Trending Topics

Video: 4 lessons from major N.C. modern wood construction fire

Construction trends using cheaper wood products pose an increasing risk to the fire service


In the construction industry, recent trends are skewing toward more buildings being constructed from modern wood products alone. The Type 5 building is no longer reserved for single-family residential structures – it now includes multi-level residential buildings, hotels, apartment complexes and other structure types. The height of these buildings is also trending upward from two stories to 10 or more.

While this style of construction is a quick method for erecting a building, and the wood products being used are cheaper than traditional materials, it’s not a friend of the fire service. The building material alone is a fuel load that generates high heat release rates and energy production with quick failure rates.

N.C. construction fire

In our accompanying video, the Charlotte Fire Department (CFD) in North Carolina responds to a fire in a structure constructed of modern wood materials. The CFD did a fantastic job of dealing with this large conflagration, and we can learn a few things from the video footage.

Lesson 1: Fire size. As the building was built from lightweight wood products, the entire structure is now the fuel load. If a fire is not contained quickly by immediate methods, such as a fire extinguisher the entire building becomes the fuel load. The responding fire department will face an entire building on fire, not just a room and contents or a section of the building.

This happens because the structural materials are exposed with no protective coverings, like drywall. Any wind will assist in driving the fire and pushing it right across the building, causing instant vertical fire spread due to the intense heat release rates produced from below. The engineered wood will off-gas quickly and contribute to the immense fuel load.

Lesson 2: Exposures. As the fire encompasses the building, the radiant heat produced will certainly contribute to exposures catching on fire – this will be a major concern to mitigate. The building that is on fire will not be saved, but other buildings around it can be.

Lesson 3: Water supply. With a large building on fire, a massive amount of water will be needed for extinguishment efforts. This will require an immediate defensive operation using master streams on the ground, deck mounted guns and aerial master streams. Depending on the location of structures adjacent to the fire, crews can use master streams on rooftops and balconies to flow water toward the engulfed structure.

Lesson 4: Collapse potential. The building in the accompanying video is under construction and therefore susceptible to collapsing much quicker than a finished building. When spotting our apparatus on scene, we’ll want to consider the potential for collapse and position them away from any collapse zone.

Training time

After watching this video and reading this news story with your company, engage your members in the following training:

  • Take a tour around your response area to see what buildings like these are being constructed. If possible, take a tour of these structures to see how they are being built and with what type of engineered wood products.
  • Watch videos of similar fires to identify other concerns or lessons we can learn from to assist with our operational tactics, such as life safety and possible rescue of workers in cranes or other parts of the building.

Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1998, currently serving as a firefighter with the Fort Gratiot Fire Department in Michigan. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States and India. He graduated from Seneca College of Applied and Technologies as a fire protection engineering technologist, and received his bachelor’s degree in fire and life safety studies from the Justice Institute of British Columbia and his master’s degree in safety, security and emergency management from Eastern Kentucky University. van der Feyst is the lead author of the book “Residential Fire Rescue” and “The Tactical Firefighter.” Connect with van der Feyst via email.