Firefighters Engulfed! Garage Fire and Explosion

Jan. 1, 2008

Single-family-dwelling fires. For most of us, that's the most common structural fire we respond to, also know as a "bread-and-butter" run when the tones go off. But while in some minds the response can be considered "routine," unless this is the first time you have read this column, you know there is nothing routine about any kind of run — especially the single-family-dwelling fire.

Between issues such as building construction (and these days, lightweight wood construction is getting lighter, more fragile and collapsing quicker when burning), access to the structure due to long driveways, subdivision access as well as not knowing "what is in that house" — the dangers are clear. Fire spread can be hotter and faster these days due to the construction and fire load — and how the loads are manufactured. For example, the "sofa" of today is not the "sofa" of past-generation firefighters due to the way it is made and the materials used to make it. A 100% plastic sofa may give the appearance of being made of cloth and wood, but when it's burning, it creates a much hotter and faster-burning fire.

When responding to a dwelling fire, firefighters must be familiar with such tactical considerations such as access, the neighborhood, specific construction types, company roles and assignments, operating tactics and water availability, all well before the alarm is transmitted. Firefighters must arrive and be "ready to work" with full head-to-toe personal protective equipment (PPE), including self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), gloves, hoods, radio, lights, tools and all that your department considers to be required.

Additionally, firefighters must be aware that literally "anything" could be in that house — and they must be prepared to deal with it. For example, in my earlier days, we never heard the term "meth lab," but today they are found (and have injured firefighters) in ALL types of neighborhoods. Fires in private dwellings kill and injure firefighters, even when we are fully prepared while attempting to save a life. Unfortunately, injury or the loss of firefighters in the line of duty happens more often when we are not prepared.

The Loveland, CO, Fire & Rescue Department (LFRD) protects 80,000 citizens from six fire stations answering an average of 5,000 runs annually, which includes EMS first response. The department consists of 54 career members and 35 volunteers, all of whom pull shifts in quarters. Off-duty volunteer firefighters along with off-duty career members are also subject to recall based on the incident. Staffing consists of two stations with three on-duty personnel minimum and four stations with two on-duty personnel minimum in addition to the on-duty battalion chief as the area-wide tour commander. Staffing is dynamic, based on time of day, but by policy never drops below 14 plus the battalion chief.

On Saturday, Oct. 27, 2007, at 9:28 P.M., a first alarm was transmitted for the LFRD (three engines, one 105-foot quint, a battalion chief and a Thompson Valley EMS paramedic unit) for a report of a residential structural fire. Quint 5 arrived on scene within three minutes and the company officer, Lieutenant Vance Stolz, reported a "working fire." Stolz finished the size-up and updated responding units that the fire appeared to be in the garage, firefighters were preparing for an interior attack and all occupants were out of the house.

The Quint 5 crew entered the front door of the home with a 1¾-inch attack line; the walk-in door to the garage was just inside the front door of the house. Battalion 1 arrived on scene and established command. Quint 5 reported heavy smoke, no visibility and moderate heat in the garage; the crew was unable to advance more than five feet into the garage due to the high volume of storage in the garage. Command advised the crew to pull back out of the garage and hold the fire to the garage.

The Quint 5 engineer, who set the pump and then geared up, and the crew of Engine 4 were ordered to cut an access hole in the garage door, while Engine 1's crew stretched a second attack line to the front of the structure. At approximately 9:35, as the Quint 5 engineer was cutting the access hole with a circular saw, the Engine 4 crew was positioned on the driveway about halfway between the garage door and the street. The Engine 4 crew was donning SCBA and gloves. (It is standard operating procedure at the LFRD that on two-person companies, once the pump is set, the engineer leaves the pump and joins his or her officer in stretching the line with the next-due company engineer taking over that pump.)

At 9:36 P.M., an explosion occurred, blowing out one side of the garage door and engulfing the three firefighters operating in the driveway in a fireball. The firefighters were thrown by the explosion to the end of the driveway. They were immediately attended to by Thompson Valley EMS personnel. Two of them were transported to the Medical Center of the Rockies; the third firefighter, the Quint 5 engineer, was not injured.

Once the explosion occurred, command requested a second alarm and an additional EMS unit. A 2½-inch line was deployed to extinguish the now-heavy fire in the garage. The fire was declared under control at 9:54. During overhaul, several large propane tanks were found in the garage. Units remained on scene for several hours completing overhaul work.

The Quint 5 engineer was fully bunkered out with his SCBA on at the time of the explosion. One layer of his hood was burned and his portable radio antenna was melted, but he sustained no injury. The Engine 4 crew members who were still donning SCBA and gloves at the time sustained first- and second-degree burns, one to his face and hands and one to his hands.

Our sincere thanks to Chief of Department Mike Chard, Chief of Operations Ned Sparks, Battalion Chief Greg Ward, the members who provided the accounts below as well as all members and support service personnel operating at this incident.

