Fighting Fire in Attached Garages

Issue 5 and Volume 7.

U.S. Fire Administration statistics show that between 2007 and 2009, about 5% of all fires in one- and two-family residences originated in the garage. Although these statistics may only show that one out of 20 residential fires originated in the garage, the contents of garages may very well result in fires that cause greater damage, and present greater challenges to the fire department than other types of residential fires. At the same time, fires that originate in garages may take longer to be detected by occupants of the home, and thus grow larger than a fire that originates in other areas of the home.

I don’t know about you, but in my response area, there have been a number of significant fires involving attached garages in the past couple of years. In the last two to three years, either myself or my department has responded to about a half-dozen serious house fires that originated in the attached garage area. One of these fires was extinguished with a residential sprinkler system, with only a few thousand dollars worth of damage, while the others all resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage, up to and including almost complete destruction of the home.

Garage Design Considerations
Residential garages exist in many different configurations, including front-entry, side-entry and rear-entry. Some are on the ground floor of the home, while others are “tucked under” the living space of a home. And still others can be found on the top floor of a home that’s built on a hill, with the home’s living space located under the garage and facing open space in the rear.

Additionally, residential garages can house anywhere from one car to four or more cars. Many residents keep their nicer cars inside their garage, so depending on the neighborhood, the value and exoticness of the car(s) in the garage could be quite high—which might present greater-than-normal firefighting challenges. We recently responded to an attached three-car garage that was well-involved on arrival; it housed a Cadillac, a Corvette and an Acura SUV, all of which were destroyed.

Interior Hazards
Of course, all sorts of things could be stored inside a garage, and they may or may not be on fire when you arrive. Take a look around your garage at home, or around the apparatus bay in your firehouse and remember: Whatever you see there could very likely be inside the garage you’re responding to.

One of our local residents does a lot of welding as a hobby in his garage—with the associated oxyacetylene welding units stored inside. We picked up on this after responding to the home on a false fire alarm, and made sure to note it in our county CAD system.

We responded to another heavily-involved attached garage fire about six years ago that had a propane-fired kiln taking up most of a bay in the garage. The kiln was fed by a 100-gallon propane tank in the backyard, and was completely unexpected by the initial attack team. Needless to say, the fire was rather intense. The point: Flammable and combustible liquids, flammable gases, oxidizers, aerosols and other materials may all be burning on arrival, or immediately exposed to the fire, which presents serious risks to firefighters who might venture into the garage.

Separation of Garage & House
Many people think that the separation wall between the garage and the house is fire-rated at three-quarters of an hour or one hour. However, depending on where your house is located, the year that the house was built, and the code that it was built under, that may or may not be true.

Current codes may only require that the separation wall be constructed of half-inch gypsum. If a habitable room is present over the garage, residents must install a 5/8-inch “type x” gypsum board barrier between the garage and that room. Note that some very new homes or homes that feature a 20-minute door, or a door that’s listed to withstand fire exposure for 20 minutes or more (the closer is not required by code, but is required to get the listing), may have a self-closing device on the door leading from the house into the garage, but most probably don’t.

So the real answer is maybe there’s a fire-rated separation, and maybe there isn’t. But most likely, there will be some type of separation that could buy you a little time to prevent fire spread into the house—that is if it isn’t compromised by an unsealed opening of some sort.

Keeping fire contained to the garage is a key to minimizing damage, but a lot needs to happen to prevent the fire from spreading both vertically and horizontally.

Attack Methods
There are several different schools of thought on how to attack a fire in an attached garage. One school of thought is to get inside the dwelling and use handlines to push the fire back out of the garage. Certainly, it’s important to check and support the fire separation wall between the garage and the home to ensure that it’s keeping the fire from extending to the home.

Often, fire may break through the roof of the attached garage and enter the main house through a window or attic vent located on the wall of the house facing the roof of the garage. Fire may also try to work its way through the fire separation to room(s) over the garage, or auto-expose out the garage windows or doors to the floor above. In these situations, stretch lines to the second floor and attic to prevent extension there.

Crews must also come prepared with hooks and other tools to open ceilings and walls quickly to check for extension. If you’re inside the home trying to push the fire back out, keep these tips in mind:

  • Try to open one or more of the garage doors. This will allow heat and smoke to vent from that opening, rather than blowing into the home. Assign personnel or a company to do this, but be sure that they have a protective hoseline and are wearing full protective clothing and SCBA. Things will worsen very quickly as soon as they open the door, if and when they’re able to open it. If it’s absolutely necessary to open the garage door(s), use a saw to create an opening if needed.
  • Control the door between the garage and the house. Once you open it, any protection that the door may have afforded you (and the rest of the house) will be gone. During the incident with the propane-fired kiln in the garage, high heat and fire conditions immediately entered the home, which caused the nozzleman to sustain first- and second-degree burns through his SCBA/PPE. Fortunately, the crew had control of the door and was able to get it closed again. Personnel conducting a search on the second floor of the dwelling reported that conditions upstairs went from almost clear conditions, to close to zero visibility in seconds after the door was opened.

