Detached Garage Fire Hazards

Garages are everywhere. Garages can be attached or detached to a residence or commercial building. They can be above ground or below ground. No matter where they are they can be deadly if not taken seriously. This article will highlight the dangers of a single-family detached garage. Parking garages have their own set of potential hazards that can be handled in an article all on their own. Detached and attached garages have very similar hazards with the exception that in most cases you do not have that exposure problem with a detached garage as you do with the attached ones.

What are we thinking when we arrive to a working garage fire? Typically once the job goes out our minds are feverishly sorting out the details of the run. If we are lucky an officer or chief on scene has or will give us a brief size-up. With or without that information we can still get prepared for these potentially fatal fires. We need to first assess our potential risk versus reward. Are we going to make an over-aggressive attack on a non-occupied structure with nothing but hazardous materials inside? To me, garage fires are just big vehicles. You must treat them like potential bombs. Just like with cars, people tend to store everything and anything inside garages. Hazardous materials should be expected. Do not assume if there is no placard on a garage there are no hazards.

Cylinder explosion just prior to arrival


What are the potential hazardous materials we should expect?

• Chlorine: is this not only a garage, but also a pool house?
• Oxyacetylene or other related welding tanks
• LPG or propane: are there barbecue tanks stored inside?
• Gun powder: maybe owner is a hunter and does his or her own reloading
• Thinners, paints, and alcohols: is this not only a garage but a workshop, makeshift paint booth, or wood shop?
• Fertilizers: garages are notorious storing places for fertilizers, pesticides, and other lawn care related hazardous materials
• Gasoline and oils: some people store extra fuel for mowers, saws, generators, and other gas powered equipment
• Magnesium: certain vehicles have magnesium components that can have explosive results with the introduction to water
• Vehicles: yes, not only do we have all those above hazards, we can have multiple vehicles inside as well (Read Over Aggressive Attacks on Vehicle Fires for Vehicle Specific Hazards)

We need to first establish our water source and find out if there is a specific life hazard. If we have occupants in this structure, our plan will change to adapt to a more synchronized aggressive attack and rescue. Many people will often convert attic space of a garage into an apartment. Be on the lookout for an interior or exterior stair to the second floor, dormers, or skylights. These can all give us clues to the potential of a livable space above. If you spot these details you may want to consider additional crews to perform a primary search above.

A detached garage fire loaded with contents


FDNY Lt. Ray McCormack states, "winning fires with water is based on several key factors such as: the amount of water brought to the battle, from supply volume to actual usage volume, to proper targeting of each individual water stream, and the selective placement of streams for maximum coverage and timely extinguishment. Firefighting is war. To win our individual daily battles, we must strategize on which tactics will safely and effectively give us the upper hand against the enemy." If we have the water, let's use it, and let's get it in the right spot in a timely manner.

I always tell my crews, "come prepared to fight." If you do not have the right tools for the job, then how can we have any chance of extinguishing this fire in a safe and timely manner? With garages, think forcible entry and think two-and-a-half inches. Beyond your own personal tools, you may want to consider bringing a pair of vice grips and a pike pole. The vice grips or pike pole can be used to secure a garage door. Some garage doors under a fire load will fail and close, leaving firefighters trapped inside. I like using the vice grips on the track of the door and having the pike inside to pull ceilings, check for extension, and probe through partially burned contents. A two-and-a-half inch line will give you ample water and a quick knockdown.

Garage door close call


Access to a garage is often problematic. Without proper training, garage doors can be a hassle to force open. If we are not familiar with our saws we can embarrass ourselves quickly. Get familiar with your forcible entry tools. When trying to make access to a garage, consider alternate points of entry. Most garages will have a three-foot swinging door to the side or rear of them. So if your access through the garage door is blocked, make your attack through an alternate door. This single door may be your fastest entry point, and the safest place to make your initial attack. On an average two-car garage, most fire should be able to be extinguished from the door opening.

While making an attack, also be on the alert for partially framed storage above. Some older garages in ranch homes will have minimal ceiling joist framing above. Homeowners often put a couple of loose sheets of plywood above, and store boxes and other items above. Any fire load may bring these loosely stored items on the firefighters below. Collapse is also always a concern. These garage fires will most likely burn hotter, thus shortening our timeframe for the likelihood of collapse. Once the main body of the fire is knocked down, consider getting the garage doors open if you have not done that already. At this point, crews can assess the structural integrity, mop up, and check for extension. As with any fire, size-up is key and will often dictate your attack. Establish a positive water source and make sure you show up with well prepared and trained firefighters for an efficient and safe knockdown.

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