Three sides to the 1-story

Three sides to the 1-story

Byline: Chief Donald L. Loeb (Ret.) Dunkirk (N.Y.) Fire Department

Our study of fire in the 1-story frame dwelling continues with the detached-garage version. Remember that the older version was narrow and ran deep into the lot. The newer type came into being with local government mandates requiring wider lots to cut down on structure congestion. This of course was an asset to the fire service because it reduced exposure fires. It’s easier to concentrate on the single structure than on fire in two or more structures. [Ed.: See “Early exposure fires,” March, April, May 1995.]

As in other sizes of frame dwellings, there are three main areas in which fire can occur in a 1-story structure: living space, storage space and concealed space. Fires can originate in any of these spaces, but by far the most common area of origin is the living space.

In 1-story dwellings we can count on less overall area and fuel to burn. However, people who live in smaller, older 1-story frame dwellings tend to accumulate as many possessions and furnishings as those who live in larger houses. This means there’s usually a lot of fuel for the space, which translates into hot and smoky fires.

To relieve this condition ventilation plays a big role, even in a small house. If the fire is truly in the living space, open up the floor to get the heat, gas and smoke out. Hold the roof ventilation until you get a good look at the progress you can make on the fire on the ground level.

Next come fires in storage spaces, including the cellar or crawl space. The closets should fall into this category, but so many of these either have no doors or the doors are left open, therefore I consider most of them included in the living space.

Concealed spaces are the last of our considerations. In the 1-story frame dwelling there are fewer of these because you only have 8-foot high walls as opposed to 16 feet in the 2- and 2H-story frame dwelling. Also, you don’t have the concealed space between the ceiling and a second floor as the ceiling is there, but the attic isn’t floored over. It’s open in the blind attic.

Fire frequency

Because we know the three areas where fires can start, we can look at the frequency of these events in each area. The vast majority of fires that occur in small older homes begin in the living spaces; storage spaces and concealed spaces have fewer incidences. Most fires that begin in living areas are the result of electrical short circuits.

Fires that begin in any of the three areas are less damaging if they stay in that area. Easiest to act upon are those in the living space, because they’re more visible. When fire’s in the concealed spaces, it can be difficult to locate and cut off. Often firefighters chop, pry and pull at the walls and ceilings and hope they can get out ahead of it.

The blind attic is in a class by itself because if there’s any opening to it, it will be a small sliding panel in the ceiling that’s hard to find in smokey conditions. These ceiling panels were purposely put in places such as bedrooms that are less apt to be seen by visitors. I’ve never found one in a kitchen or a living room, but that doesn’t mean that such a situation doesn’t exist. If you can’t locate the hatch in an older 1-story frame dwelling, don’t waste a lot of time with it because it’s quite possible there isn’t one. Many of these places went up with no such provision. Also, once found they are of little help if you have to use one to get up into the blind attic. The opening usually is so small that it’s possible to get only the slimmest of masked firefighters through it. These access holes give you a quick look with a good light. If no smoke shows, you are generally in the clear. If fire shows you can get a shot at it with a line, but coverage of the stream will be limited.

It’s important not to cut the roof if the fire is in the living space only. This is because these older homes had good lath-and-plaster walls and ceilings, and it takes a lot of heat and fire to get through them. However, it matters little where the fire is; once it’s in the blind attic it has to be checked out because the heat and gasses, by virtue of being lighter than air, tend to seek the highest level.

Remember the old fire service rule that if you have to get into a blind attic space to do any work, you make that approach from one of three directions: from below by pulling the ceiling, from the horizontal by cutting through the peak or from above by cutting a hole in the roof. Once you get in from any direction, it will be hot and confined because it’s the smallest attic space in any class of dwelling. It all boils down to this: Fire in the living space and you go straight in; fire in the concealed space and you chop it out; fire in the the blind attic and you ladder, chop, pull or saw your way in.

Although we have looked at these fires in singular areas, we must not lose sight of the fact that fire does not respect borders. It will, without regard for us, leave one space and burn into another. That means that sometimes we arrive at the scene and find fire is in more than one of the traditional three areas. What do you do then? First control fire in the living space, which will give you possession of the most important space in the dwelling. A lot of value in any house is in its furnishings – keep fire from consuming these and you cut fire loss greatly.

Basement basics

If you roll up and see a good fire going in the basement and you can get quick a shot at it, give it the first line instead of the main living area. Keep in mind that a quick shot at a cellar fire isn’t always in sight. You have to seek it in several ways. Because the combustion and byproducts rise naturally, the entire structure above the basement is exposed to fire extension.

When combating residential cellar fires you need to decide quickly on two factors and do two things fast. Select a spot to play your stream and select the best release of the heat, smoke and gas produced by the combustion. I like the release that expels the greatest amount of the corruption: the cellar stairway and an adjacent door leading to the outside. Traditionally these stairways are located close to the side or rear door. I vent the cellar this way and fight the fire from the windows. Once the conditions improve, the line can go down the stairs or be handed through a cellar window. If the basement door is in the kitchen, reverse your procedure. Get the basement windows out and drive the line down the stairs. A backup line should be left in the kitchen to control fire and work around the stream at work on that lower level.

This ventilation is important because prior to water application the combustion tries to work upward and outward. As quickly as it can find any release, the fire will take it. With a release as large as a stairway and outside door, you can expect good results. The biggest problem would occur if you left the kitchen door open because the fire will extend to that floor via the door. Remember that there are a lot of ways cellar fire can spread upward through holes for wiring, pipes, drains and chimneys, especially if there’s a metal vent pipe. The biggest drawback is a hot-air furnace that has a metal duct with an outlet in each room of the house.

