On The Job - Colorado: Fire at Office-Supply Factory Tests Castle Rock Crews

On May 18, 2007, at 10:50 P.M., the Castle Rock, CO, Fire and Rescue Department was dispatched to 701 Topeka Way for a reported fire in a commercial structure. The caller identified himself as an off-duty firefighter and said he could see flames on the roof of a large office-supply factory.

The fire presented some unusual challenges to firefighters. Four LPG tanks exploded before the first units arrived. These tanks proved to be the main heat source, damaging the roof and causing spot fires throughout the plant. The maze-like layout of the interior proved to be dangerous to interior companies -- and hundreds of stuffed animals and other artifacts, including a 14-foot great white shark, had been mounted on walls and suspended from the ceiling.

Castle Rock is 10 miles south of Denver. The fire department covers approximately 75 square miles and provides automatic aid for the all-volunteer Jackson 105 Fire Protection District, which covers 120 square miles, including Pike National Forest. Daily staffing is 17 to 19 firefighters per shift covering four firehouses, each with a lieutenant and two to three firefighters. One battalion chief oversees daily operations with an on-duty division chief assisting at larger incidents.

The building, constructed in 1984, was a Type II (fire-resistive) light-manufacturing facility 250 feet long and 200 feet wide and of concrete tilt-slab construction with a double-T roof assembly. The building was not sprinklered and did not have a monitored fire alarm system. The occupant, Unified Packing Inc., manufactured custom three-ring binders, professional-grade folders and binders, and other office materials. The building also had a two-story office area. In addition, about one-quarter of the facility housed hundreds of museum-grade stuffed animals and other artifacts, including the great white shark as well as tigers, lions, elk, deer and bears.

The manufacturing area was a cluster of machines, desks and products. The area was a maze-like floor plan that made sense only to the employees of the plant. Firefighters most certainly would have lost their way if they lost the hoseline or became separated from their crews. High-rack storage was also a concern as it stretched 30 feet from floor to ceiling and was filled from bottom to top with products. Wood pallets were used for shelving and to create walkways between racks. Reams upon reams of paper, vinyl and other materials were stored on the racks. A mezzanine ran around two inside walls (A/D) and was used for storage of products and artifacts.

Battalion Chief 151 (BC 151) arrived with Engines 151 and 154 and Medics 151 and 154. The chief reported a "two-story commercial occupancy with smoke and fire showing from roof A/B corner." He established Topeka Command and positioned his vehicle 150 feet from the A/B corner. Engine 154 laid in a five-inch supply line from a hydrant and positioned on the B side of the building with direct access to the loading docks. (As crews made entry, this was the location of the main body of fire found in the building). The Engine 154 crew (the officer and a probationary firefighter) then deployed a 2½-inch attack line to the B side, where they forced a metal, outward-swinging door and encountered heavy smoke to the floor and numerous spot fires in the immediate area. (It is standard protocol for the department to deploy 2½-inch attack line on all commercial fires. This quick attack with a large hoseline proved to be effective in saving the majority of the contents.) The fire attack was initiated from the doorway, while the engineer set up two ground ladders on the B-side second-floor windows.

As Engine 154 was conducting the initial fire attack, Quint 155 positioned the aerial on the A/B corner and prepared to go to the roof for ventilation. As the aerial was being set, the officer and firefighter threw a 35-foot ground ladder to the roof on the A side. The Quint 155 crew (officer, engineer and firefighter) made access to the roof with ventilation equipment (K12, chain saw, three hooks). The flat roof had a rock base over a rubber membrane. It was unclear at the time what type of roof assembly was underneath, and crews inside could not see the roof construction due to heavy smoke.

The Engine 151 crew (officer and firefighter), aided by the two-person Medic 154 crew, stretched a 200-foot 2½-inch attack line to the door on the A side of the building. Engine 151 made access to the office area of the building and reported little to no smoke. It was not until passing through the door to the work area did the crew encounter heavy smoke and moderate heat. This was reported to the incident commander, as well as describing "maze-like conditions." The Engine 151 officer navigated these conditions swiftly with the aid of a thermal imaging camera.

By this time, Engine 154 had extinguished the main body of fire and was encountering numerous spot fires in the high-rack storage. The crew noted four LPG-powered forklifts in the immediate fire area. All four LPG tanks had BLEVE'd (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosions) prior to the arrival of the fire department. These tanks proved to be the main heat source, which severely damaged the roof assembly and was the source of the numerous spot fires throughout the plant.

