Basement Fires 2

By Brian Butler

We will continue with part 2 of basement fires by expanding into commercial taxpayers, garden apartments, brownstones, and cellars.

Basements and cellars in taxpayers and garden apartments will differ from those in a private dwelling. The problem with a fire in the cellar of a taxpayer is the difficulty locating access from the interior, especially when there's poor visibility. Access may be through a hinged trap door in the rear of the structure or an adjoining occupancy. The best way to locate access points is to preplan the taxpayers in your district. Many old style taxpayers were constructed with common basements and have been renovated, partitioned off and used for stock/storage. They could resemble a maze with the only second means of egress being a fortified cellar door. Most newer taxpayers of limited/lightweight construction are built on a slab and do not have basements or cellars. Fire preplans are necessary to identify cellar and sub-cellar access.


Garden Apartments

For cellars in garden apartments, the major fire concerns will be vertical fire spread, limited ventilation and visibility. In addition, depending on location and extent of fire, long hose stretches through court yards, parking lot configurations and hydrant locations may pose some additional challenges. Typically in garden apartments, the basement will house utilities, laundry facilities, and storage areas for each apartment. There may be crawl spaces depending on the unit. 

I witnessed a garden apartment fire as a kid in 1980 when I first moved to New Jersey from New York. Luckily, it was the building just across the courtyard. The entire building went up in flames and through the roof destroying all 12 units. Back then, the police rounded up all the kids who were in the playground and gave us all lie detector tests. Yes, we all passed. It was later determined that an older teenager with a juvenile criminal record initially started a small fire in a cellar storage unit in the same building he lived in. The fire department responded and put the small fire out. But they forgot to open up the walls behind the storage unit and a few hours later at 3am, they returned to heavy fire conditions. All 12 apartments were destroyed, including the apartment where the arsonist lived with his family.

It's critical to open up and check for extension during a fire in the subdivision of a garden apartment. There are numerous families above and that living space must be protected from hidden fire. There are numerous voids where fire can travel in laundry and storage areas (pics above). The apartments above must also be checked. It's not 1980 anymore, most fire apparatus have TIC's and hooks. Use them to prevent coming back for the big one and avoiding embarrassment. 

Some garden apartments will have a half story subdivision apartment. This is a living space that is located a few steps down and may be counted as a story, or the first floor. If it's more than a half story below, it may be referred to as a basement apartment. Whichever it is determined to be, it is technically a below grade fire and should be fought with that in mind. You will still be descending down to the apartment door from above to fight the fire. With these apartments, the exterior window is helpful for checking fire conditions of the apartment, ventilation, and transitional attacks.


Basement fires in taxpayers are extremely dangerous. In addition to descending below grade from above, the possibility of weakened stairs, hoseline burn through, all the other hazards firefighters fear are present during the basement or cellar taxpayer fire.

 The major concerns are fire spread, backdraft, collapse, limited secondary means of egress, poor visibility, and limited ventilation. In older taxpayers, entrapment from entanglement or being disorientated in a renovated maze with storage racks, stock, and no windows are major concerns for the attack team. It's also important to check floor stability when above a burning basement, especially in a taxpayer because of the heavy weight added to the floor. Remember when stretching hoselines to not have so much excess hose. Keep it taut and stay in contact with the line in case things go bad and you have to follow the line out. 

Urban taxpayers are usually ordinary construction, renovated, and contain numerous hidden void spaces. Often compartmentalized on the upper floors, the 1 3/4 or 2" handline with solid tip is ideal for these jobs. As always, we charge the line before descending into a burning subdivision. The backup line must also be charged and at the ready before initial fire attack advances. 

Ventilation options will have to be determined when arriving to a fire in a taxpayer. There may be a fire in a sub-cellar with no options to vent. Look for sidewalk doors that access the basement as a ventilation or attack option. When using interior stairs leading to the basement for fire attack, the sidewalk or bilco doors are ideal for ventilation. The taxpayer basement fire will most likely NOT have windows, so look for exterior access doors for ventilation during the walk-around. If there are windows present in an urban taxpayer, they are likely to have security bars. Assign a truck company or proactive RIT team to cut them immediately so they can be used for ventilation or firefighter egress.

