Tactics for Battling Attic Fires

Issue 5 and Volume 6.

Attic fires in single- or multiple-family dwellings of typical combustible construction are usually spectacular events, with copious amounts of smoke and/or fire showing. Whether it’s a large home with lightweight trusses in a rural environment where there’s limited to no water supply, or it’s a fire running the “stick-built” attic space on an older garden apartment building surrounded by hydrants, this will be a call where everyone goes to work.

With a lightweight wood roof, firefighters might get lucky and have the fire quickly burn through it and self-ventilate, which makes the fire attack a bit easier. However, heavier roofs, particularly in cold climates where snow load is considered in their design, can hold in the fire, banking down heat and smoke into lower floors. In any of these situations, the potential exists for a ceiling/roof collapse on top of firefighters working below.  

Find the Fire
At some incidents, it will be easy to determine that the fire is in the attic; however, the fire may also be bottled up in the attic with lots of smoke showing, hiding the seat of the fire. A quick sweep with a thermal imager can reveal an attic fire. Other clues to look for: snow melting on the roof, or, if it’s raining, steam coming off the roof, indicating high heat below. Such clues are one of the many reasons the IC or another experienced firefighter must complete a full walkaround of the building as part of the initial size-up.

Once you confirm that fire is in the attic, ask the occupants (if you’re able to find them outside the building) what the attic contains. Many are used for storage, but there may be HVAC units or other equipment up there, adding load to the structure that may not have been accounted for initially, which in turn increases the chance of stuff falling down on your head. If there is storage in the attic, the stored contents will most likely be involved in the fire. If the materials are heavy, or if they’re paper-based materials that can absorb water, the risk of a ceiling collapse is significant.

Tip: In the current economy, people are sleeping just about anywhere, so check with evacuated occupants to determine the potential for trapped victims. Remember: A working fire in an attic space will make that space untenable very quickly.

During size-up, try to determine how the fire got there. Did it start in the attic or somewhere else? If a thunderstorm occurred in the area, is there obvious damage from a lightning strike? Again, check with occupants to see if they can provide any clues for you. Be sure the fire didn’t start in the basement or on a lower floor—this is particularly true in balloon-frame construction, which is known for presenting as an attic or upper-floor fire when the fire actually started in the basement. You don’t want to be upstairs and caught by a fire below you.

Access the Fire
Attics may have regular access steps, pull-down steps or simply a hatch that requires some type of ladder to get up into the attic space. When opening attic accesses, be prepared to have fire come roaring down on top of you. Be fully geared up, with mask on, and have a charged hoseline at the ready.

Venting the attic is key to accessing it. If you can’t open the roof safely, open gable ends if they’re present. A chainsaw can widen the gable end opening if necessary, creating a “window” to the attic.  Remember that in many attics, there’s no actual floor, just beams, insulation and drywall on the underside of the beams. One misstep up in the attic, and you’ll quickly find yourself on the floor below.

In almost all cases in dwellings, there’s generally no fireproofing or gypsum board between the structural members and the fire, meaning that they’re immediately being attacked by any fire in the attic. Even if the dwelling is protected by a residential sprinkler system, neither NFPA 13D (one- and two-family dwelling sprinkler standard) nor NFPA 13R (multi-family dwelling sprinkler standard) requires sprinklers in the attic, so attic fires can burn unabated even in sprinklered houses.

Attack the Fire
If you’re going inside to get at the fire, you’re likely going to have to attack it from below. The good news: You won’t be trying to go down into a blast furnace, like at a basement fire. The bad news: The attic contents can fall down on top of you.

In the case of the self-venting fire, vertical ventilation is already done for you, and if the heat and smoke are venting upward and out of the building, visibility below might be quite good. Tip: On your way up to the attic, close doors throughout the house to minimize the spread of smoke. As operations continue, you might consider using positive pressure ventilation (PPV), if vent openings are already in place in the attic. Remember, however, that the fresh air will feed an oxygen-starved fire, which may result in a flashover. This is why it’s crucial to coordinate ventilation and fire attack, and ensure that the attack is made with a hoseline capable of flowing the volume of water necessary to match or exceed the energy from the fire.

One current trend in attic construction is to provide “false” dormer windows that look like real dormers, but have plywood or drywall behind them. You can still vent the attic from these false dormers, but to get true ventilation, you’ll have to work a bit harder than just breaking out the glass.

Choose a robust hoseline for attic fires; in my book, 1¾” is nice, but 2″ is better. To be most effective inside, you’ll need an attack line crew to get to the fire, a truck crew to open the ceilings and another line to provide back-up and ensure that an egress path is maintained. Note: Never underestimate the importance of the back-up role. On a well-advanced fire, there’s always the possibility that both lines will need to be used to knock down the fire or prevent the fire from moving behind the attack crew. If assigned to back-up, stay alert and assist with the search/removal of victims found while maintaining protection for the primary crews.

A piercing nozzle, particularly if fed by Class A foam or compressed air foam, may be a particularly effective tool on attic fires if it’s pushed through the ceiling and flowed into the attic from below. These nozzles can provide a widely distributed flow of the suppression agent, reaching all around the attic space. For larger buildings, such as garden apartments, two or more of these nozzles placed under a trench cut can make an awesome firebreak, stopping horizontal fire spread. Remember: When applying water overhead, you’re adding weight to the ceiling, which can increase the potential for a ceiling collapse.

At the same time, be very disciplined with opposing hoselines. There’s a strong tendency for crews to open up on a self-venting attic fire from the outside, perhaps even with a master stream device. Water needs to be applied to the seat of the fire to be most effective, and pouring it onto a self-venting fire may push heat and smoke down on anyone trying to operate inside. This should never happen while crews are trying to make an interior attack.

Lots of hook work will be needed, so the truck crew should carry longer hooks, at least 6 to 8 feet, unless it’s a very old home with low ceilings. New homes may need even longer hooks due to high ceilings. Make sure the attack crew is ready with a charged hoseline before hooking the ceilings—you could very easily be pulling fire down on top of you or create backdraft conditions as fresh oxygen is admitted to the attic space. Ensure that the truck crew pulls the ceiling down and away from them, not on top of themselves.

At the same time crews are attacking the fire, other personnel should complete full primary and secondary searches of the spaces below. If the fire is self-venting, visibility may not be that big of a problem, but if needed, use PPV in coordination with fire attack to keep smoke and heat out of the space in which the interior crews are operating. Tip: What might initially appear to be clear space can quickly deteriorate once ceilings are hooked. Don’t be afraid to call for extra help early and often.

A Difficult Job
Attic fires present a significant danger of collapse and take a lot of work, more so than a room-and-contents fire that’s somewhat contained by the construction. If your crew works together quickly and effectively, you might be amazed at how quickly you can put out an attic fire. On the other hand, some attic fires fully present such a hazard to interior operations that they require an extended exterior attack to avoid placing firefighters at undo risk. Do your best to contain the fire in the attic, and protect the areas underneath while ensuring everyone is out.

As always, preplanning is key. When you’re out and about in your coverage area, look for ways to access attics. It will make your job a bit easier when everything is on the line.

Truck Ops at Attic Fires
For more information abouthow to handle truck company operations at attic fires, check out Randy Frassetto’s Truck Company Operations column, “Attic Fire Tactics from the Inside Up: In modern construction, ladder companies may need to perform a roof attack,” at http://tinyurl.com/attic-fires-Frassetto.