This account is by Battalion Chief Greg Ward, the incident commander:

I arrived at 9:33 and established Sunridge Command. I observed heavy black smoke pushing from around the garage door and the eaves above the garage, which was in the A-B corner of the house. Quint 5 had stretched a 1¾-inch pre-connected attack line into the front door of the house. Lieutenant Vance Stolz and Firefighter Rick Summer (Crew 5) were visible just inside the front door of the house. I completed a 360 of the structure; there were no signs showing on the B or C sides.

Off-duty Lieutenant Robert Carmosino checked in with me and was assigned to assist Crew 5 with the hose advancement into the house. Stolz reported that the crew made entry into the garage from the house, but the firefighters could not see the fire, heavy smoke was within a foot of the floor and they could not advance into the garage because of the amount of storage there. He pulled his crew back into the house and planned to hold the fire to the garage. I briefly met face to face with Stolz just outside the front door; he said they could hear what appeared to be a propane tank venting off inside the garage. I believed that any propane venting off was being consumed by the fire. I advised Stolz that we were going to open up the overhead garage door with a saw.

I met with Engineer Kevin Hessler (Quint 5) and assigned him to cut a large access hole in the garage door. Engines 1 and 4 arrived on scene at 9:35 P.M. Engine 1 (Lieutenant Greg Gilbert) was assigned to stretch a second attack line to the front yard and then to complete a primary search of the structure. Engine 4 (Lieutenant Dave Schuetz) was ordered to assist Hessler with opening up the garage door. I was positioned in the front yard (A-D corner) near the sidewalk, approximately 40 feet from the house. I observed Schuetz size-up the garage door and have a brief conversation with Hessler. Firefighter Marker (E4) was donning his SCBA and gloves in the middle of the driveway. Schuetz backed down the driveway and joined Marker, donning his mask and gloves.

Hessler began to cut the right side of the lightweight metal garage door with the circular saw. Schuetz and Marker were about eight feet behind him and to the left. Hessler made one cut and was in the process of the second cut when an explosion occurred. The explosion blew out the right side of the garage door and engulfed the driveway, Schuetz, Hessler and Marker in fire. These three firefighters were thrown to the base of the driveway (approximately 25 feet) by the force of the explosion. The fireball was followed by a shower of sparks and burning embers.

The Thompson Valley EMS crew was directly behind me and immediately deployed to the downed firefighters. I requested another ambulance, followed by a second alarm. Dispatched on the second alarm were Engines 3 and 6, an off-duty battalion chief, Berthoud Fire District Engine 2, Poudre Fire Authority Engine 14 and a Thompson Valley EMS supervisor. Accountability of everyone on scene was accomplished quickly; from my position, I still had a visual on everyone who had been operating on scene before the explosion. Crew 5 backed out of the house and was now positioned in the front yard. The right side of the garage door was open and heavy fire was visible in the back corner of the garage. At 9:38, a 2½-inch attack line was deployed to the driveway to attack the fire. Schuetz and Marker were walked to the ambulance for treatment. Hessler was not injured; in fact, he initially began the attack on the 2½-inch line.

Engine 2 arrived on scene just as the explosion occurred. The crew secured a hydrant water supply to Quint 5 and then staffed the 2½-inch line on the driveway, relieving Hessler. I sent Hessler to the paramedics for evaluation. The fire in the garage was knocked down with the 2½-inch line. The only visible explosion damage to the structure was to the garage door. At 9:40, Gilbert reported that the primary search was "all clear" and advised of moderate to heavy smoke in the attic. Crew 5 was redeployed into the house to assist Crew 1 in checking for extension.

When Engines 3 and 6 arrived on scene, they were assigned to vertical ventilation over the garage; the open ceiling was holding a tremendous amount of smoke that I felt was contributing to the smoke condition in the attic space. This crew also secured the utilities to the house. Training Captain Michael Cerovski arrived and was assigned as the safety officer. Ventilation was complete at 9:50 and the conditions in the attic improved. Poudre Engine 14 arrived and staged; and Berthoud Engine 2 was canceled and moved up to our Station 1. At 9:53, Crew 1 reported no fire extension into the rest of the house. The fire was placed under control at 9:54.

Crews began to overhaul the garage area and the Fire Prevention Bureau started the fire investigation process. Crews completely removed the garage door for access. The garage was loaded with storage, including shelving units that were six feet high. These shelving units lined the walls and also were placed in the middle of the garage, almost dividing it into two separate areas. The fire origin was in the back corner farthest from the walk-in door from the house to the garage; a large shelving unit/divider was between the fire area and this door.