Medic 151 was assigned as the rapid intervention team and positioned on side A. Initially, the rapid intervention team consisted of two firefighters, but they were joined by three firefighters from Engine 161 on the second alarm. A second rapid intervention team was formed by four firefighters from Engine 36 on the second alarm and positioned on side B.

Quint 155 heard the report from Engine 151 and radioed to command that ventilation was going to begin. Numerous skylights covered the roof and this was the primary means of vertical ventilation. Quint 155 worked from the A to C side of the building venting the skylights. The Engine 151 crew was struck by some pieces of Plexiglas when the first skylight was taken directly above them. At first, the Engine 151 officer thought it was a potential collapse, but using his thermal imaging camera he saw that the Quint 155 crew was directly above and it was just the Plexiglas landing around them.

Quint 155 continued to vent the skylights and observed smoke and heat conditions worsen nearing the B/C corner. Additional spot fires were in the high-rack storage and causing the majority of the heavy smoke due to the vinyl and plastics that were burning. Also, the fire that was reported showing from the roof turned out to be a heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) unit filter that had caught fire. A water can was used to extinguish this fire and command was advised that this was the source of fire on the roof. (The Quint 155 officer also noted that the C side of the roof had no parapet wall. This was relayed to the crew and command. Quint 155 was directed to stay away from this potential hazard, as the fall would have been over 20 feet to the ground.)

Engine 153 arrived on scene and secured a water supply for Engine 151 and then proceeded to help the Engine 151 crew advance the 2½-inch line. The Engine 151 crew had to exit due to low air, and a face-to-face with the Engine 153 officer was conducted at door A. The Engine 153 crew (officer and firefighter) entered the office area, noted the steps to the second floor and proceeded up to investigate, finding light smoke, but no fire. Engine 153 returned to first floor and went up the line to find Medic 154 advancing the line. The two crews advanced about 100 feet, fighting fire as they moved forward. The Engine 153 crew became low on air and exited the building to change bottles. Engines 153 and 39 brought an addition 50 feet of dry line and a nozzle to extend the initial line. Division supervisors communicated with Engines 154 and 153 to prevent opposing hoselines and companies extinguished the main body of fire together.

Nine minutes after the initial dispatch, command requested a second alarm. This proved to be an excellent decision as it was clear that "all hands" were going to be working and additional personnel would be needed. The second alarm brought to the scene the following units from neighboring districts: Quint 76 (Parker Fire), Engines 39 and 36 (South Metro) and Engine 161 (Larkspur Fire). Castle Rock Fire Chief 151 responded on the second alarm, as did Division Chiefs 152 and 153. South Metro and Parker sent battalion chiefs with their dispatched units and were also used during the incident in Incident Command System/Incident Management System (ICS/IMS) positions. Unified command was established at the command post.

Twenty-seven minutes after the second alarm, a third alarm was transmitted. These units were used for rehab and overhaul. The third alarm brought the following companies: Engine 40, Ladder 34 (South Metro), Engines 141 and 142 (Jackson 105 volunteer companies) and Battalion Chief 7 (Parker). At this point, the main body of fire had been extinguished and the first-arriving companies needed rehab.

As the third-alarm companies arrived, the incident commander and division commanders to assess the structure's integrity and stability. The main body of fire was of most concern because it was learned that the roof assembly was of double-T concrete construction with major spalling and cracking damage. This area was secured and restricted from all companies working in and over the structure.

By now, the building owner had arrived and provided detailed information of the interior layout and contents to the incident commander. The owner also alerted command of some hazardous materials in the C/D corner. The possible hazmats were hydrochloric acid and other solvents and cleaners necessary for the maintenance of the specialized equipment. Engine 153, upon exiting the second time for air bottle changes, was assigned to recon the rest of the building for possible hazardous materials. The crew began its investigation near the front office. After making their way into the work area, the firefighters encountered high-rack shelves loaded with books and museum materials. Smoke conditions were still making navigation difficult.

Engine 153 then encountered something unexpected. As the firefighters traveled through the narrow passages, they encountered a full-size polar that had been mounted in a standing position. The bear stood about five feet tall and was looking them right in the face. The crew continued to search for hazardous materials, but due to conditions could not find the exact area of the product. Ladder 34 crew, using Engine 39, staffed a hoseline during this recon. At the same time, Quint 155 (still on the roof) worked with Engine 39 (inside the building) to extinguish hot spots in the high-rack storage. Companies inside were unable to directly extinguish many of the spot fires. A 200-foot 1¾-inch handline with 6% foam was stretched from Engine 154 on side B to the roof for Quint 155 to extinguish the fires. Quint 155 and Engine 39 coordinated these attacks so no one was endangered by falling debris.

