On The Job - Illinois: Massive Mutual Aid at Alsip Lumber Fire

Massive Mutual Aid at Alsip Lumber Fire

More than 200 firefighters from 43 departments responded to the Chicago suburb of Alsip, IL, on Sunday, May 13, 2007, to battle a multi-alarm fire that eventually destroyed a family-owned lumber yard and home improvement store. Early in the incident, while defensive operations were still being set up, water pressure was lost due to a water-main break. And that wasn't the only challenge confronting firefighters, who also had to contend with exploding propane tanks, the hazards presented by downed power lines and an electrical substation being situated near the fire, communications problems posed by numerous units operating at the same time, traffic congestion caused by the closing of major intersections and crowds of bystanders converging on the fire scene.

The one-story masonry block building was constructed in 1962 and measured 270 feet wide by 75 feet long. The building had a wooden bowstring roof. Three outside storage sheds on the west side of the building were used for lumber storage. These lean-to structures were 190 feet by 25 feet, 85 feet by 75 feet and 20 feet by 60 feet and were constructed of 2x6 wood framing with corrugated metal decking for the roofs. There were three smaller shelters for equipment storage and cutting also in the yard. There was lumber storage under the roof along the west (about 400 feet) and north (about 300 feet) boundaries of the yard. There were no fire protection or detection systems in the building.

The Alsip Fire Department was dispatched at 12:03 P.M. to a report of a possible fire at the Fox Lumber Co. at 11300 Cicero Ave. Alsip Engine 2003, a 1,500-gpm pumper, and Truck 2014, a 100-foot aerial ladder with a 1,500-gpm pump, responded with nine firefighters under the command of Lieutenant Kevin Pickar. While Engine 2003 was responding, several more calls were received by the Alsip dispatch center reporting the fire. At 12:06, Pickar upgraded the response to a full still alarm as he could see a header from several blocks away. This brought an engine from the Palos Heights Fire Protection District, a truck from the Crestwood Fire Department and a squad from the Oak Lawn Fire Department to the scene.

Engine 2003 was positioned in front of the building and supplied by a 100-foot, five-inch line from a hydrant on Cicero Avenue. Truck 2014 was parked at the northwest corner of the building and set up for aerial master stream operations in an effort to prevent the fire from spreading. This unit was supplied by a 200-foot, five-inch line, also from a hydrant on Cicero Avenue. First-arriving crews found heavy fire and smoke conditions in the northwest section of the outdoor lumber yard. The crew of Engine 2003 advanced a 200-foot, 2½-inch pre-connected attack line through the building to the lumber yard. The crew from Oak Lawn backed up the Alsip crew with another 2½-inch line from Engine 2003. These two crews, however, were unable to control the huge volume of fire in the lumber storage area.

Due to the intensity of the fire, both attack lines were backed out of the building. Alsip Truck 2014's aerial master stream was flowing 1,200 gpm with a 2¼-inch tip, but could not contain the fire on the north side. Roof coverings were preventing the water from reaching the fires. Alsip Engine 2003 placed its 500-gpm deck gun in operation into the building at the northeast corner. Alsip Lieutenant Denis Kelly was the initial incident commander and took over as operations chief when Battalion Chief John Hojak of the Oak Lawn Fire Department arrived on scene. Fox Lumber operated a day-care center for employees' children; it was located on the second floor on the south end of the main building. Both of the Fox Home Center buildings were evacuated with no injuries.

At 12:10, Pickar requested Box Alarm 2009. This brought three engines, two trucks, two squads, two ambulances and three chief officers to the scene from mutual aid departments. Alsip Fire Chief Charles Geraci arrived on scene at 12:11. At 12:16, Hojak requested second and third alarms, followed by a fourth alarm at 12:26. At 12:30, dispatchers were requested to bypass the fifth-alarm assignment and send four additional engines and three trucks.

At 1:02, Geraci requested a Chicago Fire Department task force to the scene. This was comprised of four engines, a hose wagon with 5,000 feet of five-inch supply line, three ambulances, three battalion chiefs, Chief Robert Hoff and "Big Moe," a mounted multiversal device capable of flowing 3,000 gpm. At 1:20 P.M., several propane tanks exploded and rocketed into the air. At least two tanks landed near fire apparatus and firefighters working on the scene.

A command post was established on Cicero Avenue with Geraci assisting Hojak. Oak Lawn Squad 1 was identified as the primary rapid intervention team. Chief Steve Carr of Palos Heights was designated the overall safety officer, with Chief William Sheehy of Midlothian sector A, Chief Lindsay Laycoax of Oak Forest as sector B, Chief John Bruce of Crestwood as sector C and Chief Jack Nagle of Palos Heights as sector D safety officers. Two staging areas were designated. Primary staging was located a quarter-mile south of the fire on Cicero Avenue and a secondary staging area was on 111th Street east of Cicero Avenue.