Fire Prevention Bureau investigators determined the fire started in or on a propane-fired heater that was attached to the top of a 100-pound propane cylinder. The fire spread to the storage on the shelves, the heavy smoke banked down and eventually suffocated the fire, letting raw propane flow onto the floor of the garage. The most likely cause of the explosion was the sparks from the circular saw igniting the propane.

Additional observations:

  • Crews did not detect an odor of propane outside of the structure prior to the explosion. The fire presented as a normal garage fire.
  • The firefighter safety/survival training done by the department over the past few years paid off at this incident. The explosion occurred, the injured firefighters were immediately cared for and all other crews continued with their assignments.
  • The scene remained calm, everyone remained focused.
  • We do not have a formal policy on notifying family members in the event of an injury. Hospital personnel gave very limited information to members of the injured firefighters' families, causing undue stress. This is being addressed by our department.
  • Hessler took the most direct fire during the explosion. Because he was fully bunkered out, he received no injuries.

This account is by Lieutenant Vance Stolz, the Quint 5 officer (first due):

I was assigned to Quint 5 as the company officer along with Engineer Kevin Hessler and Firefighter Rick Summer. Upon arrival, we found a residential structure with moderate smoke coming from the attached garage. The main garage door was closed and the walk-in door was inside the residence; there were no other openings such as doors or windows in the garage. Smoke was visible around the main garage door and the eaves of the structure. The homeowner met us and stated he had a large fire in the garage with propane possibly on fire as well. The owner stated all occupants were out of the structure and accounted for. Summer pulled a 200-foot 1¾-inch pre-connect to the front door, Hessler staged tools and charged the line in preparation for Summer and me to go interior for a "fast attack." Battalion Chief Greg Ward arrived on scene as we were preparing to enter the structure and established command.

My initial action plan was to make entry into the home and ensure that the door leading from the garage into the home was not compromised by the fire and that we could keep the fire from extending into the home. Upon entry, we had light smoke conditions inside the home and no heat. With the charged 1¾-inch line, we opened the walk-in door to the garage in hopes of darkening down the fire from our position. We encountered heavy smoke conditions and moderate heat. We immediately encountered a heavy storage load inside the garage, which along with the smoke conditions prevented us from being able to see directly into the garage.

I advised Summer we were going to advance only a few feet inside the garage due to the storage and smoke conditions. Once inside five to six feet, we still were unable to find any fire. We backed out of the garage and into the living area of the home to regroup and do a face-to-face with Ward. It was decided to cut a large hole in the main garage door for better access and fire attack. We made one more attempt to get water on the fire from inside the structure while crews outside were preparing to cut the door. Again, we went inside five to six feet and encountered the same conditions, including what sounded like a propane cylinder venting. This was reported to command and we backed out and into the living area of the home. We pulled two sections of ceiling inside the home near the garage wall to check for fire extension in the attic and found only light smoke.

We could hear Hessler starting to cut the main garage door while we were monitoring the conditions inside the home and attic. At this time, we heard a large explosion that blew open the walk-in door leading from the home into the garage. We immediately shut that door and evacuated the structure through the front door. We found the garage door partially blown off its tracks and several firefighters lying at the end of the driveway, being attended to by paramedics and firefighters. We found a large amount of fire inside the garage from the now-damaged large garage door. Using a 1¾-inch line, along with a crew with a 2½-inch line, we darkened down the fire inside the garage.

Once the bulk of the fire was knocked down, we were reassigned inside the house to check for extension while the crew with the 2½-inch line continued to cool the inside of the garage. We entered the home and continued to monitor the conditions inside the home and the attic space. Although we encountered moderate to heavy smoke in the attic space, it quickly dissipated once the garage was vented. The fire was confined to the garage and did not extend into the living space or attic of the home.

It's important to note that this incident presented as a "typical" garage fire, if there is such a thing. At no time was there ever any indication from the outside that we had anything more than a garage fire with the normal hazards associated with this type of an incident. Garage fires are a very dangerous and frequent type of incident that fire departments respond to each and every day across the country. This one proved to be anything but "typical" for the crews from our department on the evening of Oct. 27.

This account is by Engineer Kevin Hessler, first-due apparatus operator:

I was the engineer of Quint 5 that day. We were met by the homeowner a few houses away from his house. He stated that he had a fire in his garage and there was a propane tank inside. I positioned the quint for fire attack, put the pump into gear, got out of the rig and assisted Firefighter Rick Summer with stretching the green line (a 1¾-inch pre-connected attack line). Once the line was on the ground, I charged the line. Lieutenant Vance Stolz requested an additional set of irons at the front door; I accomplished this task and returned to the quint. I was then assigned by Battalion Chief Greg Ward, the incident commander, to cut an access hole in the garage door.

