North Spartanburg resident Dianne Draper had never seen a house fire before, until she came outside and looked next door.
“It almost looks like a fire-breathing dragon,” she said as flames poured out of the vacant home next to hers.
The single-story home at 286 College St., in the Northside neighborhood was subject to 1,600 degree temperatures from controlled fires and blasts of high-pressured water from fire hoses throughout Friday.
Almost 200 fire service professionals from across the country and local community members gathered at the address to watch a team of 50 firefighters and scientists conduct fire experiments.
“Spartanburg Burns” first occurred in January 2013 through a FEMA grant geared toward fire prevention and fire safety. This is the second and final year federal grants will fund the project that is geared toward capturing a better understanding of fire characteristics inside single-family homes.
About $530,000 is going toward the event this year from the International Society of Fire Service Instructors.
Spartanburg Fire Chief Marion Blackwell said no other organization has conducted single-family house fire research using actual structures.
He said Spartanburg was chosen due to its number of vacant, city-owned houses slated for demolition in the Northside, and said using them for the experiment provides an educational benefit and saves costs on demolition.
The research to single-story homes has shown it’s more beneficial to evaluate a point of attack before going straight through the front door, which may mistakenly enhance a fire by supplying it with airflow, Blackwell said.
“I’d say 99 percent of firefighters are going to come through the front door. Now we’re telling them to get off the truck and walk around the house,” he said, and determine the best course of action.
Wires hung from nearly every ceiling and sensors and cameras protruded out of most of the walls Friday. A newspaper was lit on a microfiber couch inside the living room as scientific instruments captured the next several minutes of inferno.
Friday’s experiment focused on the effectiveness of indoor sprinklers and how a front door can be utilized to keep temperatures lower and to slow the spread of the fire.
Fire protection engineer Dan Madrzykowski, of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, led the group of scientists as they captured temperatures, energy, pressure, oxygen and other attributes of the house fire. He said they will likely have a preliminary report finished on their findings by September.
The data will be spread throughout the fire service community to the roughly 30,000 fire departments in the country. Departments from as far as California, Texas and Canada have come to Spartanburg for the event, Spartanburg Burns spokeswoman Vickie Pritchett said. More than 550 had registered to attend events through Wednesday.
“This is the first time we’re actually applying science to our job,” said Cecil Clay, a deputy chief from the Oklahoma City Fire Department who came to see firsthand what they’ve started to implement from last year’s results.
Six homes are slated for burning.
On Monday, the team is expected to set fire to a two-story home on Brawley Street. That home is currently set up as an exhibit, showcasing new and old furniture and new and old building materials.
Fire officials said there is a striking difference between materials used now compared to years past. The current synthetics, fibers and plastics used are fuel to a fire and have altered the way firefighters should operate on the scene of a fire.
“What we’ve been doing for 20 years is now not working. The environment around us has changed but we haven’t changed,” Blackwell said.
Thirty-five people in South Carolina have died in house fires so far this year, and firefighters believe seven of those deaths were of residents who re-entered their burning homes, State Fire Marshal Shane Ray said.
“We want them to make sure that they have a plan,” Ray said. “Shut the door, get out and stay out.”