Triple-Decker Fires Challenge Firefighters, Investigators Say

June 14, 2024
Balloon construction allows the fires to spread rapidly from the basement to the attic.

While two triple-decker house fires left dozens displaced and two people dead, houses of this design do not make up the majority of the state’s residential fires, the State Fire Marshal’s office told MassLive.

Triple-decker homes were originally built for factory workers and have been a common form of housing for over a century, GBH reported in 2022. Such homes make up the main source of affordable housing in Massachusetts cities that were previously major centers of industry, such as Worcester, Brockton and New Bedford.

Part of what makes triple-decker homes a general risk during a fire is a balloon-frame construction that allows fires to spread very rapidly, unimpeded, from the basement to the attic and throughout void spaces, according to Jake Wark, public information officer for the Department of Fire Services.

“Fire needs oxygen to grow, and those voids provide plenty of it,” he said. “Obviously, this is a concern in the fire service, especially in the more densely built cities and towns where triple-deckers are most common.”

Without any fire-blocking material in the walls to stop the flames, a fire can spread rapidly from one floor to the next, GBH reported. Most triple-deckers were built before any building codes prohibited the balloon-frame construction.

As well, antiquated electrical wiring systems and heating systems such as parlor heaters and gas-on-gas stoves were common in triple-deckers and could start fires, GBH wrote.

When a fire starts, gasoline shingles fuel the flames, Worcester Assistant Fire Chief Adam Roche told GBH in 2022. A fire burning through the spaces of a balloon-frame home is unpredictable, and battling the fire can be “extremely demanding, frustrating,” Fall River Deputy Fire Chief Ronald Sevigny told GBH.

On Wednesday at around 5 a.m., Boston firefighters battled a 4-alarm fire at 7 Carson St. in Dorchester, the department said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. Narrow walkways and power lines made accessibility to the fire difficult, though firefighters were able to aggressively fight back the flames from both inside and outside the home.

By around 6:21 a.m., firefighters had successfully knocked down the fire and rescued all the residents and pets inside, the department said in a follow-up post. The fire, which spread to another triple-decker house, left 33 people displaced, the department added on X.

In Worcester, a fire in a triple-decker home at 3 Hancock St. on May 28 took the lives of Daniel Gonzalez, 62, and Juana Candelario, 59, who were married for 30 years. Seven people, including three children, were displaced by the blaze.

Fatal fires in triple-decker homes, particularly in Worcester, have led to regulation changes at the local level. After the Gage Street fire in 2022, which killed four people, the Worcester City Council voted unanimously to create a rental registry designed to ensure rental units “are safe and livable and to provide first responders with critical information in emergencies, such as fires, fallen trees or other disasters,” a spokesperson for City Manager Eric Batista told MassLive.

“Worcester has had some very high-profile fatalities in triple-deckers over the years, but fatal fires are statistically much more likely to occur in single-family homes,” Wark said.

Of all the structure fires in Massachusetts in 2023, 60% of them were in single-family homes, according to data from Wark. Apartment fires make up 17% while rooming houses and two-family homes each account for 6% of fires.

Wark said the lack of working smoke alarms required under Massachusetts law made single-family homes more dangerous during a fire. These homes are usually owned and occupied by the same families for several years, “meaning there’s often no opportunity to ensure that alarms are installed where they should be, on every level, working properly, and within their 10-year useful lifespan,” Wark said.

As for triple-decker houses, automatic fire sprinklers are the best and fastest way to prevent property loss, he said.

“Sprinklers can contain or even extinguish a fire when it’s still in its small, early stages,” he said. “And of course, they would reduce catastrophic fires in other occupancies, too … Until we see sprinklers in more homes of all types, we’ll keep pushing for prevention — fire safety at home — and early detection [with] smoke alarms.”

The investigation into the 7 Carson St. fire remains underway and it’s not yet known if the home had working fire sprinklers, the Boston Fire Department told MassLive.

The Worcester Fire Department did not respond to a MassLive request for an update on the investigation into the 3 Hancock St. fire.

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