Chicago-Extreme Fire Behavior

Updated March 7, 2010 with Longer Video Clip of this Incident

On the afternoon of February 18, 2010, firefighters in Chicago responded to a residential fire at 4855 S. Paulina Street. First arriving companies discovered a fire in the basement of a 1-1/2 story, wood frame, single family dwelling and initiated fire attack and horizontal ventilation of the floors above the fire.

Based on news accounts, the company assigned to fire attack was in the stairwell and another firefighter was performing horizontal ventilation of the floors above the fire on Side C when a backdraft or smoke explosion occurred. Three firefighters on the interior and the firefighter on the ladder on Side C were injured and were transported to local hospitals for burns and possible airway injuries.

Figure 1. Consider Key Fire Behavior Indicators


B-SAHF Indicators

Recognizing subtle fire behavior indicators during incident operations can be difficult and important indicators are often only visible from one location (other than where you are). What Building, Smoke, Heat, and Flame (B-SAHF) indicators would you anticipate seeing if potential backdraft conditions exist (or may develop as the incident progresses)? How would this differ from the indicators that conditions may present risk of a smoke explosion?

For more information on key fire behavior indicators related to ventilation controlled burning regime, decay stage fires, backdraft, and smoke explosion, see the following posts:

Incident Video

A video of the incident at 4855 S. Paulina Street was recently posted on YouTube (a shorter version is posted on It appears that the video may have been shot through a window by an occupant of the D2 exposure. The title of this video is “Chicago Smoke Explosion”. After watching the video and answering the questions posed in this post, do you think that this was a backdraft or smoke explosion? Why?

One of the great assets of using video as a learning tool is the ability to stop the action and go back to review key information. Watch the video and stop the action as necessary to answer the following questions”

  • Pause at 02:05. What B-SAHF indicators could be observed on Side C up to this point in the video clip?
  • Pause at 02:49. What indicators could be observed while the firefighter was forcing entry and ventilating the daylight basement on Side C?
  • Pause at 03:13. What B-SAHF indicators can be observed at the door on Side C prior to forced entry?
  • Pause at 03:35. What indicators can be observed at the door after forcing the outer door (prior to ventilation of the window on Floor 2)?
  • Pause at 03:44. What B-SHAF indicators do you observe at the window on Floor 2 prior to breaking the glass?
  • Pause at 03:55. What indicators are observed at the window on Floor 2 immediately after breaking the glass?
  • Pause at 04:08. What B-SAHF indicators were present after the ventilation of the window on Floor 2 Side C was completed and 04:08 in the video clip?

After answering the questions, watch the complete clip. Do you think that this was a backdraft or smoke explosion? If you thought that this was a backdraft: Did you see potential indicators? If so what were they? If not, why do you think that this was the case? If you think that this was a smoke explosion, what indications lead you to this conclusion? What indicators were present?

You may want to watch this video clip several times and give some thought to what factors were influencing the B-SAHF indicators (particularly smoke, air track, and heat). Were these indicators consistent with your perception of backdraft indicators? Is so, how? If not, what was different? What indicators may have been visible from other vantage points. Remember that the video provides a view from a single perspective (and one that is considerably different than the crews working at this incident).

The next post in this series will take a closer look at the video and key fire behavior indicators.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO

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