Abandoned Houses Have Surprises

Abandoned houses are a nuisance to the community and hazard to firefighters, find out why

A hazard for all firefighters are those negelcted rentals and abandoned houses in our territories. They may be empty but that doesn’t make then not hazardous. I have made many fires in abandoned houses and gotten a surprise each time, let me share one with you.

The Situation

You are dispatched to building fire in your first due territory. It’s one of those pesky “next door to” calls, which usually means someone saw some steam from a drier outlet, thought it was smoke and did the neighborly thing to call for their neighbor. These usually end up in confused and panicked homeowner because now three fire engines and a truck are arriving in front of their house with all the red lights sirens. That’s how it goes, usually.

Today doesn’t seem to be much different. When your engine pulls up you don’t see any smoke in the air, or any flames sillouetting a building against the night sky. However, there are several people jumping and pointing to what seems to be a clearing as the pop open the door and exit with full gear, and begin a trot up a long lane with the officer to where the people are pointing. You then see an abandoned house, boarded up,  dark gray smoke billowing from a gable end above another lower roof line, embers floating harmlessly into the sky. Turning, the officer rushes past you to begin a 360 degree walk-around the building, while you relay back to the driver and hook up man to back the engine down the lane. This takes a few minutes as you assist the driver down the lane. “This is good,” you think, avoiding a long lay of 2-1/2 inch wyed lines.

The main body of the house is average for your area, about 800 square feet, ordinary construction with signs of decent upkeep. There is a smaller add on structure on the BRAVO division. The boards make it difficult to determine how much smoke is coming out, but it becomes apparent what is going down when your lieutenant kicks in the front door and thick black smoke rolls out. The hook up man backs the engine into position and hands off a long line, a preconnected 200′ lay of 1-3/4 inch with a 200 GPM nozzle. Advancing the flat loaded hose towards the door is easier than usual.

A step is missing to the front porch, so you pull slack on the line, step up, and pull on your mask and hood down then drop your helmet on top. Holding your breath, you turn the knob on your bottle and get airflow through the regulator with your first breath. You click your chest flashlight on. You can feel the heat as you walk forward. Heat kisses at the space where the mask and hood are supposed to cover.

“Charge my line”

You find a doorway and kneel in it as the water comes blasting from the fully open nozzle. The straight stream plays out as your whip the nozzle in a circle. You advance into the doorway with the nozzle still open, chasing the orange glow back towards another room. You feel the 2nd in engine company guys come in behind you, and the truck guys start on the ceiling and directing you towards the back room. You knock out the last of the main fire in that room and begin wetting down hot spots, including a burning door.

As the ceiling in the smaller part of the room is exposed, more fire appears in the attic. It is quickly knocked out. The foam that is mixed into the line at the pump makes quick work of the deep seated embers in the insulation. As the PPV fan roars to life and the smoke clears, you notice several key building components that made this fire and structure potentially dangerous…

Hidden Dangers

Several key findings were made, before, during, and after firefighting operations.

Construction types – the main building used a kind of stucco construction for interior walls, making it very sturdy. Lucky not much of the original structure was involved and extension into the attic was cut off by the fire attack, and just in time. The occupants that built onto the house cut a hole in the original exterior gable end that was covered by the roof over the addition for heating and air ducts.

Boarded windows and doors – made early fire detection by the people that lived on this small lane impossible, and the fire was allowed to grow unchecked and undetected for some time and created flashover conditions in the addition. Had there been a greater fire load (if the building was occupied) it would definitely have destroyed the addition completely and taken most of the original structure with it, but fire detection would have been much sooner.

Entanglement Hazards – the addition used lightweight ductwork for heat and air, and when exposed to fire, the wires that hold that ductwork open become exposed. Thankfully there were only two stretches of this ductwork in the involved area, so the amount of wires were kept at a minimum.

Other construction shortcuts – The roof over the addition was very flimsy, and this is because of the roof construction. The truss lacked the cross members you would normally see in a premanufactured roof truss. Also, the ceiling fans and other appliances were poorly attached to the ceiling, and they fell when exposed to fire. The original back door in the kitchen had been covered completely and made into a window. You could not tell from the exterior but it was fairly obvious outside. All in all, the add-on appeared to be do-it-yourself project with very little in the way of safety margins.

Lessons Learned

Be aware of the abandoned buildings in your area. Be observant to what kind of activity goes on around them, often times the homeless will use them for shelter or drug addicts as a place to get high out of public view. They are often the cause of fires in these structures.

Be prepared to preserve evidence in these structures, as they could be a crime scene or part of an arson investigation later on. An arrest may hinder on you doing your part to preserve evidence that is not in the way of accomplishing your task.

Fundamental firefighting techniques are crucial to efficient completion of the task. Nozzle control and practice deploying hose lines goes a long way in ensuring that there is no delay in getting water on the fire and then once water is on the fire, making it go out quickly.

Be mindful of the possibility of construction hazards but keep up an aggressive attack, and always have an escape plan.

Remember these things, and you will keep your culture of extinguishment intact while maintaining safe fireground operations.