A preview of a featured article from the March, 2013 edition of Fire Safety Science News #34:
by Charles R. Jennings
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
The City University of New York, USA
The topic of fire during hurricanes has received scant attention in the scholarly fire engineering community and even in the trade press. While common sense clearly suggests that damage attendant to a hurricane and hazards of utilities and temporary measures for their restoration would produce heightened risk, particularly following an event, a casual review of scholarly indexes shows scarcely any mention of the topic. Hurricane Sandy will be remembered for its widespread swath of destruction. The images of fire-scarred Breezy Point, a community in New York was but one of several large fires that caused unprecedented damage in the City of New York on October 29-30, 2012.
While calls for emergency services were heightened throughout the City, the geography of the Rockaway Peninsula and its location on the southeastern border of the City made it the most severely exposed (along with Staten Island) to the storm’s effects. Remarkably, there were no deaths or significant injuries reported to responders or residents in these historic fires.
One point that is common to all these fires was flooding. The bulk of the Rockaways were inundated throughout
this event. However, because flooding was a result of both ocean tidal and storm surge effects, the water levels rose quickly and varied throughout the events. At their heights, water levels were sufficiently high as to prevent movement of even heavy vehicles – preventing the intervention of the local fire services – the Fire Department of New York (FDNY).
The other factor critical to these events was wind. With gusts reported up to 75 miles per hour (120 km/h) and sustained winds coming from the southeast, fire spread was driven by wind currents.
Breezy Point is a beach enclave technically self-administering, located on the easternmost tip of the Rockaways. Originally established as a seasonal beach resort, it began with modest cottages and several resorts along the beach. Over time, it grew in to more substantial year-round occupation and many of the original cottages were improved or replaced with multi-story homes of conventional design. The physical plan of the fire area consisted of closely spaced dwellings separated by as little as a few feet (~1m) — with decks, porches and other features making a nearly- continuous field of combustibles. The street plan (refer to map) consisted of alternating narrow streets and smaller, paved paths designed to be navigated on foot or in compact service vehicles. Construction was almost exclusively timber framed, with older cottages typically built on pilings and more recent homes equipped with masonry or poured concrete foundations and basement stories.
First reported at 1830, the fire was first reported at 173 Ocean Avenue. The extraordinary conditions faced by responders during the storm were illustrated by FDNY Assistant Chief Joseph Pfeiffer’s recollections about reaching the blaze. He reported winding through darkened streets, turning back to avoid fallen trees, driving through water, and ultimately having to stop as he crossed the Marine Park Bridge, which links Brooklyn to the Rockaway Peninsula over Jamaica Bay. “There was three feet of water on the far end of the bridge. I had to park my fire department sedan, and ended up boarding an Engine Company to ride into the scene. Water was up to the headlights as we drove toward the glow.”
Companies operating relied on drafting standing water in a large parking are on the north side of the blaze, and made use of hydrants – some of which were used only after firefighters made connections by diving into the floodwaters and connecting hoses by feel amid the storm. Figure 2 (left) shows the view of the damage looking north from near the point of origin.
Driven by the strong winds coming directly off the ocean, the fire spread from house to house in the densely packed enclave. Chief Pfeiffer credited stopping the fire to being able to position resources ahead of the moving fire, and being ready to exploit an opportunity when winds shifted early in the morning of the 30th. He cautioned that had the winds not shifted, that the fire could well have continued to the west. The fire was declared under control at approximately 0630 on the 30th. The fire destroyed some 126 homes and damaged another 22. The effects of manual fire suppression efforts are apparent as the demarcation of destroyed and damaged homes is very clear (Figure 2 left).
The Newport Avenue fire is perhaps the most interesting from the perspective of fire spread. Occurring in a predominantly residential neighborhood of detached 1-2 family dwellings, this fire was also driven by the wind, and exhibited a remarkable path of travel. Although timber frame buildings appeared to fare poorly, there were notable examples of fire extending into and through masonry structures as well.
Figure 2 (right) shows the pattern of damage for this fire. The fire began on Beach 129 Street in a 2-family timber frame house (Figure 3), extended to an adjacent brick exterior 2-family house, driven by winds it moved across backyards, possibly into a detached car storage structure and spread to three houses in a row on Beach 130th Street. The last of these houses was a masonry exterior home on the corner of Newport Ave and Beach 130 Street. The fire, driven by high winds, spread via a likely combination of flying brands, across the Newport Avenue (shown running left to right across the photo) and into a 2-story masonry-faced commercial building housing a restaurant. Despite its being detached, and surrounded on three sides by streets or a parking lot, the fire spread in two directions count – northward along Beach 130 Street, and across the west side of Beach 130 Street, where it consumed an additional 16 buildings. Thirty-two buildings were destroyed in all. The fire was stopped mid-block with a brick-walled home suffering significant fire damage on the west side of the street, and a large timber frame home suffering damage to vinyl siding on its façade. The home on the east side of the street had a larger space between the fire and the other houses on the block. Fire suppression stopped this fire from spreading further, and like the others, firefighting was delayed because of high water levels.
Rockaway Beach Blvd.
The Rockaway Beach Boulevard fire occurred in a commercial strip of buildings predominantly of ordinary construction (masonry exterior walls and timber interiors with some incidental steel structural members). The buildings ranged in height from 1 to 3 stories.
Interestingly, the fire spread was constrained by its location adjacent to a rail yard, which prevented its spread to the north. A masonry building with no windows abutting the building of origin prevented spread to the east, while a gap of roughly 3 feet (0.9 m) and fire service intervention limited spread on the western end of the block, although the building exposed suffered some damage, mainly scorching of its façade. This building was of brick and timber joist construction, which likely prevented the propagation of the fire and permitted successful intervention by fire services. Sixteen buildings were destroyed. Figure 4 shows damage resulting from this fire.
Three concurrent large fires in a relatively small geographic area of an island is highly unusual in New York City. The spread of fire between brick or stone facade buildings was worthy of further study, as was the transmission of fire across a wide thoroughfare in the Belle Harbor fire. The extraordinary efforts of the FDNY were instrumental in stopping these well-developed fires and point out the need for well-staffed and equipped fire services during extreme events not commonly thought to be “fire” emergencies.
References and Acknowledgments: Information on cause and origin and numbers of buildings damaged or destroyed came from FDNY Media Advisory “Fire Marshals Determine Causes of Several Major Fires from the Night of Super Storm Sandy – Including Breezy Point Fire Which Destroyed 126 Homes” December 24, 2012 online. Field investigation and photography was assisted by Chaim Roberts of the Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies at John Jay College. Mapping was donated by Tom Vaughan of Manitou, Inc., Peekskill, NY. We acknowledge the assistance of several members of the FDNY who provided information to support this effort.
 The official number of buildings was determined by counting addresses destroyed – the count made after the fire by the author relied only on foundations and aerial imagery to establish a count.