By this time, you will probably have arrived at a simple conclusion. Firefighting is a dirty and dangerous job. We must all acknowledge this fact. We must the work very hard at training for those times when the challenge is the greatest. Cellar fires provide just that confrontation.
It has been our experience that many buildings are destroyed by fires that started in basements. To understand the problem you must first visualize the general conditions that exist. Firefighting in these situations is usually more effective when it is done from an interior stairway.
This stairway is often located in the middle of the building. Add to this the fact that there is normally a great deal of smoke and heat rising through that door and you begin to see the severity of the hazard you are about to encounter.
Generally speaking the contents in a cellar lead to a very hot and smoky fire. It has been our experience that the combustion process is slower and that there is usually a lack of oxygen.
It is this lack of oxygen that contributes to the density and severity of the smoke, through incomplete combustion. There is frequently a delayed alarm problem, because of the fact that building occupants usually do not discover a cellar fire in a timely fashion. They tend to be fairly well advanced by the time of the fire department's arrival.
Compounding the problem is the draft effect caused by smoke moving up through the interior staircase. Firefighters are faced with a situation similar to attacking a fireplace fire down the mouth of the chimney. Many times the discovery of cellar fires is delayed because they begin to burn way back away from where someone might see them.
You are going to face a situation where ventilation is limited because there are not many openings in the average basement. If you are fortunate, there might be two doors and a couple of windows. In the absence of good fortune, you might find yourself attacking down the ONLY stairway into a windowless basement; or worse yet, a sub-basement.
Self-contained breathing apparatus is an absolute necessity. In addition to the standard array of toxic vapors and gases you would face at any normal fire, you have the potential for an oxygen-deficient atmosphere in a below-grade area.
Putting water on the fire can be a hit or miss proposal. I have often heard it said that you can’t hit see it that it is not possible for you to hit it. A cellar fire is a prime example of this old axiom.
Not only can you not see the fire, you might not even be able to see the obstructions that could deflect your water away from where it could do the most good. It has been our experience that it is hard to decide whether the fire is moving up beyond the reach of your hose streams.
Construction also plays a critical part in your success at attacking and extinguishing a cellar fire. If the building is of balloon frame construction, your first clue to that effect might be fire on an upper floor. This would hold true for elevator and dumbwaiter shafts, and various pipe chases and utility shafts. Anticipate that heat and smoke will do the natural thing and rise upward in the building.
All floors above the cellar are at risk as well as any people in those areas above the fire. You may need to get a hoseline between the fire and the people to allow for a safe exit. You must search and ventilate these upper floors to insure that everyone gets out. This will eat up a hearty share of your manpower resources, so think about extra help early on in the operation.
Cellar fires are often difficult to penetrate with hand lines. Therefore firemen sometimes must resort to lines from windows and doorways, or cellar pipes from above. However, your best chance at early control and extinguishment comes from an aggressive attack down the interior stairway to the seat of the fire.