The rule in any basement fire is being able to have the building so well-ventilated that it’s easy to see any location that shows fire spread. Watch the blind attic because it’s possible for that fire to bypass the ground level and extend vertically. Now get the roof open over the spot of the upward movement if you can find it.

The chimney or heat-vent pipe belongs in the concealed spaces category, but it’s so unusual that it almost deserves its own status. A size-up will reveal if one is present. Look for wood piles, which aren’t easily seen at night. It’s not the run-of-the-mill chimney fire that throws you, but the type that spreads out of the flue and involves structure and/or contents. Solid-fuel heating appliances contribute a lot to fire frequency as well as improper clearances, combustibles in close proximity and hot ash disposal.

In general, how much fire department involvement should it take to put down a fire in an older 1-story frame dwelling? As in all categories of dwelling fire, it depends on wind and the involvement on arrival. The dwelling’s area is not generally a major factor. A normal fire in the living space will react favorably to a single 1 [superscript]i -inch line. By all means, back that line up with another. If involvement is heavy, ready a third line for the attic, just in case. If the involvement is full or leaning in that direction, using a 2H-inch first line is not unkind. Control should be rapid with that and it can be broken down shortly after visible flame has ceased.

This routine doesn’t include any exposure protection. That instance varies community by community depending on neighborhood density. If an exposure is the case, it must have early consideration. Remember the old fire service factor three-point guide: locate, confine and extinguish. Despite the size of these structures, fire in them requires a routine not just to be guessed at, but pre-considered. Decisions have to be made and adjustments at least thought of as conditions vary. These actually are simple fires as the size of them suggests, but they can give you a few rough moments early on.

Newer dwellings

Let’s now look at the newer 1-story frame dwelling built after World War II. These will have greater dimension side-to-side than front-to-back. There’s both good and bad things about them. First the good news: When you arrive at a fire in one of these, the breadth of the structure is right in front of you and you can see easily from one end to the other for signs that may tell you where the fire is, has been and where it’s going. It’s not as easy in the older ones, as they have narrow fronts so you have to go into the yard to see. The newer broad fronts allow for the easiest size-up day or night.

The bad news depends on how old or from what era of construction the dwelling is. The oldest units feature heavy construction with lath and plaster, solid wood doors and lack of things like room upon room of combustible wood paneling. Modern furnishings won’t slow flame spread or toxic gas release. This all boils down to opening it up good and hitting it hard, getting inside quickly. Not only should you hold your ground, but you should strive to make progress.

Why? You have the 1 [superscript]i -line, a stout weapon in its class of challenge. Your people are well-clad in the contemporary protective envelope with their own air supply. When has it ever been better? Heavy heat, yes. But they are dressed for it and if you have opened up as well as suggested, the heat level should be coming down by virtue of gas release and the cooling effect of the stream.

Progressive results won’t be as easy if you don’t open up. Don’t just send those firefighters into a hot, near-flashover interior without benefit of good ventilation. With today’s modern furnishings you are asking too much. The protective envelope is good, but don’t push it and use it as an excuse not to ventilate.

As always, keep in mind that firefighting is not all water application. Fire combat is not a one-phase process as fire extinguishing might be. Firefighting is a combination of activity conducted in concert to achieve an expedient termination of hostile combustion. So fires in the 1-story frame dwelling – old or new, broad- or narrow-front, traditional or contemporary construction – will require application of the fire combat bag.


We’ve already looked at vertical and horizontal ventilation, but salvage and overhaul, laddering, forcible entry and lighting also must be done.

Laddering is simple because the height of these dwellings is limited. The 16-foot wall ladder is well-suited because it will work just as well to get you to the eave line. Keep the gloves off of those roof ladders in place of wall ladders for most houses with peaked roofs. Many are angled so you can walk on them with little difficulty. If the roof is weak and spongy, you’ll want that roof ladder for safety’s sake. The hooks over the roof and the ladder running all the way across the eave gives you support at both ends in the event roof support gets too weak. With the support of the ends, the weight of the firefighter is spread over a wide area and the integrity of the roof ladder will hold.

Another ladder application that’s normal in the modern 1-story frame dwelling is that the bedroom windows commonly found so often at the rear are not full-sized windows. Often they’re three-fourths the size or less. The dimension puts them higher off the ground than normal, plus the lot may slope so the window is higher. To ensure your desire to use one or more of these bedroom windows for access, egress or observation, place the folding ladder. It will be only about 8-feet high, so likely it will perfectly suit the purpose.

Now take all of the data on the routine of fighting fire in the 1-story frame dwelling and put it on hold. This is because you may have to do this in the field. There are instances when you might arrive at one of these fires and find that one or more people may be trapped inside. A huge adjustment to the procedure outlined is now compulsory.

Nothing is more important to you now than attending to those in danger. Here the scenarios are numerous. It’s up to the officer in charge to make the adjustments required to switch the goal from fire termination to life saving based on the existing situation and on-hand resources.

Further, always have your people looking for occupants in danger. Unreported occupants discovered in the process of firefighting are not uncommon. In fact, I once overlooked one, passing her twice in my intense quest to determine if the fire we had was extending. In this case she was OK where she was, but I shouldn’t have been so single-minded. It’s important to look and search, primary and secondary in every case.

Prior to his retirement, Donald L. Loeb served the Dunkirk (N.Y.) Fire Department as a volunteer firefighter, assistant chief and chief. His experience spans six decades of military and civilian firefighting, teaching, and writing.

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