I went back to the quint to get my SCBA and a circular saw. I then went to the end of the driveway on the sidewalk to get all of my gear on (full bunker gear and SCBA). Once I was geared up, I proceeded to the garage door, where I made an assessment of the door. I clipped in the regulator to my facepiece, then fired up the saw and started to make my first cut when the Engine 4 crew arrived. Engine 4 Lieutenant Dave Schuetz said, "Let's get this door opened up." The Engine 4 crew (Schuetz and Firefighter Braden Marker) were putting the rest of their gear on behind me to my left side. I finished my first cut and started the second cut. During my second cut, an explosion ignited, sending the Engine 4 crew and me flying in the air down the driveway. I was engulfed in flames from the explosion and everything went silent. I threw the circular saw to my right, knowing the Engine 4 crew was to my left.

I was at the end of the driveway by Schuetz. I believe that by having my gear on correctly, with no skin showing, I did not get injured. Schuetz and Marker were being attended to by the ambulance crew that was on scene. Once I knew that the Engine 4 crew was taken care of, I thought that the rest of my crew from Quint 5, Stolz and Summer, were still inside the garage, which had a great deal of fire coming from it. I did not know they had already retreated to the house near the front door. Ward said, "I want this 2½ in service now." I took the nozzle from Engineer Bobby Bartlett. He charged it and I flowed the line into the garage. Seconds later, I saw the rest of my crew outside with their hoseline. I was eventually relieved on the 2½-inch line. Ward then told me that I needed to be evaluated by the ambulance crew. While I was in the ambulance, the ambulance crew looked me over and discovered the outside layer of my hood was burned through and most of the Velcro on my gear was melted shut. I was checked out and cleared by the paramedics and reported back to staging. I assisted with overhaul and picking up fire equipment until Quint 5 was cleared from the scene.

These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder's observations and communications with the writers and others regarding this close call:

Several points are worth discussing after a review of this fire:

  • Staffing. There are few departments where staffing is not a challenge. While some readers may be surprised at the two-firefighter staffing, with the engineer setting the pump and going to join the officer, it is reality for many, many fire departments. Once a specific level of staffing is reached, or known as in the case with volunteer firefighters responding from home or work, the fire department leadership has an obligation to realistically determine what it can and cannot do with what it is given to work with. (For volunteer or call departments where members are responding in, and are not in quarters, the leadership of any fire department has an obligation to develop systems so that command officers either know who is available for call or, when dispatched, have a system where members can immediately acknowledge that they are responding, allowing command officers to decide whether more immediate response from other resources is warranted. The days of "waiting to see who shows up" are over and can be solved through leadership using low-cost technology or a more rigid scheduling system. The obligation is not only to the community, but to the members of the department so they know that additional staffing is on the way.)

    Firefighting is task specific based on predictable conditions. No matter how hard we try, we cannot do all the needed tasks (establish water, set/operate the pump, stretch handlines, vent, enter, search, attack, command, etc.) with fewer firefighters than are expected based on factors such as structural features, occupancy, required fire flow, required fire tactics, fire conditions, response time and distance traveled, to name a few. On the other hand, if we know what our minimal staffing is, we can train, drill and operate a specific way, doing as much as we realistically can without kidding ourselves and the public, which can lead to horrific consequences.

    The LFRD knows ahead of time what its minimal staffing is, and its leaders have specific procedures in place that provide clear operational direction. Would they like more staffing? Who wouldn't? But having to operate with a specific amount of staffing is just the way it is. Fortunately, the LFRD has an on-duty crew of career firefighters as well as a significant number of trained volunteer firefighters who help increase the staffing.

    The issue, then, is for any fire department's leaders to determine what they can do, in what amount of time they can do it in and what they cannot do. Again, timing is a big factor. The less required staffing, the longer it takes to get the specific tasks done because there are simply fewer firefighters to do it. In a fire situation, when we cannot simultaneously do the needed tasks in coordination by command, the fire advances more quickly than we can handle it, creating another set of potential problems.

  • Protective clothing. Fortunately, the firefighters were geared up or gearing up outside when the explosion occurred. I generally try to put myself in the position of those involved in these close calls and I don't think I would have been packed up any faster or wearing all my gear while standing outside as they were gearing up and preparing to go in.
  • Fireground emergency training. The LFRD has trained for just this sort of situation. The members all knew what to do and what not to do when the explosion occurred. How did that happen? Training.
  • Emergency notification policies. What is your fire department's policy for handling an emergency when the emergency affects your fire department? The use of critical incident response teams, chaplains and related support-service members are essential to ensure that all aspects of the emergency are handled. What is your fire department's procedure for handling the family notifications, transportation, media and other challenges that will arise when an emergency does occur?

This fire in Loveland is a fire that can easily happen anywhere. There was nothing special, unique or unusual about it. The LFRD had a "close call" — but fortunately, good leadership along with specific preparation, training and procedures were in place so that the department handled the fire and were also were able to react to the emergency with the least amount of injury and negative impact to their department.

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 32-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website Goldfeder may be contacted at [email protected].

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