Tunnel Fires

Fires in tunnels (and subways) can lead to the rapid spread of toxic smoke in just minutes creating difficult dangerous conditions and causing  panic for the unfortunate travelers inside. Many people stuck in a tube full of smoke will likely try to drive through it or attempt to outrun the toxic smoke coming towards them. Others may simply remain in their vehicles or attempt to seek shelter where crossover or exit doors are visible. With smoke containing asphyxiates like carbon monoxide, those trying to outrun the smoke may collapse. Some passengers may choose to shelter inside of a stalled vehicle or train car waiting for help. 

During large scale fires/explosions or hazardous material releases, most travelers will not be familiar with the tunnel and in poor visibility may not see the emergency exits and shelter areas. It's possible during panic that some travelers may be running in the same direction as the horizontal exhaust fans. Many tunnels and transit systems have exhaust systems to remove smoke and draw fresh air into the tunnel/station to keep egress routes clear. Unfortunately they are not always effective or working properly.

Fires in tunnels will most likely involve cars, trucks or trains. They are high risk/low frequency events and can be a complete cluster you-know-what if emergency responders are not prepared. There will be plenty of panic, confusion and gridlock when the fire department arrives on scene.

Fire In Tunnel

See how drivers react when smoke is coming towards them in the DC tunnel. Some people exit their vehicles, others reverse or make K-turns and try to leave opposite the flow of traffic! 

Explosion at 0:20. This vehicle burns in a tunnel, fortunately it's near the exit.

Tunnel Deluge System

Construction Manager describing emergency safety systems in the Southbound Batter Tunnel prior to testing the tunnel's deluge system. 


What are some concerns for the first arriving company officers during a tunnel fire?

*Rescue of trapped occupants in the burning vehicle, and people fleeing their vehicles who may be disoriented or overcome by smoke/carbon monoxide. This is the fire departments number one priority.

*Access for the fire department is critical. Be 100% sure before committing any apparatus inside of a tunnel. THIS IS NOT RECOMMENDED FOR SOME TUNNELS. Committing apparatus to the tunnel will depend on the department, SOP's, height clearance, and the circumstances specific to the incident. Use extreme caution when approaching the tube from the opposing direction of travel. Driving into the face of the exhaust fan direction can stall the apparatus and have negative consequences. Walking long distances through the tube may create problems with air supply. 

*Some vehicles attempting to back out of the tunnel  in panic may run over supply/hand lines/appliances and first responders. 

*Visibility problems from the thick black smoke with no proper ventilation will be a problem.

*Delayed application of water and hydrant water supply. From access to the tunnel, traffic congestion, determining the location of the fire, hooking up to dry standpipes, and long hose stretches will add to your reflex time. In tunnels with dividing walls, consider positioning 2 pumpers and utilizing the crossover doors. This strategy works well in some tunnels by doubling the amount of tank water, and assisting the first engine by staging the second engine on the protected side. They will stretch their line through the crossover doors if needed. 


*Secondary collisions as smoke fills the tube causing poor visibility and chain reaction rear collisions.

*People exiting their vehicles and attempting to flee the tunnel in a panic.

*Vehicles carrying hazardous materials. Expect hazmats in the tunnel and wear your SCBA!

On arrival, ask yourself:

*Do you have apparatus coming from the opposite direction? Are additional resources on the way? This may be dispatched as a vehicle fire on the interstate with no additional information which only requires a single engine response. The engine then arrives on scene to thick black smoke pouring from the tunnel. If possible, determine if it's a car, truck, trailer, RV etc.. See our vehicle fire page for more.

*Is their an automatic or manual exhaust system in the tunnel? Is there a deluge system? What's the wind direction? Many tunnels are monitored by CCTV in remote buildings that have the exhaust controls.

*Does fire apparatus have access to the proper lane? Should we consider bringing apparatus in the tunnel? 

*Have the police been requested to stop traffic from entering the tunnel in BOTH directions? Has the Department of Transportation/Roads or other representatives from the tunnel jurisdiction been notified?

*Are there any FDC locations and standpipes in the tunnel? Where are they located? Where are the CROSSOVER doors? Where's the closest hydrant? Fire preplans will answer these questions. 

(Rural departments have tankers)

*Are there chain reaction collisions caused by the visibility problems in tunnel requiring a large response from heavy rescue/squad companies, BLS & ALS?

RESCUE PLAN: In addition to the above considerations, the IC or company officer will need a rescue plan. Immediately request more manpower. The location and extent of the fire will determine your strategy and tactics for rescue and extinguishment. Check to see if the fans/exhaust/ventilation systems inside the tunnel are working properly. Are they clearing smoke by drawing it upward, or is it pushing the smoke horizontally in the direction of travelers? People running towards the exit may be close, but they are not out yet and can easily overcome by carbon monoxide. If the fire isn't deep into the tunnel, and it's near the entrance or exit, just extinguish the fire and let the exhaust fans do their job (if operating correctly). If the fans are pushing in the wrong direction, NOTIFY the Incident Commander immediately.

TIP: Fire Departments with brush or utility trucks capable of 300 gallons of water may be ideal for vehicle fires in tunnels. Minus magnesium issues (or a nozzleman with really bad aim) an average vehicle fire can easily be extinguished with 300 gallons of water. A truck type of utility or brush apparatus is smaller than a pumper and has better maneuver ability to position closer to the fire location. Another option would be a foam trailer. All these strategies should be considered during preplans for any departments with a tunnel in their response area.

East River Mountain Tunnel Tractor-Trailer Fire

Firemen first tried to enter the northbound tunnel through its Bland County, Va., side, and got approximately 600 feet inside, but the heavy smoke and heat forced them to go back. Warden said handprints left in the soot in the tunnel showed where the firemen had backed out. Two firemen were treated for smoke inhalation. Structural engineers inspected the damage caused by the fire. A car fire a month later in the same tube sent the driver to the hospital (pics below). 

See more- click here...

Bus Fire in the Ft. McHenry Tunnel In Baltimore

Tunnel fires may not be daily occurrences, but they do happen. Many tunnel fire incidents involving trains, trucks and cars were caught on video. Watching these videos can help better prepare firemen on what to expect by learning from past incidents.

Howard Street Tunnel Fire Hazmat

The Howard Street tunnel chemical fire in Baltimore was caused by a 60 car CSX train derailment inside the tunnel, and burned for five days. 

Is your department prepared for an incident like this? How did it happen? See animation VIDEO of the derailment that caused this fire, click here...

Wilcox Tunnel Fire, Chattanooga TN

1 Dead, 80 Injured DC Metro Tunnel Train Fire

Truck Carrying Margarine Burns In Mont Blanc Tunnel-38 Dead

European Safety Project For Tunnel Fires

"Seconds From Disaster" Fire In Train Tunnel

Disaster In The St Gotthard Tunnel

Documentary on the disaster in the St Gotthard road tunnel in Switzerland where 11 people were killed in a tunnel fire. See how it happened and how the exhaust fans designed to remove smoke actually contributed to the deaths of those trapped in the tunnel.