Thoughts on a Balloon Frame

Our next IRONSandLADDERS author is a Lt. on a truck company in downtown. He has served our city for 28 years and set a great example of being a tradesman to all. Here is some of his thoughts relating to the following video and other thinking points that arise with balloon frame fires.

 Note on the Video: when you click play the video will not show on our site. Click the “Watch on You Tube” link that comes up after clicking the video. If you are not getting the right video click this link


  It’s often said that when fighting a fire in a balloon frame structure, the fire department can do everything wrong and still make a successful hit or we can do everything right and still burn it down. There are many reasons for this: undetected fire in hidden voids and confined spaces (to include the attic), misuse of PPV, and not recognizing the importance of vertical ventilation in these structures to name a few.  The questions that came to mind when I first watched this video:  

– What were the fire and smoke conditions on initial arrival?

– Because of the amount of fire that is showing from behind the chimney when it fell; did the fire start in the chimney chase on the first floor and travel to the attic? If it traveled to the attic could it also have dropped down to the basement?

– Was it the action of a firefighter pulling ceiling on the second floor that caused the backdraft or smoke explosion?

Below is my short list of “Watch-Out Situations” when dealing with balloon frame structures. Some may pertain directly to this video while others may not.  

PPV – Due to the air movement in the hidden voids and confined spaces, to include the attic and basement, consider not using PPV until it’s confirmed that the fire is confined to a room and/ or its contents. Another situation would be the fire that’s confined to the hidden voids and confined spaces; these must be identified and isolated if you are going to stay ahead of the game. 

RECON – The initial arriving truck company needs to RECON the fire floor, the basement and the attic. These structures can be large and are often converted into apartment buildings. The crew that’s deploying the initial attackline may need aide in finding the stairwell that leads to the fire room.

VERTICLE VENTILATION – An attic that has trapped hot smoke and fire gases must be relieved by venting high and on the leeward side when possible. To do otherwise may result in a similar event like the one that played out on this video. I place a high consideration on having the Ladders crew place the aerial to the roof on arrival while the Irons side performs RECON. I would not have considered using PPV.

CHIMNEYS – ALWAYS a concern in a structure where two or more stories of chimney brick were laid 100 years ago and have been subjected to fire conditions. Never mind that the darn thing could fall with a gust of wind due to termites, old and weak mortar and an under-engineered foundation. Keep your eyes up when around these things; safety officers should make this a priority concern.

 The first sentence left out another viable scenario, which is to do everything right and put the fire out. This will make those post fire evening cigars or early morning pancakes all the more tasty……               Lt. Les Chapel 

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10 Comments on “Thoughts on a Balloon Frame”

  1. Truck4 Says:

    Thanks for the great info Lt. Do you think that a good initial sizeup to include thermal imagers would have helped to locate this fire and potential dangers with that chimney earlier? Then with that info., where would you consider your placement for topside vent? Obviously close to the source of the fire, but are there any other tactical decisions that we should keep in mind that may change that decision.

    • L. Chap Says:

      Sure a TIC may have helped I guess. For all we know the crews here had the fire isolated to the walls, and was working on extinguishment when the attic let go. This to me reinforces the idea to just keep going with your entire fireground attack plan and don’t stop or get complacent just because you have the fire located and are attempting to extinguish.

      What we don’t know by watching only one side of the operation, for just a few seconds, is whether they had a crew available for ventilation and if they did, what was done. I would think that once the attic is found to be heavily charged, and sure a TIC would help you determine that, that top side ventilation is needed. Depending on the charge in the attic it may still need vertical ventilation even though crews are reporting they have the fire located and are making a hit.

      This is off subject but I’d like to cover it as well; using this scenario. You’re outside and calling the shots and Lt. inside states: they have fire in the walls, behind the fireplace and we’re hitting the fire. Does this mean they only have one stud channel opened up, found fire and will hit that channel prior to opening the next channel? Or, they believe they have all affected channels all opened up now, and are making a hit? Did they mean to say; we are attempting to make a hit? Fine line I know, but in a scenario like this it could make a big difference in what is continuing to feed the attic. Maybe this wasn’t off the subject after all; considering that fireground misunderstandings may lead to wrong tactical decisions.

      • RR-E8T Says:

        So what your getting at is because of the potentional for hidden fire in multiple channels and the high probability that we may have multiple areas of extension feeding into the attic, just reinforces the need to go topside on this? My assumption Lt, and correct me if Im wrong, Is not only are we venting to relieve the attic space and interior conditions but to also assist in the confinment of the wall extension? Thanks for the input….nice article.

