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Bitter cold makes fires all the more dangerous

Published: Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 9:30 a.m. CST

(MCT) — The large and deadly blazes that Chicago firefighters have battled this week have posed an additional challenge, courtesy of the city’s coldest temperatures in nearly two years:

Ice — and lots of it.

Ice can undermine efforts to extinguish flames. It can seal hydrants, crack hoses, make stairs and ladders treacherous, and weigh down buildings and firefighters, said Deputy Fire Commissioner of Operations John McNicholas.

“Things that normally work well in regular, normal, warmer temperatures, when you start to encase them in ice, you can have (problems),” McNicholas said.

McNicholas and hundreds of Chicago firefighters responded to two large blazes this week in subfreezing temperatures, including one high-rise apartment fire that left two people dead.

The department prepares for such frigid firefighting months in advance. Every fall, the department inspects the city’s fire hydrants to ensure that they are working and that any water is removed. But if the hydrant is used by others later and improperly shut down, water can remain and freeze the hydrant shut, department officials said.

When that happens, firefighters sometimes thrust a road flare into the hydrant to melt any ice. The city also sends a truck that uses pressurized steam to thaw frozen hydrants or equipment, Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said.

The Fire Department also uses additional engines to scout for working hydrants, Langford said.

Once the hoses are connected, however, firefighters must monitor the flow of the water to make sure the hoses and engine, which hold up to 500 gallons of water, don’t freeze.

“You have to keep the water flowing,” Langford said. “If you shut the hose down too long, the water will start to freeze. The hose will start to freeze on the ground and you’ve got an extremely difficult situation if you’ve got a couple of hundred feet of frozen hose lying on the street.”

In the fire that broke out Tuesday morning in a Chicago condominium building, ice wasn’t a big factor because the fire was mostly fought inside the building. Though the National Weather Service estimated the temperature hovered around zero, very little hose was exposed and the fire was contained within an hour, Langford said.

That was not the case for a fire that engulfed a large Chicago warehouse around 9:00 p.m. Tuesday. Since the building was unstable, firefighters decided to fight the rare 5-11 alarm fire from the outside, using a “surround and drown” approach, Langford said.

Although firefighters encountered some frozen hydrants, water supply was not difficult to establish on the street, allowing responders to dump hundreds of thousands of gallons of water on the burning building.

So much water was used, in fact, that a small weather system developed over the fire, dropping light snow on the scene, Langford said.

Kevin Birk, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Romeoville, Ill., said that such localized weather phenomena are possible in the right conditions.

“When they were throwing the water on the fire, it could have caused water vapor to go up and form a cloud,” Birk said. “And, since it was so cold, it created ice crystals that become heavy enough to fall as snow.”

In the 9- to 10-degree weather that evening, the water on the ground quickly turned to ice, coating the firefighters, hoses, engines, ladders and the building.

“It’s safe to say we had about 8 inches of ice in the front of the building because there’s equipment, a hose that was on the street, that was buried by the ice. And then of course the building, itself, probably had a coating of three or four inches of ice on it,” McNicholas said. “Some described it as a very large ice castle.”

That much ice can weaken a building, making it even more dangerous for firefighters.

At the scene Tuesday night, firefighters donned their modernized “bunker gear,” which includes bib-height insulated pants and sturdy rubber winter boots that provide traction in the snow and ice. After the fire was brought under control, McNicholas said the firefighters rotated on approximately 30 minute shifts to conserve energy, seeking refuge in warming buses.

“When you start getting that much ice build up, we try to tell our guys, ‘Slow down,’ ” McNicholas said. “ ‘Take extra precaution.’ ”

By Wednesday afternoon, a handful of firefighters were still attempting to put out flames hidden beneath the frozen rubble.

The ruined buildings remained shrouded in white, icicles jutting along the glassless windows.

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