At this point, there was still significant smoke throughout the building with some heat. The entire building was constructed of concrete and it was determined that South Metro Fan 3 would be used to vent the remaining smoke. Fan 3 can push 750,000 cfm of fresh air. The fan is an eight-blade carbon-fiber prop powered by a Chevy 502 engine. Before the fan was turned on, all crews were removed from the building. Two companies were positioned with handlines to extinguish any spot fires that may result from the influx of positive pressure. Engine 154 was positioned at the doorway on side B and Engine 39 was just outside door A. Shortly after the fan was started, smoke conditions improved and some minor spot fires flared up, but were controlled by the companies.

At 3 A.M., the scene was under control. Building inspectors were on the scene to evaluate the structural integrity of the building and it was confirmed that the B/C area was the most heavily damaged and unsafe to enter. This area was secured and no one was allowed in the immediate area. Engines 154 and 151 remained on the scene until 7 A.M., at which time the next shift took over the fire watch and security of the building. Damage to building was estimated at $1 million and another $1 million to the contents. Most of the museum materials were preserved and most of the machinery and supplies for the business was salvaged.

A week later, demolition and restoration crews were on the scene and preparing to remove the heavily damaged double-T's when unexpectedly part of the roof assembly collapsed. The same fire companies that responded to the fire a week earlier were dispatched to this structure collapse. Command determined that no one was injured and no entry would be allowed until the demolition company completed full stabilization of the building. The company relocated some of the machinery and equipment to resume production.

Fire department and insurance company investigators were unable to pinpoint the cause of the fire. Due to the extensive heat and numerous LPG tanks that BLEVE'd, the patterns and point of origin could not be located. After the fire, the building remained empty and the company relocated out of the city.

A month after the incident, a formal post-incident analysis (PIA)/after-action report (AAR) was conducted. All departments that were involved in the incident were present and provided feedback and suggestions for future incidents.

A problem that confronted firefighters involved the main work area, which was confusing and cluttered with machinery, desks and supplies. Hundreds of books and museum materials created narrow and dead-end areas. The maze-like conditions and high-rack storage were of major concern to all companies on the scene. Thermal imaging camera usage was invaluable by the companies inside and afforded them the ability to locate the main body of fire and avoid deploying the initial handline to the wrong area. Discipline by the companies kept them together and let them exit when necessary. Crews did not work off the handlines and did not go too deep into the building. Solid communications by command and companies were the main reasons that no firefighters were lost or trapped.

Coordinated and well-planned vertical ventilation was conducted without getting overzealous and breaking all the skylights. By not drawing the fire to other areas of the building by unnecessary ventilation, the companies inside could better manage the fire conditions and increased their visibility. The use of Fan 3 was necessary in removing the residual smoke and allowing crews to conduct overhaul.

Early transmission of the second and third alarms proved to be essential for additional manpower. Initial companies used three, and some four, air bottles before they could be released to rehab.

A strong ICS/IMS presence was critical in managing the incident. Department members are well trained in ICS/IMS and frequently use it to prepare for the "big one." Everyday use of ICS proved paid off for this rare three-alarm fire.

Among lessons learned:

  • Small departments must train on 2½-inch handline use and operation. The department trains extensively and can deploy, advance and operate 2½-inch hose with three and sometimes just two members. Crews have flowed thousands of gallons of water to teach members how to manage this large handline with minimum staffing. This training paid off for the crews that were interior at this fire.
  • Know your district and buildings. Most of the personnel had been in this building, but it had been a long time and the layout and contents had changed. The department conducts company-level inspections that help members get inside more buildings, but it pays to go into the buildings for just routine pre-planning.
  • Thermal imagers are invaluable in a large building of this type. Interior companies were effective with their water because they could "see" hot spots and numerous spot fires and so they were able to use the water more effectively. In turn, this reduced the amount of water damage and most of the contents were salvaged.
  • A fire involving a large building requires more than one rapid intervention team. At this fire, both teams performed size-ups and monitored the radio traffic for emergencies.

MATT RETTMER is a lieutenant in the Castle Rock, CO, Fire and Rescue Department. He is certified as a NREMT-Paramedic, Colorado Fire Officer I, Fire Instructor I and Hazmat Operations. Rettmer holds an associate's degree in fire science from Red Rocks Community College and a bachelor's degree in fitness/wellness management from Dakota State University.