On The Job - Texas: Mansion Fire Largest Loss Of Private Home In Dallas History

Mansion Fire Largest Loss Of Private Home In Dallas History

Chief Steve E. Abraira
Personnel: 1,670 uniformed personnel and 265 civilian support personnel
Apparatus: 54 engines, 21 trucks, 40 rescue units
Population: 1,188,580
Area: 378 square miles

Firefighters in Dallas know that a reported structure fire on Strait Lane has the potential to become a major incident. This street, in an exclusive north Dallas neighborhood, is commonly referred to as "billionaire's row" and with good reason. Houses in this area, 15 miles north of downtown, are anything but typical, and are home to such notables as businessman Ross Perot, Dallas Stars owner Don Hicks and superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez. In the early-morning hours of July 11, 2002, first-arriving crews knew they had a lot of work ahead of them.

Originating from a cell phone used by a security guard on the property, the first alarm for 10330 Strait Lane was sounded at 1:05 A.M., sending three engine companies, a ladder truck, a rescue unit and a battalion chief. C-shifters on Engine 41 and Truck 41 were first due on this address and reported heavy smoke coming from a large three-story house. Reports of a working fire receive an additional truck company and an additional battalion chief.

Crews from Station 41 pulled up to the front of the house, which sat some 300 feet from the road. A five-inch hose line was laid in by the second-arriving engine company to supply Engine 41. As first-alarm companies started an interior fire attack, a second-alarm was requested at 1:11, bringing three more engines, two trucks, one rescue, two battalion chiefs and a deputy chief. As firefighters attempted to cut it off from inside, the fire was gaining considerable headway and beginning to show through the roof. A third-alarm was requested at 1:15, bringing three more engines and another truck.

The house was not occupied at the time of the fire and, after many years of construction, was in the final stages of completion. The Chateau Du Triomphe, as it was called, sat on a 10-acre estate and boasted 43,000 square feet above ground and 17,000 square feet of basement area below ground. It had just been listed with Christie's Great Estates for the price of $44.9 million. It had been reported by some to be the second-largest private home in the country.

One of the many elaborate features in this home was a 16-car garage, complete with an indoor car-washing facility. It also had an indoor theater, a gift-wrapping room, a wine cellar with a tasting room, two custom marble tubs that were carved in Verona, Italy, from a single block of Carrera marble and a 6,200-square-foot natatorium. The enormity of the home rivals many large commercial buildings and it became a difficult battle for firefighters inside.

Large open spaces in the living areas and in the walls made it easy for the fire to advance. Firefighters on the ground floor reported good visibility, but noted heavy fire in the walls as they were opened up. Firefighters reaching the top floor and attempting to gain access to the attic found that the area had been finished with flooring and would be extremely difficult to breech.

There were access points to the upper area, but the fire had extended beyond the one closest to firefighters working inside. Their position was no longer advantageous and was quickly becoming unsafe as the fire broke through the steeply pitched slate roof. The attic sloped up to 18 feet, with flat areas above those portions of the house not covered by the pitched roof. The attic was open for the entire distance of the length of the house, which was approximately 400 feet. The decision was made to remove firefighters from inside the structure and move to an exterior attack. A fourth-alarm was requested at 1:33, bringing another three engines and one truck. This was quickly followed by the request for a fifth-alarm at 1:40, which provided an additional three engine companies.

Exterior Attack Strategy

The task facing incident commanders now was to move personnel and equipment into position around the home in order to launch an effective exterior attack. Limited vehicle access around the home made it a challenge to position equipment and hoselines. Additional hydrants in the neighborhood were utilized to keep the water supply adequate at the scene, but some lays were over 1,500 feet.

Dallas engines carry a standard load of 1,200 feet of five-inch hose for a permanent water supply. It took time to get lines in place because of the hose that was already on the ground and the number of apparatus that sometimes had to be worked around. Several fire crews worked to place hose bridges over existing lines and moved charged lines by hand, making room that would allow additional apparatus to enter the estate grounds. Dallas Water Utilities supervisors, who had reported to the command post, were able to boost the water pressure in the area to help with the long hose lays.

Three ladder trucks were positioned to attack the fire from above with large streams, and were complimented by deck guns on the engines and large hand lines on the ground. The strategy at this point was to confine the large body of fire to the portion of the main house where it was now burning.

The Dallas Police Department helicopter, Air One, was circling above, monitoring embers at the request of incident command. Air One is able to communicate directly with command, as they are equipped with both police and fire radios. Flying embers were not a problem during this incident since the large estate provided adequate separation between buildings and the southerly breeze was less than five knots that night.

Even in the dark of night, the temperature was hovering around the 80-degree mark, with the relative humidity over 50%. Combined with the lack of wind, it was not long before firefighters became fatigued.

