Hotter, faster blazes increase dangers for Eastern Iowa firefighters

Investigators improve techniques to find causes

Firefighters from multiple departments battle a blaze in one of the buildings in the Beaver Kreek Center May 22 in North
Firefighters from multiple departments battle a blaze in one of the buildings in the Beaver Kreek Center May 22 in North Liberty. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

It had been 45 minutes. Bob Hagen was dead.

The 15 firefighters desperately trying to drag Hagen’s lifeless body from a basement flooded with blinding black smoke and suffocating toxins were no longer in rescue mode. They were on a recovery mission for the volunteer firefighter’s body — for the 25-year firefighting veteran’s wife.

Once his body was pulled from the ashes and outside the smoldering house, firefighters collapsed, covering their faces in despair. Paramedics looked on, helpless.

Then someone noticed.

“He’s still got a pulse,” Hagen said, recounting the story he was told about the events on Aug. 9 in Jewell that nearly killed him.

Hagen, 45, was rushed to a hospital, where doctors determined he had a carbon dioxide blood concentration of 33 percent — more than enough to kill him. (Story continues below chart)

It didn’t, and Hagen is back at work for the Jewell volunteer fire department.

But, with the amount of synthetic fibers and plastics filling homes these days — causing fires to burn hotter and faster, create blacker smoke and emit more toxic chemicals — Hagen was lucky, said State Fire Marshal Ray Reynolds.

“Now that these fires get so hot and the smoke gets so black, we are seeing a real danger to firefighters,” Reynolds said. “You have to get in and get at the fire or get out, because it’s not going to get any better.”

Several changes in home construction and furnishings have shifted the residential firefighting landscape, like the use of more plastics, combustible building materials, synthetic fibers, and larger living spaces, Reynolds said.

“It’s creating a lot different atmosphere for firefighters,” he said.

The changes in how fires are burning have contributed to the development of new gear, new training techniques and new investigative tools, according to Reynolds. Above all, the changes have reminded Iowa’s firefighters about what matters most when battling a house fire.

“Never risk a life for a building they’re going to throw in the Dumpster tomorrow,” Reynolds said. “Firefighters have to realize when it’s lives in peril versus property in peril.”

So far this year, 22 people have died in fires in Iowa. In 2011, 46 people died from fire-related causes, up from 33 in 2010.

“We see numbers spike in October, November and December,” Reynolds said.

He blamed some of today’s deaths to the increased toxicity of smoke, the decreased visibility and the shorter time people have to escape.

“We have more than triple the amount of plastics inside our home,” Reynolds said, calling it “one of the biggest contributing factors to smoke development.”

“Lumber smoke is gray, and plastic smoke is black and thick and made up of deadly smoke chemicals that are causing asphyxiation and death and limiting the ability for firefighters to get in,” he said.

Fires used to take more than 23 minutes to fully engulf a room, and that now can happen within minutes, Reynolds said.

“The fire department’s average response time in this state is seven to nine minutes in the city,” he said. “So firefighters are just getting on scene and going in at the point when the floors have already collapsed.”

There are mitigating factors in today’s firefighting culture that have helped decrease fire fatalities over the past 50-plus years. Iowa recorded its most fire-related deaths in 1950 with 158 — the year before the smoke alarm was introduced in the United States.

Alarms paired with educational efforts, better training, new protective gear and advanced firefighting technology have helped drive down deaths in the long view.

John Grier, fire marshal with the Iowa City Fire Department, said that although some of today’s building construction and personal possessions create more challenging scenarios, some homes are being built so fires can’t spread as easily from one room to another. Those types of construction advancements paired with alarms and new firefighting tools make it a “good news, bad news” situation.

And, he said, fire prevention is still largely dependent on common sense.

“If people are smart, we shouldn’t have an issue,” he said.

Once fires do burn, Grier said, there are a variety of ways to locate the cause and origin. Some fire departments can use computer-generated fire modeling to recreate the burn and observe how it would spread.

Investigators can send DNA samples from a fire to a state lab for analysis. And some departments — like the Cedar Rapids Fire Department — have a detection dog who can track traces of accelerants at a burn scene. (Story continues below photo)

Capt. Al Brockhohn, who cares for, trains and employs the department’s detection dog Ember, said the K9 runs through most scenes to help investigators rule out the possibility of arson. If Ember finds an accelerant, that doesn’t necessarily mean the fire was criminal, Brockhohn said.

“What it does is tells us if there was an ignitable liquid present,” he said. “It could have been a container of legitimate liquid. Or it might have been in there to promote the fire and set the fire.”

Before having a dog, Cedar Rapids investigators would take 10 to 15 random samples from a fire scene and send them to a laboratory to be tested for accelerants. With Ember’s ability to detect ignitable liquids, that lengthy process is now much more efficient.

“I can look for accelerants in a half-hour,” Brockhohn said. “I can take two or three samples and confirm them with her.”

Brockhohn, who investigated 72 fire scenes in 2011, said every sample that Ember identified as having the presence of an ignitable liquid was confirmed at the state lab.

Reynolds said there also is a new virtual training center at Iowa State University allowing young firefighters to get what can amount to years of experience.

Still, Reynolds said the onus remains on the homeowner to be fire savvy and prepared. Iowa has had $20 million in home structure damage to properties with working smoke alarms and $46 million in damage in homes without working alarms, Reynolds said.

He also said a wider effort to install residential sprinklers might be the next step toward improving safety.

“The fire service is going to have to get to a point where we’re serious about this,” he said.

Getting “serious” could prevent deadly blazes like the one in August that nearly killed Hagen.“That volunteer was inches away from being buried,” Reynolds said.     

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