By analyzing the home video and accounts from firefighters who battled a deadly Beacon Street blaze on March 26, scientists are starting to identify a horrible convergence of events, according to our news partners at WCVB.
Officials say firefighter Michael Kennedy and Lt. Ed Walsh were killed by a fast-moving, wind-driven fire that ripped through a Boston brownstone died after they were trapped in the basement.
“When all these things come together, it’s just heartbreaking, it’s the worst of all scenarios,” explained Kathy Notarianni, chief of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Fire Protection Engineering Department.
She and her team study burns in the WPI lab to help save lives.
Notarianni said it’s too early to say for sure what happened, but she believes there may have been a backdraft, as well as a flashover, when everything ignites.
“Flashovers are when enough energy builds up in the room and all of the sudden you transition from an item burning to the entire room burning.” Notarianni said people can survive backdrafts, but flashovers are not survivable.
The wind that day made everything worse.
“A firefighter’s personal protective gear is designed to protect them up to 500 degrees for five minutes. In these wind conditions, that time when they can survive is reduced to 30 seconds or less,” Notarianni said.
Dan Madrzykowski, of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, conducted extensive tests on the impact of wind on fires.
Video from his testing shows the violent and turbulent environment firefighters face in these wind-driven fires. His study shows the impact on 20-mph winds, and it’s estimated the winds on the day of the Back Bay fire were well over 40 miles per hour.
He said if you add wind to a fuel-rich environment, the conditions can change in seconds with zero visibility. “The firefighter has nowhere to go, and it will exceed the capabilities of their gear.”
Madrzykowski said firefighting tactics are now starting to change based on better understanding about the impact of wind and the changing environments facing firefighters.
He said data show long-held tenets of firefighting – such as “always attack from the unburned to the burned side,” “never apply a hose stream through the window, it will push fire” and “the best way to attack a basement fire is down the stairs” – are just not true.
He has worked with the New York Fire Department and said it recently changed its policies on fighting some kinds of fires.
At the WPI lab, Notarianni and her team are now developing tools to help firefighters, including one that will predict when a flashover will take place and warn them when to get out.