Nowhere But Up – A Look at Attic and Exterior Fire Spread

William Schnaekel adds on to what is burning above us.

In January I wrote an article titled “What’s Burning Above You?” The intent of the composition was to ask the fire service if we can improve the way we suppress attic fires and manage salvage and overhaul operations simultaneously.

Shortly after I wrote the article, I had the opportunity to walk through a home that sustained significant damage as a result of an attic fire. The fire started in a zero clearance chimney, traveled up the wall and then spread laterally across the underside of the roof of the split level house. Although the homeowner had several smoke detectors and his kids complained that their rooms were hot, he was unaware of the situation until his neighbor began to bang on his front door. The fire was through the roof when the first engine arrived within minutes of being dispatched.



At this point, you might be asking yourself if the fire had burned through the roof, what remains to be saved? A fire involving the attic is above the ceiling of the top floor and the contents of the home are uninvolved at this point, as I have pointed out in the previous post. The same construction features that may have kept the building occupants from being aware of the situation might provide us with a little aid in our attempt to put out the fire. Simply put, a fire on a lower level will be easier to access, but has the potential to be more damaging and life threatening; while fires on an upper level may be more difficult to access, they are generally less life threatening. It’s not going anywhere but up so we need to be concerned about what’s going on below and focus on the less-glorified salvage operation. Take a few minutes to study the pictures that I had taken of the aftermath and you’ll see that the damage to the contents in each room was caused by the suppression efforts as opposed to the fire or smoke in and of itself. It bears repeating that I am not being critical of the method or efforts of extinguishment.



After speaking with the firefighter on the nozzle, however, it should be noted that the bulk of the fire was not knocked down until he physically entered the attic space and directed the stream from the same level. Prior to this attempt, an effort was made by pulling ceilings and attacking the fire from below. The end result is the pictures that you see that I have included in this article. I am not advocating that we precariously throw ourselves in harm’s way. I am suggesting, on the other hand, that we get the nozzle on the same level as the fire, as the nozzleman did in the scenario described above (either through the ceiling or soffit as UL proposes).

Since I am on the topic of attic fires, it only makes sense to recognize that many of these fires, just like this one, start in or extend up an exterior wall. This brings up the issue of where the first hoseline is placed and relates to whether or not we attack the fire from the burned or unburned side. In order to answer this question, we must first consider the purpose of an interior hoseline. We can all agree that it is positioned to protect both our lives and theirs (civilians), but if the fire hasn’t penetrated into the living space, what exactly are we protecting? Again, I’ll reiterate the importance of taking advantage of the building’s features just as I did when I made mention to the attic fire. If we were to fight a fire in a home with an attached garage, the first line might go through the front door, but what is the last thing you want to do if the living space isn’t involved? If you answered open the interior door, you are absolutely correct! Why is it then that we question where the first line should go if the fire started on the back deck and is working its way up and into the attic?



An excellent example of a fire that started to the rear of the home and began to extend into the structure occurred in Salisbury, MD in June of 2013. On arrival, heavy smoke can be seen coming from the rear of the home. As a crew moves in through the front door in the second picture, it is obvious that the main living area has not become contaminated due to the absence of smoke coming from the open front door. This would indicate that the fire had not penetrated the wall inside or there is a door separating that space from the remainder of the home. The rest of the house is isolated from the fire and it can then be extinguished from the exterior (see photo 3).




Understandably, it is subjective and I am not trying to convince you that your organization needs to rewrite the book, but if there is a better way to conduct our business, well than hey, what the heck… why not? The purpose of this is to keep you informed so that you will be able to make the most applicable decisions.

It might also interest you to know that tests are currently being conducted on the practicality of linear heat detector systems. I am proud to info you that my organization (the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department) along with the Virginia Sprinkler Company, NIST, UL, and a host of others, is taking part in a study that will provide early warning to the residents of a home where a fire has started on the outside of the structure. A linear system is a wire that is placed around the circumference of the house underneath the existing siding and again near the soffits and eaves. Once the wire reaches a certain temperature and begins to burn, it triggers the alarm. The earlier the occupants are aware of a fire, the sooner they can get to safety and faster we can respond.

If you would like to learn more about these systems, you can click on the links that I have provided here.


“Firefighters Conduct Live Fire Training (Linear Heat Detector System to Be Tested)” Fairfax County Government, 16 September 2013
“Fire Officials: Heat-Detection System Could Save Residents’ Lives, Property” Brian Trompeter, 20 September 2013

Salisbury fireground photos courtesy of Billy Adkins/Delmarva Fire Photography, used with permission.

Other photos courtesy of author

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Bill Schnaekel is a truck chauffeur in the bustling area of Tysons Corner in Virginia, running an average of close to 2,000 calls a year. Born and raised in Erie, Pennsylvania, Bill is a fifth generation firefighter who has had eight relatives in the fire service since 1898. Bill served as a volunteer for six years prior to getting hired in 1998 by the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, one hundred years after his great-great grandfather joined. In addition to his full time job, Bill works part time as a firefighter / chauffeur with the West York Fire Department and as a State Suppression Instructor in Pennsylvania. In the past, he has served as a Battalion Training Officer and assisted in training the recruits at the Fire and Rescue Academy as well as veteran firefighters within the safety and survival program. His formal education includes working on a degree in fire science through Tidewater Community College. He is currently on the Lieutenant Eligibility list and eagerly anticipating promotion. In February of 2013, he created the Facebook Page “Holding1and1”, a resource to discuss fireground operations and firefighter interests with his friend, Lt. Mike Dowling.

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