Exterior Fire Spread: Watch for fires venting from basement windows and running up the side of the house. These need to be knocked down quickly and opened up to prevent vertical fire spread.  

Defensive: When the basement is too dangerous to enter due to heavy fire or floor collapse, flooding the basement and first floor are an option. For departments who have foam, use it to fill the basement.

Slopes & Hillsides: Some buildings may appear to be 3 stories from the front, when in reality it may be 5 stories from the rear. While a 360 is not always possible in urban settings, company officers still must ensure that they are not entering ABOVE a fire 1-2 floors below them without knowing it. The rear may also be the best access to the fire area. The fire attack team may believe they are entering the front door to the first floor, when in reality they may be on the 2nd or 3rd floor. These structures are present in "hill" and "sloped" regions like Pittsburgh and San Francisco, where both cities lost firefighters in these types of structures.

 The picture (above left) resulted in 2 firefighters being killed during a basement fire where confusion played a role.  LODD report- click here... 

In Pittsburgh, 3 firefighters were killed during a basement fire in a structure that appeared to be a 2 story SFD from the front, but in reality was 3 story with a basement when viewed from the rear. See pictures and LODD click here..

Brownstones: Like some garden apartments, brownstones (pictured above center) will have an apartment slightly below grade and possibly a sub-basement. For fires in these areas, it's important for truck companies to coordinate ventilation with the fire attack team using the window available to them. For additional ventilation, use the skylight at the top of the open interior stairway if present. 

Subdivision apartment fires require adjacent apartments and above to be searched along with the rear of the building. If smoke is showing from the 2nd and 3rd floor of a brownstone, the first engine officer in on fire attack must ensure the fire is not present in an apartment below. Advancing the line above a fire with poor visibility can have deadly consequences. Take the extra minute to recon the floor below. Intense heat is an indicator of fire below!

The Beacon St fire in Boston that claimed the lives of 2 firefighters originated in a brownstone subdivision and was intensified by wind coming off the back bay at gusts of 45 MPH See LODD report, click here...

Explosions: Most urban basements have gas pipes present and are used for storage and living space. Consider the contents in the cellar of a commercial building used to sell auto parts or a residential property where the occupants store propane and gasoline containers in the basement. 

I remember responding to a call for an odor of gasoline outside of a residential property. Upon investigating a strong odor of gasoline coming from a row home, we entered the basement and discovered 4 mattresses, makeshift bedrooms with partitions, landscaping equipment, gas cans, and a motorcycle. This basement had one small window that was screwed shut. Strong vapors were present in a basement with no ventilation. This puts firemen in danger even if the fire is on the first floor. 

During and after fire conditions, it's possible to have an explosion in the basement. Securing the gas must be done quickly. Limited ventilation-below grade-storage area fires have the potential to be disastrous which is why basements are the most dangerous location inside of a structure for a fire. More firemen have been killed in basements than any other area of the structure. See the numerous LODD reports and stories here.

Firefighter Close Call: Cornerstone Basement Fire- Click here...

Fires Below The Residential First Floor- By Danny Stratton

*Hoarding Conditions

*Floor Collapse

*Exterior Fire Spread

All these have to be addressed quickly by the IC.


Hamilton, Ohio firefighter Patrick Wolterman was remembered by colleagues and his community after dying in the line of duty early Dec. 28, 2015 at a residential basement fire.


Two Boston firemen killed in a wind driven basement fire. Audio-Mayday LODD

Sergeant John Michael Carter of the Washington D.C. Fire Department died in the line of duty when he fell through the first floor into the basement while fighting a fire in a grocery store.  

2 firemen killed in Wilmington Delaware residential basement fire.

It's the most dangerous fire location within a structure.

New York City

2 FDNY firemen killed in basement  commercial building 


Volunteer fireman dies in residential basement fire. Another critically injured.


Volunteer Deputy Chief killed falls through floor during residential basement fire.


2 volunteer firemen killed in backdraft during residential basement fire.


Career fire engineer in Green Bay dies falling through floor in residential basement fire .

Washington D.C.

2 DC firemen killed in residential basement fire intensified by flow path.