Danger Overhead: Attic Fires

As you roll in to a report of a structural fire, you note smoke off in the distance. As you turn into the block where the address is located, you note smoke and flames coming from a window just under the roofline of the house in question. You are immediately given the answer to the first two questions of our firefighting system.

  1. What have I got? - You have a structural fire, in a residential dwelling.
  2. Where is it? - It appears to be in the attic.
  3. Where is it going? It is going to burn the roof off of the building unless you take some positive action to halt its spread. If that were all, you might not need to be as concerned with interior firefighting. Unfortunately, if left unchecked, it might drop down, and then spread laterally. Be on guard for where it might be hidden.
  4. What forces are available to combat this threat? - Your local operating guidelines should deliver no less than the two engines and a truck company that we suggested above. The same holds true with the need for a reserve force to supplement the attack force.
  5. What can I do? You can fight the fire or you can let it burn itself out. 

Let me recommend the first as being less damaging and more acceptable to the person who owns the home. One of the clues you should look for involves the absence of fire on the first or second floors (or as many as there are). Take the hint that if you have smoke coming out from around the eaves you probably have an attic fire. Be ready for a hot and dirty battle. You will need to approach this battle with care. Bear in mind that there are a number of factors which can lead to an attic fire or possibly make the situation worse.

  1. Defective wiring
  2. Defective chimneys
  3. Interior fire exposure
  4. Exterior fire exposure
  5. Incendiary onset

Whatever the reason, you may find it necessary to enter the attic to attack the fire at its base. Depending on the needs of the building owner, you may find conditions ranging from an unfinished open space, to a well-built storage area. It is not out of the question to encounter a full set of living quarters.

It is also remember that the cause of the fire can also lead to its spread. If it is defective wiring, the fire can spread back along the wire run to spread the fire. A bad chimney can be unsound in more than one spot. And an incendiary fire may have more than one point of origin; or the material that caused the fire may also allow it to spread, by burning through the construction that separates the attic from the rest of the building.

No two attics are the same, even in a residential development of similar houses. In some cases there will be a single narrow walkway down the center of the attic. In others you may encounter a full floor, with insulation under it, and a carpet above it.

In the finished attic, you will also encounter gypsum board walls, and perhaps even some paneling. Fires in finished attics will require a great deal of truck work. Walls and ceilings will need to be opened.

In the unfinished attic you will need to be careful as you travel along the walkway. Many an unwary firefighter has fallen through a plaster board or sheet rock ceiling into the floor below.

Regardless of whether the attic is finished or not, you will be forced to approach the fire from below. If you are fortunate, there will be a stairway. Many times, however, you will need a short ladder. This can be placed through the scuttle door to allow you access.

Attics are difficult to ventilate. There may be louvers at either end of the attic. Frequently in older homes there is a space between the walls and the roof that allows a fire to breathe. There may also be windows that can be opened or removed, as the situation dictates.

These are your best opportunities to relieve the pent-up smoke which accumulates during a fire. Many firefighting authorities suggest that roof ventilation is not necessary. Our advice is to look at each situation. We suggest that you use whatever opportunities exist to remove the smoke. Open the roof, if that can help. Open the windows or remove the louvers. The damage you do will be minimal compared to the benefit you will provide.

We want to state for the record that the best way to extinguish an attic fire is to move in and apply water to the base of the fire. You may need to take some extra punishment, but it is possible for this attack to be accomplished in a safe manner by well-trained personnel. You may tale a bit of punishment from the heat, but that can be overcome by the power of your attack hose stream. If necessary, have the back up attack line in place to complete the attack.

A common error that we have observed comes when the fire has burned through the roof. It is at this point that someone gets the bright idea to shot water in, because they can. This drives the heat and smoke downward. It makes entry to the attic impossible, and may spread the fire downward.

If the roof burns through, this is good. It allows the smoke and heat to exit the structure through the natural method of ventilation, where heat is allowed to rise up and move away. Directing hose stream through the hole in the roof is less than useful. It may in fact be dangerous.

Once the roof is opened, you can move into the attic space quite easily and knock down the remaining fire. It is important to remember that you should use as little water as possible. The water that does not vaporize will travel downward and cause water damage.

For that reason, you should devote part of the response to salvage efforts. Place the necessary covers in order to limit the damage to personal property in the areas below the fire. A little care taken early in the fire can make all of the difference as time goes on.

Attic fires can be a difficult battle, but they can be one. The key of course is to keep the safety of your troops uppermost in your mind.