      • Truck4 Says:

        Thanks Lieu! With that being said, there is a great example still standing of a two story still standing that is ballon frame and had similar circumstances that you just mentioned. Talking to those that were at that scene stated that they had an excellent idea in the location of that fire that had extended into the walls from the basement. Unfortunately the majority of this house was virtually untouched by smoke and fire. I believe actually that a picture on this site is one from that fire. (two truckies on the roof at a window performing VES). Looking at the structure makes me wonder what could have nbeen done better. But, thanks again for the great advise!

  2. RR-E8T Says:

    A couple of things to watch for if you see the video a few times. You can see one firefighter right near the base of the chimney when the explosion happens. He seems to narrowly escape the tumbling bricks. You can also see a guy get knocked down the front stairs of the house from the impact. A short time later a couple firefighters that were interior come out the front door. (Be interesting to know if in fact they were pulling ceiling). You can also see the fan at the front door, however difficult to tell if it was in use or not.

    • L. Chap Says:

      RR-E8T Says: “not only are we venting to relieve the attic space and interior conditions but to also assist in the confinement of the wall extension?”

      That’s right Ryan. As you know; in a balloon frame if it doesn’t get channeled up and out it can spread laterally as well. Through the floor and ceiling joist spaces, pipe chases etc. Although this fire would have been a candidate for a roof vent, another viable consideration is to cut the siding and let it blow out there; thus protecting the attic while the walls are being pulled to get to the fire.

      At least with the chimney on the ground: extinguishment, extension control and overhaul would probably be a much easier job.

  3. JG Says:

    I agree, Great article, and great input!

    I think the Lt alludes to an extremely important but often overlooked task. The task of the interior crew communicating the conditions, actions, outcomes, and needs to the IC. The more information (complete and accurate) the better decisions an IC can make.

    A good, active safety officer will be worth their weight in gold on this fire ground. By conducting a continuous 360 the safety officer may be able to identify any fire in the verticle void spaces that may be coming through the siding. Most of these structures may be lath and plaster on the interior causing labor intensive wall and ceiling breaching.

    Will the TIC be able to pick up heat signatures through the lath and plaster? Is that heat that the TIC is showing accumulated heat of the plaster, or the heat from the fire in the void space? The TIC may be better used on the exterior.

    I am a firm believer that any fire in the attic space should br vertically vented PRIOR to pulling ceiling. This will reduce the possiblity of a smoke explosion.

    Great article Lt. Thanks for sharing the knowledge!

  4. PJ Says:

    Please humor me while I add a few items. When this was floating around on email I added a couple pointers about being on the Rescue or being assigned as the RIT, RIC, FAST (sorry had to do it;). Okay so the video scenario has happened and you need to be prepared for a RIT deployment in these conditions.

    Several things to consider:

    This is NOT your typical search. Any members missing on the top floor are likely to be found UNDER debris. The ceiling will often fail before a roof in these types of explosions due to construction. Lathe and plaster, wires, ductwork, ceiling fixtures, and decorative moldings will be obstacles along with the normal household furnishings. Void spaces are key to a successful search.

    Dust and debris will obscure what we are looking for and thermal imagers may be the only efficient way to locate an unconscious member. All of our PPE and equipment will NOT appear as we are used to seeing them.

    If it has collapsed once, it can collapse again. This does not mean we shouldn’t go in for missing members but rather that we must go in with a measured approach. Most buildings are designed to accept the load of the floor above but private dwellings are often remodeled with no one aware of any structural changes. So ceiling debris falling onto a floor SHOULD be within the buildings limits. However with water loading and remodeling we can not be absolutely sure. So with that in mind, if a member becomes trapped in a collapse consider having KNOWLEDGEABLE members’ recon the floor(s) below to ascertain the ability of the building to withstand the operations above.

    Hope this was helpful to someone.

  5. Razalas911 Says:

    One thing to think about is not being too proud and calling for extra companies. With some of the large Vics in 2’s areas there is a tone of work for just one truck. As Lt. Les stated, many of these large structures around Colorado College are broken up into apartments, an extra truck (not our FAST truck {that’s for you PJ})would be beneficial and prevent us from getting thrown behind the 8 ball. Not to mention how labor intensive lath & plaster work is.

    My 2 cents.

    F. Salazar

  6. bv Says:

    That is great imformation and input. Thanks to everyone. BV

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