One alternative strategy for attacking fires in attached garages is to go into service through the garage door with a handline or master-stream device. Note: This isn’t a job for the booster line; it may work best with a 2½” or 3″ blitz line or a lightweight portable monitor, which many departments have preconnected just for this purpose.

We carry a preconnected 3″ compressed-air foam line with a Vindicator Blitz Attack nozzle that’s capable of discharging 325 gpm at 50 psi for incidents like these. The concept is to quickly knock down the bulk of the fire in the garage to help minimize the opportunity for fire extension and to ensure the safety of those going inside the home to check for extension.

Some experienced firefighters may have concerns with this approach, as they feel it can “push” the fire into the home. Testing done by Underwriters Laboratories in 2010 indicates that the concern of “pushing” fire with a direct fire attack is not significant in both laboratory tests and in an acquired townhouse environment. Put good suppression agent on the fire, and good things will happen.

If either of the above strategies doesn’t fit your needs, one compromise strategy could be to use a window or door on the side wall of the garage as a point of fire attack to “cut off” the fire. Use a large handline or portable monitor as discussed in the “through the garage door” method, but apply it laterally through the side of the garage to both knock down the fire and attempt to prevent horizontal spread.

Notes on Handlines & Ventilation
No matter which attack method you use, heavy fire conditions dictate the use of a large water line. Although 1½” and 1¾” handlines may be successful some of the time, my preference on these jobs is something a bit larger that can penetrate through the fire plume to the base of the fire and achieve rapid knockdown. That will buy some time for interior crews to get in position and get to work.

At the same time, ensure you’re managing hoselines effectively. Don’t have crews on the interior trying to fight their way into the garage while a large-caliber stream is being applied overhead into the garage doors.

Another objective that’s probably needed quickly is vertical ventilation of the roof of the house, which should be performed as close to the firewall of the garage as possible. Opening that roof and getting the ceiling hooked underneath and supported by an attack hoseline to kill any fire found will be key to keeping the incident where you found it on arrival.

Expect the Worst
As mentioned, fires in garages can present a number of hazards. As such, firefighters entering a garage must fully expect to be met with a flammable-liquids fire, a sudden release of a flammable gas cylinder and/or rocketing aerosol cans or gas struts/drive shafts from the vehicles involved. This may even occur during overhaul as indicated in the National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System’s Report #05-205. (To read the complete report, visit www.firefighternearmiss.com.) Remember: There’s nothing wrong with knocking down the fire in the garage and allowing the contents to cool a bit before rushing into overhaul.

There have also been a number of cases involving garage doors that have either failed or shut automatically, cutting off a primary escape route for firefighters inside the garage. Notable incidents include a fire in San Francisco in 1995, and another in New Jersey as shown in an early “The Beat Goes On” video from www.firefighterclosecalls.com.

Garage doors closing or failing in a fire have also been noted in a number of National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System reports, including 08-428, 11-039 and 10-524.

To avoid this situation, firefighters (or your safety team or rapid intervention team) should secure the garage doors using a pike pole or a wedge, or by wedging a tool into an opening in the garage door track. You could also use Bigwig Rescue Products’ search tool/marker. (For more information on this useful tool, check out “Product Picks,” July 2010, p. 56.)

Sometimes, garage fires extend to vehicles and other exposures outside the garage. Focus on knocking down the fire in the garage first to prevent the fire from spreading to the remainder of the house. Then get to the exposures as soon as staffing and resources are available.

Final Words of Advice
In many cases, due to the fire loading inside, there’s the strong likelihood that the attached garage will be well involved in fire on arrival. Your primary job will be to contain that fire to the garage and prevent extension. Use large-caliber streams to knock down the bulk of the fire, and get smaller handlines into the exposure dwelling as quickly as possible, opening up walls and ceilings to cut off horizontal fire spread. When possible, open up the roof of the attached dwelling in a location that’s close to the attached garage to allow any contained fire to vent.

Fires in attached garages require the immediate presence of lots of firefighters and lots of water, so get extra resources moving early on in the incident. Finally, proceed cautiously in the garage, allow containers of flammable liquids and gases to cool and use SCBA even in the overhaul phase.

FEMA (n.d.) One- and Two-Family Residential Building Fires (2007-2009). In United States Fire Administration Topical Report Series. Retrieved from www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/statistics/v12i2.pdf.