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Building Construction
by Chief Gary Bowker (Ret.)

How to manage the vinyl-siding threat

Left unchecked, vinyl siding will greatly contribute to fire spread and put interior firefighters in harm's way

By Chief Gary Bowker (Ret.)

Polyvinyl or vinyl siding on residential structures has been around for several decades, and there is a long and well-documented history of the effects of heat with this type of exterior wall covering.

According to the Vinyl Siding Institute, 78 percent of new homes constructed in the northeastern United States in 2008 and 32 percent nationwide are clad in vinyl siding. Vinyl siding is commonly found in one- and two-family wood frame dwellings, large apartment complexes, hotels and some commercial structures.

Most of us have seen melted or warped vinyl siding on structures that have been exposed to heat from a fire. A more immediate concern to firefighters is the rapid fire spread threat that vinyl siding poses with new home construction.

In 1997 Dan Madryzkowski conducted a study for the National Institute of Standards and Technology on the combustibility of several different types of siding materials. This NIST report describes the test results for vinyl siding: "Less than 90 seconds after ignition, the flames began to spread upward, and within another 50 seconds, the flames were in the attic space."

This is a very significant finding for firefighters to consider when facing today's engineered wood frame structure fire.

Nontraditional thinking
It is critical to identify any exterior fire spread involving vinyl siding or the potential for this threat during the 360-degree size-up. Once the vinyl siding ignites, rapid exterior fire spread can occur.

Traditional tactical thinking would have us by-pass this exterior fire and quickly move operations to the interior of the structure.

In 2010, a Fargo, N.D. apartment complex was destroyed after a fire rapidly extended up the vinyl siding from the ground level patio. It breached the vinyl soffit and spread fire into the open attic void, which resulted in a Mayday situation for two firefighters operating on the top floor.

However, a quick "hit it hard from the yard" tactical approach may be the only means by which you will have a chance to save the structure and buy time for occupant egress or rescue. Getting water on the fire fast minimizes all other problems.

Fire path
Vinyl siding produces a very high heat release rate and has been likened to "solid gasoline" when burning. As the burning vinyl is consumed, a fresh layer of pre-heated fuel from the synthetic underlayment and the wood wallboard is exposed and ready to burn.

This demands an attack with enough water to knock down the fire, and still penetrate the thermal column, which is blasting superheated gases and flames into the attic space. In addition, if this is a three- or four-story structure the added stream reach is necessary.

Now consider the wind-driven or the super-charging effect that can be created once the soffit melts and allows fire to rapidly spread via this natural flow path into the attic space. Winds as low as 10 mph can create wind-driven fire effects.

This scenario can become a monster fire very quickly and is capable of cutting off the escape routes of occupants, and trapping unsuspecting firefighters without warning, often with tragic results. A quick and aggressive hard hit is necessary before the fire takes complete control of the attic, which typically will doom the structure.

Proper tools
Several tools will give you better options for this type of fire attack. Use a 1 3/4-inch line with a 15/16-inch solid bore tip, capable of flowing approximately 180 gpm at 50 psi. This is the minimum recommended flow for a rapidly growing fire.

Another good tool of choice is either a 2 1/2-inch pre-connected blitz attack line or a large-flow pre-connected or pre-plumbed appliance that can be placed in service within a minute by one firefighter and is capable of 300- to more than 500-gpm flow.

Lastly, don't forget about the exposures. Protect them early. Less water is needed to protect the exposure than is needed for extinguishment.

Vinyl siding is capable of melting several hundred feet away, and is notorious for quick fire spread to exposed structures. Closely spaced homes and apartment structures can quickly pose a major challenge early on at these fires. 

About the author

Gary Bowker is a retired fire chief with the U.S. Air Force, and has served as fire chief with the Sumner County, Kansas Rural Fire District #10. Chief Bowker retired as fire marshal with the City of Winfield, Kansas and has over 38 years of fire service experience. He has taught numerous courses with the National Fire Academy, U.S. Department of Defense, and is an Associate Instructor with the University of Kansas Fire & Rescue Training Institute. He serves as a Kansas advocate with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation's Everyone Goes HomeŽ program and speaks frequently and has written numerous articles on firefighter life safety and health issues. He is nationally certified as a Fire Officer II, Instructor II, Inspector II, Certified Fire & Explosion Investigator (CFEI), and he holds a B.Sc. degree in Fire Science Administration. Chief Bowker can be reached at:

The comments below are member-generated and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of or its staff. If you cannot see comments, try disabling privacy and ad blocking plugins in your browser. All comments must comply with our Member Commenting Policy.
Teddy Gonzalez Teddy Gonzalez Wednesday, November 13, 2013 8:50:04 PM Really useful!!!
Gary Bowker Gary Bowker Thursday, November 14, 2013 11:14:48 AM Glad you found it useful! Thanks for reading and stay strong, stay safe,
Joel Krueger Joel Krueger Thursday, November 14, 2013 7:03:41 PM Here is a link to the UL Eave Fire Experiment that provides some additional info on the hazards of Vinyl siding and how quickly the Exterior fire can extend into the Attic Space.
Bill Parker Bill Parker Thursday, November 14, 2013 7:05:08 PM Good job deputy chief Bowker.
Gary Bowker Gary Bowker Thursday, November 14, 2013 8:32:36 PM Chief Parker, thanks for reading. Good to hear from you brother!
Gary Bowker Gary Bowker Friday, November 15, 2013 10:15:29 AM Thank you Joel. I appreciate it!

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