The Box Four Fire Buffs Association provides rehab services to Dallas firefighters when needed and responds automatically on all two-alarm fires. This volunteer group of men and women provide a much-appreciated service and operate within the framework of the incident command system. As the pivotal point in an established rehab area, it provides drinks, snacks and restroom facilities, and is also able to set up misting fans to help firefighters cool down. An EMS supervisor oversees the rehab area, and paramedic crews are assigned to monitor firefighters and respond to areas within the scene if needed. The mobile air cascade unit, which responds automatically on all two-alarm fires as well, is positioned near the rehab area, so firefighters can easily change their air bottles at one central location.

The large numbers of firefighters and support personnel working on the scene, combined with the size of the property, proved to be a challenge for rehab as well. A secondary rehab area had to be established on the north side of the house. Paramedic crews, along with an additional EMS supervisor, set up "north rehab" for firefighters working on that end of the property. Box Four members shuttled drinks from their vehicle to the secondary area, and provided as many services as they could without having the unit actually there. A sixth-alarm was called for at 3:26, bringing three more engine companies.

North of the three-story portion of the house were several two-story wings. One of the wings housed the natatorium, which contained an indoor, Olympic-sized swimming pool. As the main body of fire seemed to burn out of control in the three-story portion, firefighters again entered the house in the two-story area to the north in an attempt to cut off the fire. The home had a sprinkler system in the living areas, but it was ineffective as the fire traveled through the open attic space, which was not sprinklered.

At three different points, attempts were made to keep the fire from extending throughout the two-story wings. Each attempt proved futile and the decision was made to once again remove firefighters and stick with the exterior attack. It was a very frustrating night for the 100-plus firefighters and numerous support personnel working to contain the fire in this mammoth home. Three additional engine companies were special called to the scene around 4:30.

As the fire continued to grow with intensity, the north rehab site had to be abandoned, as it was now in the hot zone. The fight continued from the outside as the fire began to consume the two-story wings, traveling easily in the open attic space. As dawn started to break over this large incident, firefighters could now see just how big this structure was.

Shift change came at 7 A.M. and provided yet another challenge for incident commanders. Crews being relieved at the scene were exhausted and fresh crews were now taking their places. Only a few hot spots remained in the main portion of the house at this time, but the fire continued to burn in the north wings. It was not until 9:08 that the fire was "tapped-out" and called officially under control. Four firefighters suffered minor injuries while battling the blaze, two of those being treated on the scene for heat exhaustion. A third firefighter suffered second-degree burns to the back of the neck from falling debris, and a fourth was cut on the arm by falling debris and required stitches.

Overhaul Begins

Although the fire was now under control, there was still plenty of work to be done. A team of investigators gathered in front of the home to formulate a strategy for determining the cause of the fire. Blueprints of the home and accounts from building contractors and workers provided information to investigators about the layout of the building and the work being done on the days prior to the fire. Structural engineers were called in to evaluate the stability of the remains before firefighters could move inside to work through the hot spots. Heavy equipment from Dallas Water Utilities was brought in to knock down walls that were deemed unstable. Fire crews now worked to back out of the operation, picking up hose and equipment that would not be needed during the overhaul process.

The overhaul operation itself was a large incident, consisting of four engine companies, two truck companies and two battalion chiefs throughout the rest of the day. Early in the afternoon, Maintenance Division personnel brought extra five-inch hose to the scene. This hose was used to supply water from two different hydrants. The hose was left in place so that overhaul companies, who rotated every four hours, could hook up without having to lay out their own hose.

The overhaul companies worked from the east and west sides of the house; two engines, a truck and a battalion chief on each. This operation continued until 11 P.M. The charred remains of the elaborate mansion continued to emit light smoke 18 hours after the first call, as portable lighting towers were brought to the scene for use during the night. Although scaled back during the night hours, fire crews remained on the scene to keep it secure and to watch for hot spot flare-ups. Representatives from Texas Treasure Fields, the corporate owner of the property, worked closely with incident commanders and fire investigators during the fire and in the days following. Fire crews remained on the scene for five days after the first call, before finally turning control of the property back to the owners.

Dallas fire investigators worked together with a private investigative team hired by the owners to conduct a thorough investigation into the cause of the fire. After almost two months of hard work, investigators were ready to announce a cause. Investigators stated that the fire had started in the attic above the library, where flammable liquid vapors had recondensed in one of the air-handling units and were ignited by properly operating electrical equipment.

Approximately 50 gallons of wood stain and sanding sealer had been applied to the flooring on the first and second floors during the afternoon preceding the fire. Workers had also been spray painting in a third-floor room near the same area. The slate and standing-seam copper roof confined the fire in the attic while it built up, fueled by the combustible structural members. The loss estimate is being set at $40 million, easily making it the largest loss to a private home in Dallas history.

This was the third six-alarm fire of the year for Dallas Fire-Rescue. The department had only one six-alarm fire in 2001.

Doug Dickerson is a fire lieutenant and 15-year veteran of the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department. He is currently assigned as one of the department’s public information officers.