Fire Destroys Century-Old Beckley Buildings

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BECKLEY FIRE DEPARTMENT

Chief: Billie Trump

Personnel: 41 career firefighters

Stations: 3

Apparatus: 2 pumpers, 1 aerial, 1 regional response truck, 1 hazmat rescue, 4 staff/support vehicles

Population: 18,000

Area: 12 square miles

On Monday, Jan. 2, 2012, a three-alarm fire destroyed two buildings in downtown Beckley, WV. Firefighters encountered extreme cold and wind as they worked to prevent the well-advanced fire from reaching nearby exposures.

The buildings were built in 1912 of Type III ordinary construction. The two-story building of origin was 40 feet wide by 90 feet deep with a basement. The second building was three stories high and measured 45 feet wide by 90 feet deep, also with a basement. The buildings had wooden roofs covered with asphalt and rubber roofing. One building was vacant and the other contained four businesses – the printing shop Kopy Xpress and the Trio Consignment shop, which shared the first floor of the building; and the Mize Law Office and Sellards Real Estate, which occupied the second floor. There were no fire protection or detection systems in the buildings.

This was not the first time a major fire struck that location. On April 14, 1912, a fire that started at the same corner destroyed 30 buildings in a two-block area, including the fire station. Wooden buildings were dynamited to stop the fire spread.

Initial operations

The Beckley Fire Department was dispatched to a reported structure fire at 108 South Heber St. at 5:22 P.M. Responding on the initial alarm were Engines 1 and 3, Ladder 2 and Command 1 with eight firefighters commanded by Captain Ed Wills.

Engine 1 arrived first and reported heavy smoke conditions with some flame visible on side C. Engine 1 was positioned on South Heber Street, side A, for the initial attack. Engine 3 was also positioned on South Heber Street. Ladder 2 was positioned at the intersection of South Heber and Neville streets, at the A/B corner of the building. Engine 1 was supplied with a 100-foot, five-inch line from a 1,500-gpm hydrant on South Heber Street. Ladder 2 was fed by a 100-foot, five-inch line from a 1,500-gpm hydrant at South Heber and Neville streets. There were no civilian life-safety issues as the businesses were closed for the holiday.

Two firefighters stretched a 200-foot, 2½-inch line from Engine 1 and entered the front of the building. Two other firefighters stretched a 200-foot, 1¾-inch attack line from Engine 1 in through the front door as a backup line. Firefighters encountered heavy smoke and significant heat on the first floor. No flames were visible and the large amount of clothing and clothing racks in the consignment shop impeded hoseline progress toward the rear of the building. The fire was in the basement extending to the first floor. The two interior crews were forced to withdraw within seven minutes as conditions deteriorated rapidly.

An attempt was made to make entry into the building from the rear (side C) by firefighters with a 1¾-inch attack line. Conditions were untenable and Wills initiated defensive operations. Wills requested a second alarm at 5:32 P.M. At 5:40 P.M., defensive operations were initiated. Tower 1 responded to the scene, manned by returning off-duty personnel. This unit was positioned at the corner of Main and South Heber streets and set up for aerial master stream operations. It was supplied by a 300-foot, five-inch line from a 1,500-gpm-plus hydrant at Main and Fayette streets. Tower 1 was able to flow 1,000 gpm.

Wills requested a third alarm at 5:44 P.M. Although there was no formal request for mutual aid, neighboring departments offered assistance. The Beaver Volunteer Fire Department responded with an engine and a Snorkel with six firefighters to stand by at Berkley Fire Station 3. An additional six firefighters responded to the scene. The Lester Volunteer Fire Department responded to the scene with an engine and three firefighters.

The fire spread to the roof of the adjacent building at 112 South Heber St. This was a three-story building with a full basement of ordinary construction that shared a party wall with the original fire building. Crews from Ladder 2 and Tower 1 were assigned to this building. Crews were ordered to periodically check the interior wall of the building for evidence of fire spread. When the roof of the building became involved in fire, defensive operations were initiated. Ladder 2 operated an aerial master stream at the A/B corner of the buildings as Tower 1 operated an aerial master stream at the B/C corner. Firefighters placed two 2½-inch lines in operation on side A. Additionally, a 2½-inch handline was in operation on the C/D corner. Numerous 2½-inch lines were advanced to individual floors of the apartment building to provide additional exposure protection. These lines were wyed into 1¾-inch handlines. Wills declared the fire under control at 11 P.M. Mutual aid units were released at 2 A.M. on Jan. 3.

 

Conclusion

The origin of the fire was in the basement of 108 South Heber St. on side C adjacent to the alley behind the building. The temperature at the beginning of the incident was 19 degrees and fell steadily during the night. Winds were constant at 5 to 10 mph with gusts to over 40 mph. Wind chills were in the single digits. There were no civilian or firefighter injuries. Damage was estimated at $600,000 to 106-108 South Heber St. and $550,000 to 112 South Heber St. nThis fire demonstrated that the incident commander can be quickly overwhelmed by circumstances. Even when weather conditions are marginal, large fires attract large crowds, so a police presence is vital. A fire in the basement or first floor can rapidly involve the entire building and with the configuration of the building, ventilation is extremely difficult. Because of this, interior attacks may have only limited success and must be closely monitored for the safety of firefighters. Initial placement of apparatus is critical.

 

Lessons Learned

PROBLEMS

• Collapse zones – Because of the close proximity of other buildings, it was difficult to set up effective collapse zones.

• Icy weather – The extreme weather conditions made it necessary to continuously flow water. This led to ice buildup on the street and fireground. Ice buildup on the aerial ladder made it necessary to stop operations to chip ice away to maintain function and stability of the ladder. The extreme cold and wind also caused considerable problems with rehab for the firefighters. The county commission opened the county courthouse so firefighters could rehab in a warm environment. Several local businesses contributed food and drinks because of the extended nature of the response.

• Construction – Type III construction is subject to fire spread, especially in older buildings that have undergone multiple renovations. Older buildings are also limited in ways to effectively ventilate for interior operations.

SUCCESSES

• Exposures – Three buildings were in close proximity to the fire building. An apartment building with more than 40 tenants, a federal courthouse and Internal Revenue Service office complex and the new county judicial annex were exposures to the fire. When it became apparent that because the fire was so deep seated and well advanced before the fire department was notified and that the fire building was untenable, the focus was shifted to defensive operations and protection of the high-value exposures. The exposures suffered only minimal damage from heat.

• Pre-planning – The fire department pre-plans all commercial buildings and does target hazard assessments for special hazards. Hydrants are checked twice a year to ensure adequate water flows. Large-diameter hoselines are used to supply elevated master streams. Post-incident critiques are done on fires to glean useful information for future planning.

• Inspections – The fire prevention bureau does plan review and inspections for new buildings and buildings that are being renovated.

• Staffing – Members of the department are issued pagers so they can be aware of and respond to situations that require additional manpower.

• Training – Safe and effective tactical decision-making and safety are emphasized.

—Jay K. Bradish

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