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Fires in Balloon-Frame Construction

Issue 12 and Volume 6.

Fires in balloon-frame construction present the engine company officer with various challenges. In addition to securing a water supply, stretching a line and extinguishing the main body of the fire, the officer must also chase the fire—and hopefully get ahead of it—but due to the abundance of void spaces, this can be rather difficult and sometimes dangerous.

What Is It?
From the late 1800s until about 1940, balloon-frame wood construction was a fast and easy way to construct multi-story homes found primarily in the East and Midwest. The balloon frame uses a continuous wood stud wall member that stretches from the foundation to the attic. These stud walls are usually 16 inches apart and contain no inherent vertical fire stops, except for a possible window or door. This method of construction allowed the builder to determine the ceiling height by simply fastening a ledger board to the studs at the desired height to support the floor joists.

In addition to creating unimpeded void spaces, the walls are often covered with lath and plaster. The wood lath provides abundant fuel, which increases the potential for flame spread in the void spaces. The floor/ceiling joist space is also open and connected to the wall stud space, which contributes to horizontal flame spread as well.

Initial Ops
As the first-in engine company, going to work at a fire in a balloon-frame-constructed structure is really not much different from most other dwelling fires—at least in the beginning. As with most fires, identifying the type of construction during initial size-up and communicating this fact via the radio report will help later-arriving engine and ladder companies determine their tactics.

As usual, the first engine will secure a water supply, position the apparatus so that the truck company can access the front of the structure, then advance the first line between the occupants and the fire, and toward the seat of the fire for extinguishment. A word of caution: Because fire in balloon-frame construction can present itself in multiple locations (multiple floors/attic), firefighters must determine the location of the fire by checking the lowest level first. Never advance to the upper levels/floors without confirming that the fire is not below you.

But all of this is just the beginning of the operation. Once the fire is knocked down at its origin, the real work begins.

Finding & Attacking Hidden Fire
When fighting a fire in balloon-frame construction, the company officer must always be a pessimist and assume that the fire has spread to the void spaces. The first-in engine and truck must begin opening up the walls and ceiling in the area of origin as soon as the main body of the fire has been knocked down and the primary search is complete, so that they may conduct an aggressive search for hidden fire.  

Once the second engine stretching the back-up line determines that the initial attack line has contained the fire, the second line should be deployed directly above the fire. The second engine company must have tools or a truck company with them to open the spaces directly over the fire; they may also need to open the floor.

A third hoseline should be deployed to the attic space or, if the crew cannot enter the attic, the attic area should be opened up from below. Another crew should also check the basement to make sure embers haven’t dropped down to the basement and involved the first-floor joists.

All void spaces should be opened enough so that crews can rapidly operate a hoseline within each space if the fire has extended. If your engine is so equipped, consider using Class A foam in this type of scenario, as well as a thermal-imaging camera. Both tools have proven extremely effective in balloon-frame construction fires. The thermal-imaging camera will quickly identify areas of extension and potential areas of concern, allowing faster deployment of water/foam. If any doubt exists regarding extension, open up the area and investigate.

Putting Resources to the Test
As you can probably tell, a balloon-frame fire is very resource-intensive for both the engine companies and the truck companies. (The truckies will earn their money on these fires!) Most of the walls and ceilings will need to be opened. This is usually best accomplished from the interior; however, these spaces may also be opened from the exterior of the building. Vertically ventilating balloon-constructed structures is highly recommended. Because of the level of physical labor that goes into opening up a balloon-frame structure, personnel battling these fires will quickly become fatigued. Consider calling for additional companies early in the incident to provide relief to first-in crews.

As mentioned, knocking down the initial body of the fire in a balloon-constructed building is just the beginning. Responding engines will need to stretch multiple lines to every floor of the building, including the attic, to cut off the fire.  Truck companies will be faced with opening up every possible area of fire spread—both vertically and horizontally. This is why rapid identification of balloon-frame construction is essential to success.

A Final Word
Remember: Fires in balloon-frame construction are labor intensive and require a lot of personnel. If you have several structures in your jurisdiction that feature balloon-frame construction, preplan your response by carefully evaluating your potential needs at a two- or three-story balloon-frame residence and determine if you have enough personnel to respond. If your response system isn’t capable of initially deploying two or three hoselines and conducting an extensive search of the void spaces, consider increasing your alarm assignments. Balloon-frame construction fires can be extremely challenging and if you’re not ready, they can be extremely dangerous. Prepare ahead of time for the challenges you may face.

Take a Knee
Fires in balloon-frame structures can also carry another hazard: knee walls. Mike Kirby and Tom Lakamp explain the dangers of knee walls and offer advice on hoseline placement and fire attack when attempting to locate and knock down the fire. www.firefighternation.com/article/engine-co-operations/fighting-fires-structures-knee-walls