Strategy Developed

After reassessing the incident, commanders developed a plan to defend the south section of the lumber yard and protect the buildings on the south side of the incident:

  • Sector A Operations -- A 500-gpm deck gun from Alsip Engine 2003 was directed into the north section while trucks from Calumet Park, Central Stickney and Crestwood and the snorkel from Evergreen Park were positioned to direct water into the structure and into the yard. The Posen engine fed the Central Stickney truck, the Calumet Park truck was fed by Oak Forest and the Crestwood truck was supplied by the Midlothian engine.
  • Sector B Operations -- Battalion Chief Marty Kriel of the Burbank Fire Department was assigned as the south side, or the B, operations sector chief. North Palos Truck 804 was set up in the south driveway and flowed a 600-gpm aerial master stream using a 1¼-inch tip. Firefighters also placed two 2½-inch attack lines into operation from the south driveway to protect the lumber storage in the center section of the lumber yard. The Riverdale engine crew utilized homeowners to shoulder-carry 600 feet of five-inch hose to supplement the water to the North Palos truck.

    Truck 804 was also supplied by Oak Forest Engine 951 with 450 feet of five-inch hose from a hydrant on Cicero Avenue. Crestwood Truck 2314 was positioned at the southeast corner of the building to protect the southern exposures. This truck received water from Midlothian Engine 2713 and Posen Engine 2823 fed the Central Stickney truck. Crestwood flowed 1,000 gpm for three hours through its aerial device and supplied a multiversal flowing 600 gpm that was positioned to cover the driveway west of the main building. These crews prevented ignition of several stacks of lumber southwest of the main building. Consequently, firefighters saved the southern buildings and garages belonging to Fox Lumber.

  • Sector C Operations -- Battalion Chief Tony Butkus of the Bridgeview Fire Department was assigned to the west-side operations, sector C. In this area, there were approximately 20 mobile offices (used for temporary offices and classrooms) that had been ignited by the heat of the lumber yard fire. Roberts Park Truck 305 was positioned in the south driveway of the Mobile Office Co. An aerial master stream protected the several buildings to the west. Firefighters also operated two 2½-inch handlines to extinguish the mobile offices. The west-side crews from Chicago Ridge, Bedford Park and Hometown extinguished a roof fire at the office center 100 feet from the two rows of mobile offices that were burning and embers that landed on the Sears building 50 feet northwest of the mobile offices.
  • Sector D Operations -- Palos Heights and Orland Park set up master stream devices west of the Alsip truck. The effectiveness of the streams was diminished by the walls of stored lumber and because of the huge volume of fire. These units were supplied with five-inch lines from Robbins, Frankfort and Mokena engines located on 111th Street.

The command post was moved into the Evergreen Park command van, which enabled commanders to use five radio frequencies to coordinate the fireground activities. An Orland Central and an Evergreen Park dispatcher assisted with radio communications in the command van.

Geraci declared the fire under control at 5:30 P.M. Most mutual aid units were released at 6 P.M. Firefighters used two 1¾-inch lines on spot fires and smoldering areas throughout the night. Alsip units left the scene at 8:10 A.M. the following day. Over 200 firefighters operated 39 fire apparatus and six ambulances at the scene. Nine fire apparatus and four ambulances provided standby coverage in the division during the incident. More than 2 million gallons of water was needed to extinguish the fire. Two firefighters were treated for dehydration. An investigation into the cause and origin of the fire was conducted by the Illinois State Fire Marshal, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the South Suburban Fire Investigation Task Force and the Alsip Police Department. The investigation is ongoing at this time. Damage was estimated at $25 million.

Lessons Learned

Early in the incident, water pressure was lost at the scene due to a water main break. This occurred while defensive operations were being set up. Water department personnel diverted supplies from other areas of Alsip to help compensate for the break. The municipal water systems in Chicago and Oak Lawn were also used in order to supply the amount of water needed for a fire of this magnitude. Chicago's hose wagon laid two 2,000-foot, five-inch supply lines from hydrants on 111th Street in Chicago to the scene. Oak Lawn also increased its water-main pressure to supply its hydrants.

Incident commanders established multiple sectors, including incident command, north, south, southwest, west, east, safety, EMS/rehab, two staging areas, liaison, investigation and public information. This allowed for the incident to be mitigated smoothly, efficiently and safely.

Firefighters faced multiple hazards during the incident, including high-tension power lines and a Com Ed (electric) substation near the fire. Some of the wooden poles were burned and Commonwealth Edison isolated the grid from the Joliet station, but it took over an hour to do so. Downed electric lines hampered operations until the power could be shut off. Exploding propane tanks, including some on forklifts, added to the dangers and rapidly increased the fire's intensity.

Radio communications were difficult with so many units operating at the scene until the command post was moved to the command van. Two channels were used initially for fireground and staging. Overwhelmed by people going to command and asking for assignments, command relocated inside the command van. This allowed for five radio channels to be used and isolated commanders from unnecessary interruptions.

Traffic and crowd control were also a major problem. Major intersections were closed causing congestion on side streets. Bystanders were congregating under power lines and venturing into the fire scene. Personnel from ESDA (Emergency Services Disaster Agency; trained volunteers who provide crowd and traffic control and lighting) moved the crowds to safe areas and assisted with the traffic flow. Nearby businesses were notified to shut down heating, air conditioning and ventilation (HVAC) systems to lessen the amount of smoke going into the buildings.

JAY K. BRADISH/IFPA, Firehouse® news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.