Common Responses: Electrical, Brush & Trash Fires

Back in June, I wrote a few blog entries on some of the more common fire-related emergencies that you will see in The Fires You Will See Frequently. I further expanded on my many experiences with two additional blogs: Danger Overhead: Attic Fires and Cellar Fires: Up Close and Personal.

Today I would like to review fires caused by electricity and trash and brush fires.

Electrical Fires

In any given year, you will respond to a number of incidents that will end up being classified as electrical in nature. These range from shorts in kitchen appliances, to extension cords run under carpets. There are shorts in the ballasts of florescent lights, right on up to full-fledged blazes in electrical power stations.

They all have one thing in common. There are certain dangers that are inherent in electricity. Additionally, over-heated ballasts can burn the hand of any unwary firefighter who chooses to grab hold of it without the necessary gloves.

The role of a firefighter is quite simple in these situations. You will make the unsafe situation safe. Your questioning sequence should go something like this:

  1. What have I got? - I have that unmistakable smell which comes from ballasts that are burning.
  2. Where is it? - Here is the hard part. You must inspect each of the ballast units to find the one that is involved. This is not a problem in someone's home. But if you have been called to the local shopping center, or a large supermarket, then you will have a real problem finding just the right fixture.
  3. Where is it going? - If you do not find the involved fixture, it can short out back through the building’s electrical system. Then you will have a big fire and need big water.
  4. What have I got to stop it? - You may have less than a full assignment, because in many cases, a single engine will be sent out to investigate. If you need more help, call for it. Do not let your pride lead to the destruction of a structure, because you do not have enough people to conduct a proper investigation.
  5. What do I do? - There are just a couple of simple tasks to keep you out of trouble.
  • Find the problem fixture
  • Remove the tube or bulb
  • Cut off the power to the fixture
  • If it is an older model with the separate ballast, remove the ballast and dispose of it in a safe place. Do not simply toss it into the trash, for it may retain enough heat to cause a fire
  • Advise the property owner or tenant to have the fixture inspected by a licensed electrician.

While this whole section might seem to be simple to you, it is the sort of situation that can get out of control. It is a case where your knowledge of the basics can allow you to provide the best possible service to your consumer, the citizens in your community.

Brush and Trash Fires

Whole texts are devoted the fires involving the urban/wildfire interface. It is not our intention at this point to launch into a discussion about this type of large-scale brush and wildfire scenario. That is a specialized field that we have personally visited only rarely.

We are thinking of the more modest situation involving a small stand of brush adjacent to a residential occupancy. This is the type of situation faced by both urban and suburban firefighters. The objectives are quite simple.

  • Do not injure a firefighter
  • Limit the size of the fire
  • Prevent extension to a structure

The main task is to place water between the fire and the area of exposure. Some fire departments use a booster line for this type of operation and they do this for a couple of reasons. They say that the booster line is easier to move and it supplies enough water.

Our experience has provided us with a much different story. I suggest that you should operate at these sorts of fires with a 1-3/4-inch hoseline, equipped with a variable stream nozzle. The hose is more manageable, and the flow will get the job done.

As a matter of fact, we have also had tremendous success with using a pre-piped deck gun to stop a fire in its tracks. While there are those who might say that this is overkill, it is simple, direct, easy and effective. Give it a thought.

There will be times when you may have to exert a bit more care and effort to get the job done. If there is a bit of wind, and the distance between fire and exposure is small, you will face a greater challenge. Always remember that the primary concern in these cases is firefighter safety. We would not like to tell a widow that her husband died saving a pile of garbage bags. It just does not make sense to endanger people for property.

Many times we have supervised operations at industrial dumpsters. After ascertaining that hazardous materials were not involved, we usually order an open-butt supply hose line to be stretched. The dumpster was then flooded.

The object is to extinguish the fire in the safest manner possible. It is not your fault that there is a fire. Your just is to extinguish it with a minimum of effort and danger. The removal of a damp dumpster is the vendors concern.

Let me close with a couple of simple rules. When combating small brush and trash fires:

  1. Keep it safe
  2. Keep it simple