Wind-Driven Fires: Research and Actual Fires Highlight Fire Behavior Changes

Maryland fire highlights the need to consider wind's effects on your fireground.
FirefighterNation Published Saturday, February 25, 2012

A recent house fire in Maryland where firefighters were injured highlights the latest in fire behavior research regarding the effects of wind-driven fires. Initially considered to be related only to high-rise firefighting or wildland firefighting, the fire service is becoming increasingly aware of the effects of high winds on every fireground.

“Video: Seven Maryland Firefighters Injured in House Fire”

In Riverdale, Maryland seven firefighters were injured while still in the early stages of the fire attack when an event that created sudden fire behavior event occurred. According to Prince George’s County Fire, EMS spokesman Mark Brady stated that an opening in the rear of the single family structure had allowed a sudden rush of air to enter creating a “fire ball” and engulfing the firefighters. Seven firefighters received various injuries, the most serious being one with burns to the airway and another with second and third degree burns to over 40% of his body.

Earlier this month the National Institute of Standards and Technology released the study of wind effects on a residential structure fire, specifically one where two firefighters were killed. In the NIOSH investigative report it was concluded that high winds were a contributing factor. Following the fire and investigation, the Houston Fire Department had asked NIST to recreate the fire behavior in order to learn from the dynamics of wind-driven fire.

“NIST Study of Fatal Texas Fire Urges Firefighters to Consider Wind Effects”


Using site data and computer modeling NIST created two simulations, one with wind and one without, to explain the fire behavior in the deadly Houston blaze. The end result revealed two different fires and highlighted the significant effect wind can have on residential structure fires. In the wind-driven simulation floor-to-ceiling temperatures increased rapidly in excess of 500 degrees Fahrenheit in the flow path where the victims were located. In their report, NIST concluded that the wind effects are similar to initial wind-driven fire testing done in New York City and Chicago.

In the earlier wind-driven laboratory experiments, NIST created fire conditions in a furnished apartment layout with doors to the fire room and common hallway left open.  As the fire grew, flames caused the window to fail allowing for simulated high speed wind to enter the fire room. Video shows the significant change the fire took through the flow path as it intensified. This pattern of behavior was reiterated in the Houston test as well. In between the two, the fire service has seen several fires recently where high wind was a contributing factor in the fire’s behavior.  Some of those are:

“SFFD LODD Report Details Events at Tragic Diamond Heights House Fire”
Intense fire event was caused when a window shattered in the room where the fire started.

“Virginia Firefighters Battle Three-Alarm Townhouse Fire”

Wind fans Prince William County fire to 3-alarms.

“Colorado Firefighters Recall Being Burned, Radios Melting in Fire”
Firefighters Paine and Jacovetta nearly died when a wind driven fire engulfed them.

“Wind-Driven Fire Damages Georgia Auto Dealership”

Over a dozen cars damaged as flames swept the sales lot.

The NIST simulations, coupled with earlier research and actual incidents like the one recently in Maryland highlight the need for the entire fire service to recognize the effect high wind has on the fireground. As Dan Madrzykowski stated to in the Maryland story, adjusting fire tactics is critical. Making an exterior attack from the upwind side can have a significant impact in controlling the fire before the interior attack is started, if the upwind side is the burned side. Crews working inside must be continually aware of the potential for rapidly changing conditions.

FireRescue Magazine has presented you with the information needed to educate yourself on the effects of wind-driven fires and fire behavior modeling. Consider all the information that is available to you and your department in order to make the best possible operation as your wind-driven fire.

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Portion of a NIST computer simulation of an April 2009 residential fire in Houston, Texas, showing the deadly wind-driven flow path created by the failure of a large span of windows in the rear of the structure. (NIST Engineering Laboratory photo)
Portion of a NIST computer simulation of an April 2009 residential fire in Houston, Texas, showing the deadly wind-driven flow path created by the failure of a large span of windows in the rear of the structure. (NIST Engineering Laboratory photo)
Fire conditions on Side Charlie as windows fail. (SFFD photo)
Firefighters were trying to enter the building when a rush of air from the rear of the house created a fireball. (Billy McNeel photo)


Wind-Driven Fires: Research and Actual Fires Highlight Fire Behavior Changes

Maryland fire highlights the need to consider wind's effects on your fireground.
Portion of a NIST computer simulation of an April 2009 residential fire in Houston, Texas, showing the deadly wind-driven flow path created by the failure of a large span of windows in the rear of the structure. (NIST Engineering Laboratory photo)


Portion of a NIST computer simulation of an April 2009 residential fire in Houston, Texas, showing the deadly wind-driven flow path created by the failure of a large span of windows in the rear of the structure. (NIST Engineering Laboratory photo)


Fire conditions on Side Charlie as windows fail. (SFFD photo)


Firefighters were trying to enter the building when a rush of air from the rear of the house created a fireball. (Billy McNeel photo)

Fire Behavior During NIST Wind-Driven Fire Research


Dual camera footage of the effect of high wind on fire and the ventilation flow path.


Fire Behavior Testing at UL Laboratory


UL testing of fire behavior in modern construction.



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