Attic Fires from the Inside Up

Issue 5 and Volume 6.

In newer construction, attic fires pose unique challenges, making fireground tactics difficult at best. One effective tactic that can help: using a ladder crew to support the crews operating inside the structure.

Executed with property conservation in mind, leaving the drywall on the ceiling intact and snuffing out the fire with steam is effective, but advances in home construction, such as vaulted ceilings and multiple attic spaces, can restrict interior crew access. Ventilation, too, can demand priority, especially if crews are reporting high heat with low visibility.

Fortunately, when dealing with a fire that’s solely in the attic, interior visibility is usually excellent, speeding the search process and allowing the ladder crew to aide in extinguishment instead of ventilation. But as with any fire, the key to success comes down to coordinating the attack with the available resources.

Construction Issues
Homes today are built to be aesthetically pleasing. Many have vaulted ceilings to create an open and dramatic atmosphere inside the house, and although these ceiling lines may be appealing to homeowners, they create a problem for fire crews trying to gain inside access to an attic.

A common truss in a home of lightweight construction is the scissor truss, which has a bottom cord angling upward. The problem: In many single- or two-story homes with vaulted ceilings or scissor trusses, interior crews aren’t able to reach the attic space, even with an attic ladder. Further, the trusses used in vaulted ceilings often mean a smaller attic space, and although fire spread is more rapid in a small space, a confined area lends itself to a fire attack using steam. A gable end attack is also popular when dealing with interior access problems, but in newer homes with multiple attic spaces, a gable end may not be the most efficient hoseline area.

Hazard Assessment
When developing a plan for fighting an attic fire, one of the first things to consider is the potential hazard to firefighters on the fireground—hazards including the aforementioned construction types. Studies point to truss failure with short exposure times as the true danger in direct fire impingement. As such, when dealing with a building of lightweight construction, bear in mind the time in which trusses start to fail. If a truss is exposed to significant fire impingement, it may fail in as early as 5 to 7 minutes, and without any visible warning.

Ventilation Tactics
Vertical ventilation is clearly an effective means to ventilate a structure when interior crews are reporting high heat with low visibility. And if crews are operating in that atmosphere, ventilation must be a priority. However, if a fire is isolated to the attic space and conditions inside are clear, you may be able to consider a different approach to vertical ventilation—a hole may only need to be cut to slow down the fire spread so interior crews can get ahead of the fire and make their stance. Additionally, it’s important to know that if interior crews are trying to use steam conversion, a prematurely cut hole may inhibit their ability to complete this task. A hole will naturally draw the fire to the hole, so a hole cut in the wrong location may cause the fire to spread to an area that keeps interior crews from getting ahead of it.

Tool Selection
The decision as to what tools will be used in a roof attack must be made prior to the effort. When operating nozzles into the roof with a goal of converting a fire, there are a couple different options available to crews. A piercing nozzle is extremely effective, puts out a nice pattern and can easily be redeployed into other areas of the roof if necessary. The key to using a piercing nozzle is to stow it in a location that allows for rapid deployment (in a compartment on top of the truck is probably not the best place to keep it in case of a fire). If you don’t keep your piercing nozzle connected to a hose, consider investing in some quick connects that make it easier to attach it to your hoseline. Also consider making a small hole in the roof of the house—a hole that’s just big enough to fit a standard fog nozzle. If your ladder truck doesn’t have a pump and/or hoseline, an engine company can help with the effort.

The Attack Approach
As with all rooftop operations, for attic fires, firefighters should remember a basic rule of thumb from fire school: Approach from the unburned portion of the structure.

When executing a roof attack, communication is critical. Interior crews must communicate to the roof crew where the fire is located, where they are located and which geographical parts of the attic are creating access problems for them. Tip: Utilizing attic vents and reading smoke are great ways to determine a fire’s location and direction. Plus, oftentimes, a solid pane of glass over the front door indicates a vaulted ceiling in a two-story house, and an extension of the patio may give a clue as to what the ceiling line inside looks like.

The roof crew must coordinate where they’ll get their handline and who will be the one to operate it on the roof. While the interior team is making an attack from inside the structure where they have access, the roof crew is making a stance with a hoseline from the unburned portion of the roof. To avoid opposing hose streams, both rooftop and interior crews need to be approaching from atop or under the unburned portion of the roof with nozzles on a fog pattern.

Crews should not operate standing on trusses that are under direct fire impingement, as it’s safer to use the reach of the nozzle and sacrifice a little property in the name of safety. It’s important to note that many houses have one vaulted side and one side of standard height (usually bedroom area). If fighting a fire in a house with this setup, use the ladder company for the vaulted side while interior crews make an attack where they’re able to throw an attic ladder and make access. (Caution: Vaulted ceilings present critical hazards for truck crews, including large open spaces with structural support limited to the outer load-bearing walls.)

All-Important Salvage
Right after search and rescue, property conservation is critical and can go a long way in the name of customer service. Although attic fires must be extensively overhauled to prevent rekindle often fueled by hot spots in insulation, keeping the lid of the ceiling in tact will allow the ladder crew to salvage the most amounts of property. Further, taking a fire that’s isolated to an attic and pulling it into the living space is essentially making an attic fire into a contents fire and often does undue damage.

The Takeaway
As construction changes, so do the obstacles that face fire crews. We have to adjust our fireground tactics accordingly. It may be necessary to use traditional tools in a nontraditional way and to consider nontraditional tactics. A roof attack is not a fix-all for every attic fire, but it’s definitely an effective alternative when interior access is a problem. Regardless of the plan, they key is to have one. Always prepare through training, and always well in advance of attacking a working fire.

For More
For more information about attic fires, check out Greg Jakubowski’s Fire Attack column, “Fire Up Above: Tactics for attic fires in dwellings,” in the May issue of FireRescue magazine.