On The Job – Texas: Apartment Cockloft Fire Taxes Houston Firefighters as 30 Units Are Destroyed in Fast-Spreading Inferno

Tom McDonald reports on a fire in a non-sprinklered building that gave more than 100 Houston firefighters one of their toughest assignments in many months.


HOUSTON FIRE DEPTARTMENT Chief: Phil Boriskie Personnel: 3,877 career firefighters Apparatus: 87 engines, 37 ladders (including three towers), one heavy rescue, two tactical rescues, three air cascade units, plus fully integrated EMS operations, a Hazardous Materials Response Team and ARFF...


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When the mode of operation on a garden apartment fire is questionable, it is usually best to go defensive if life-hazard issues have been addressed. Once defensive, maintain a planned and coordinated attack at all times to ensure master streams do not push fire into unburned areas.

When unburned sections of a long, flat roof do not allow for aerial-stream penetration to the seat of an undivided cockloft fire, consideration should be given to trench cutting far enough ahead of the fire to cut it off. Sufficient crews manning handlines and equipped to expose the cockloft from underneath need to be lined up in adequate number to defend the full length of the trench as well.

In occupied apartment fires, summon and dedicate adequate resources to salvage operations below the fire when structural collapse is not likely.


Evolution of Houston's Garden Apartments

Every major U.S. city has a story to tell about the evolution of its multi-family residences. Such dwellings have formed the backbone for low-cost housing across America, but the types of construction used vary by region and by the time period in which they were built.

Not as much a variable, however, is the fact that these housing units were often built in a hurry to accommodate a rapid influx of new residents in a community, whether they be immigrants from Europe in the 19th century or from other parts of the world in the 20th. For example, New York and most other Eastern Seaboard cities witnessed the construction of block after block of tenements and rowhouses to house immigrants from Europe more than a century ago, only to have them decay and then fall victim to fires and vandalism during the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

Today, Houston, along with other American cities much younger than those on the East Coast, is experiencing a similar problem to what New York faced, but a generation later and in a different type of structure. The southwest side of Houston is forested with garden-style apartments: two- and three-story buildings, often containing eight to 30 or more apartment units, and often arranged randomly, yet compactly, around gardens and walkways. Most complexes in southwest Houston were built during the 1970s and '80s, when high energy prices first lured Americans from other parts of the U.S. to the city.

Back then, the "immigrants" were not from Europe, but were thousands of young American workers looking for well-paying jobs in the "oil patch." To accommodate them, thousands of attractive garden apartments were built over a very short period. Most had basic wood framing with brick or wooden exteriors, often with pitched common attics or flat-roofed cocklofts, but typically having little or no fire stopping.

Many apartments built in Houston in the 1960s and '70s were constructed with wood shingles or shakes, but after a series of disastrous fires in the late 1970s that consumed hundreds of units, the city restricted use of such materials. Almost all wood-shingled roofs that existed on apartments across Houston on July 31, 1979, disappeared under composition shingles within months after that date, which was when 324 units at the Woodway Square apartment complex went up in smoke.

Today, Houston's garden-style apartments of that generation are much older, often poorly maintained, and now occupied largely by those of limited means, including immigrants from Mexico, Central America and Asia. Serious fires in these structures have escalated recently. More than half (83 out of 162) of the multiple alarm fires in the city between Jan. 1, 2004, and June 30, 2006, involved occupied or vacant garden-style apartments. In the first six months of 2006 alone, a record-setting 23 of 37 multiples have been in just such occupancies.

Today, apartments are still being built in great numbers in Houston. These new buildings are taller, with three, four and even five floors, and are probably not best described using the term "garden" anymore. Many of these new complexes devote the entire ground floor to commercial enterprises in much the same way many European cities have done for centuries.