I was reading the Daily Business Plan for Emergency Operations of CF and EMS the other day, and saw where they responded to a working attic fire. Depending on the layout of your home, there are not many things that can cause an attic fire, so let’s talk about those things. I live in a rancher, and my attic access is via pull-down stairs. My son has a walk-in access to his attic space, and doors in the knee walls, which lead to other spaces, including access to the upstairs air handler.
Causes of attic fires can include: something electrical, which is the most common cause, a malfunctioning ceiling fan or bathroom fan, a short-circuited light, a malfunction in an air handler, a malfunction in a gas furnace, a crack in the chimney in the attic space or a lightning strike. There could be other causes, but these will account for most. Attic fires have the possibility of burning for a period of time before detected, and people outside of the home detect many.
Another cause(s) deals with building construction, so I thought that I would deal with these separately. Older, two-story homes were built with no fire stops in the walls, known as balloon frame. Fire will start on the first or second floor and rapidly progress to the attic. Many homes and apartments have vinyl siding, which acts like gasoline when exposed to fire. Fire rapidly spreads to the soffit and into the attic from outside to inside.
So, what can you do to prevent fires in the attic or cut down on burn time? As I have told you many times in the past, if you notice something not working properly, then replace it. A few months ago, we turned on a bedroom ceiling fan and it did nothing but hum, with no blade action. If you are able, you may want to inspect all heat sources that pass through or sit in your attic. Another suggestion would be to put a smoke alarm in your attic space. The smoke alarm might be hard to hear, but hopefully you will hear it.
Most attic space fires are difficult for firefighters to battle. Pull-down stairwells are usually not trusted, especially if it’s on fire (mine is made of wood). Storage causes issues, as well as blown-in insulation. One type is like shredded newspaper that smolders, once it catches fire. Some attics only have scuttle holes, which require firefighters to remove the bottle off their back to go through the hole, unless they create a bigger opening. In fact, I am reminded of the scuttle opening at Thomas Dale High School Ninth-Grade campus building. You have to pass through a tight opening through concrete, to an attic space that yields heavy timber construction.
As I stated at the beginning, attic fires are infrequent, but do occur. Any space where heat, fuel and oxygen exists, has the potential for a fire. Do everything possible to insure that everything in your attic is as neat as possible, as well as replace malfunctioning equipment.