Cellar Fires Up Close and Personal

A cellar fire may well be the toughest job you ever have to face. There is no other way to be ready for one than to learn your business, drill regularly and recognize the signs that can tell you that you are facing a cellar fire.


To do this may require your advancing two or three lines abreast into the hottest and smokiest part of the fire.  We have found this to be at the top of stairway leading to the basement.  Ideally, there will be a second stairway which can be used to vent heat, steam and smoke from the basement as your attack advances in on the fire.

Be very careful.  If there is no second entrance, the heat and steam from your attack can blow right back into your face.  Regardless of how you proceed with your attack, a line must be placed to protect the interior of the building from any fire which seeks to burn up and out of the inside stairway door.  If you cannot make entrance into the basement for a quick attack, leave the door to the cellar closed and place a line to protect that point, in case the fire burns through the door before your alternate plan of attack can work.

What could constitute your alternate plan?  In many cases, you would have to resort to opening holes in the floor above the seat of the fire and inserting cellar nozzles or Bresnan distributors down into the cellar space.

We can remember an incident where this tactic saved a very old, Catholic Church in community inNew Jersey.  Holes were cut, lines were stretched and a Bresnan distributor was placed in the way of the fire's progress.  The fire was stopped in its tracks.

As you attack remember two key points.  It is critical to ventilate these fires.  And you must provide a second line at the rear.   You must let the heat and smoke out. You also need to provide a line at the rear.  This line is usually not used to attack the fire, as it could lead to opposing streams.  But it is available to protect against exterior fire spread.

A cellar fire may well be the toughest job you ever have to face.  There is no other way to be ready for one than to learn your business, drill regularly and recognize the signs that can tell you that you are facing a cellar fire.

Other than flames and smoke coming directly out of the cellar windows, the best clue to a cellar fire is coming upon a building where smoke is coming from every level of the structure.  In all of our years of firefighting, we have never personally seen this clue fail to warn of a cellar fire.

Let us look at our approach, as it applies to cellar fires:

  1. What have I got? A structural fire
  2. Where is it? Below grade
  3. Where is it going? It will go up until it hits a blockage and then laterally. Remember that old   buildings may have balloon frames that really speed up this trip. (Think about the fact that in certain newer buildings, contractors have been know to violate the integrity of walls in a variety of ways: Be on guard!)
  4. What forces are available to combat this threat?  What is your standard response and is it enough for the fire you find?  Let that be the starting point for your decision-making process.
  5. What can I do? Deploy your forces to best advantage.  Call help. Constantly observe and evaluate the progress of your forces.  If there is the least doubt in your mind as to the safety of your people, pull them out and go to a defensive operation.

Although we tend to think of ourselves in macho terms, never endanger your people just to protect property.  We can replace a building, but not a human life.

In summary, cellar fires are tough and nasty affairs. They are an instance where your skill and experience will be called directly into play in a tough and dirty up-close battle.  Know these facts and be ready.