occurred. I started looking around at all of the firefighters to see if anyone was down or appeared injured. I went over to the firefighters who were on the first handline and were closest to the explosion. A section of wall made of four-by-eight-foot plywood had landed mere inches from where they were positioned, but they were not hurt.
Overall, this operation was a success because no one was injured and the exposure house received only minor damage. One critical lesson is that when any type of compressed gas cylinder is venting, it could explode at any minute; in this case, less than three minutes from when venting first started.
When the fire department first arrived, there were numerous bystanders watching the fire. Fire department personnel directed these people to leave, but they were later told to move their cars out of their driveway by the police. It is important to remember that not all responding agencies have the same priorities. It was not known by the fire department, until after the fire was out, that the police had asked the neighbors to move their cars. This placed one resident right next to the garage at the time of the explosion as he backed his car out of his driveway. Better communications with the police were needed to ensure that the fire departmentâ€™s concerns were understood by everyone on the scene.
The wires down in front of the garage were another concern throughout the entire incident. The local electric company was called for by the police, as well as the fire department. A firefighter was posted to warn everyone about the wires and to stay away. After the fire was extinguished, the police started their investigation prior to the electric company arriving and de-energizing the wires. At this point, the wires were no longer arcing, which made them more dangerous. When wires arc, everyone sees the arcing and instinctively stays away. When they stop arcing, it becomes easier to forget the wires were there or that they were still energized. During their investigation, a police officer was seen walking directly through the wires. The police officer was warned that the wires were still live as he walked through them. Even trained professionals can get tunnel vision and lose focus on their surroundings. We must remember that just because the fire is out, the incident is still not over and that other agencies may need the protection and support of the fire department.