Story from The Toronto Star (www.thestar.ca)
It took 20 hours to throttle the 6-alarm Valentine’s Day fire. Here’s how it was done.
Fire and water: The crisis and the cure.
But it took 20 hours of steadfastly blasting the latter to extinguish the roiling conflagration of the former last week at the Badminton and Racquet Club of Toronto.
Bringing the blaze to heel — preventing it from leaping to condos and businesses on the four corners of St. Clair Ave. and Yonge St. — required a collective yeoman effort over three days: 520 firefighters, 167 fire engines, pumpers and three tower trucks with articulating booms, hazardous materials unit, dozens of hoses pumping simultaneously, an excavator and countless air cylinders consumed.
And still, days later, small spot fires continued sparking back to life.
A tall chore, killing a fire; throttling it.
This is how it was done:
Fire Hall 311 is situated almost directly behind the club. The D platoon answered the first alarm — one alarm — Tuesday morning, at 9:35, dispatching a pumper truck with a crew of four that had to manoeuvre around the traffic of club members racing to get out of the lot.
Capt. Steve Green was first-in at what originally manifested as light smoke emerging from an electrical outlet in the ballroom area of the complex. The building’s superintendent reported he’d used a fire extinguisher and believed he’d doused the problem.
“We don’t take anybody’s words until we investigate thoroughly ourselves,” recounts Dennis Graba, driver of Pumper 311. “It kind of presented initially as a routine electrical fire, nothing significant. There were no flames visible.”
Green suspected the problem was above, beyond the ceiling. They went up the stairs. “We could tell there was definitely something more aggressive burning up ahead,” in the small mechanical room, says Graba. “As it was burning up it was pushing down and out.”
Within moments, Green had orchestrated a preliminary rapid-attack plan, his crew hooking into on-site hose cabinets — charging the standpipes, it’s called; the club had its own firefighting water supply on the premises, helpfully.
“The fire was coming from the top, working its way down,” continues Graba. “We were able to take a peek inside. You could see that the flames were coming down the staircase.” And it was rapidly gaining momentum. “We tried to attack it with some larger hoses. But directing the hose stream wasn’t working so we went in with handlines to stop it from coming down any further.”
Most people fortunately will never have any experience with how quickly a small fire can turn into a big fire. “This was turning into a big fire,” says Graba. “I’m running lines into the building, then I’m running lines up the stairs. We had attack lines coming off the truck. Every port on this truck had hose lines going off, every which way, nine of them.”
“I’ve been on 15 years now and it still amazes me how quickly fire can grow,” marvels Graba. “It’s mesmerizing. After we’ve had big hoses on it, big water playing on the fire and it just keeps growing. It’s wild. Just the power of flame and fire — a bit of a beast or a dragon, what we call it.”
More pumpers coming, another aerial, an airlight truck is dispatched. They’ve no idea what’s burning — the fire-load — but it’s an old building, lots of wood, rafters, beams, insulation, maybe chemicals. “Sometimes there’s stuff that’s not supposed to be there, hiding.”
Hot, too hot.
But the firefighters are at least certain, now, that there are no people left in the building.
From Fire Hall 134, on Montgomery Ave., Capt. Jeff David swung into a pumper truck with his crew. They would be second-in with Green calling for more hoses, meeting the first-in crew at the top of the ballroom stairs, together attempting to enter the mechanical room, switching from 45 mm hoses to the more powerful 65 mm.
“We were pouring a lot of water into the room and we weren’t making any difference,” says David. “It was just getting hotter and it was black. There were flames, we could hear them, but it was so black we couldn’t see them. It was like putting your hand over your face. We couldn’t even tell what size room we were dealing with.
“When we were first trying to get in the room, we could hear the fire and it wasn’t crackling. It was roaring like a subway train in the distance.”
One of his crew, Darren Pugh, yelled: “I’m getting burned!”
Despite the protective gear, the 50-pound basic bunker suits with the balaclavas and face shields, every inch of skin covered, the heat intensity makes it feel like they’re on fire. “It really wasn’t a place to be so I made the decision to get out, backed the crew out,” says David. “A second group behind us took over; they stayed on the landing, didn’t go in the room.
“We went downstairs, punched holes in the ceiling from below. We could see the fire above us. We poured water. That only took a couple of minutes before the roof started to come down and all the crews evacuated.”
David recounts it calmly now, but it was a perilous situation then. He and Green had been standing underneath, planning to use thermal imaging to scope the fire. “Steve read the situation very early on. He started getting guys out quickly. He probably saved lives.”
Both men were feet away when the ceiling suddenly collapsed. “If anybody had been directly underneath, they would have been injured or killed. Tons of steel and wood coming down. It wasn’t just the ceiling, it was the entire roof. And it was the fire, not all the water we’d pumped in there because the water was turning into steam anyway. Time to go.”
An outside commander made the decision to combat the fire defensively rather than offensively — from the exterior. Aerial ladders went up, firefighters positioning themselves on surrounding buildings, on balconies and rooftops. “It’s all about water and where you can get it,” says David. “One of the advantages of an interior attack is you can get at a fire from all angles. Once you’re outside it’s really hard to get at all parts of a fire, on the right spots, without being really close to it. That’s why they last so long. We just have to wait for it to burn itself through certain areas.”
Says Graba: “We have a motto: Risk a lot to save a lot. Risk little to save little. We knew there was no life to look for, so we’re not going to jeopardize our own guys to go in deep. We knew we couldn’t save the building. You back out. That’s when the aerial ladders go to work. At that point it’s called surround-and-drown. Surround the building with water and prevent exposures, prevent the fire from leaping to the other buildings.
“You can only attack something on the inside for so long. Then you have to attack it from the outside.”
Dozens of hose lines pouring water yet it continued to spread, hour after hour after hour, fatigue setting in even as crews rotated on the hoses. “The suits, the air on your back, your breathing apparatus while you’re manhandling a hose. The original adrenalin fades away quickly,” says David. Volunteers brought the fire fighters drinking water and food as they took rests. “Rehab, hydrate, get your pack off your back. Then go back at it.”
Pumper 312 from the Yorkville St. fire house had just attended a small subway fire at Queen’s Park station. They were the first relief crew to arrive, taking over the attack line that waswithdrawing as their 45-minute air cylinders ran out.
“When we got there, there was smoke showing on the east side of the structure and it looked like the fire was well-seated already, getting bigger and bigger,” recalls Capt. Paul O’Brien. “You could tell by the heat inside, extreme heat conditions. Even on the end of a hose line, you could feel the heat coming at us.”
The crews had two crucial factors going for them — nearly everybody present was a seasoned firefighter, with tons of experience. And it wasn’t a particularly cold day, so they weren’t simultaneously freezing and burning. But the blaze was already progressing west and north in the huge complex, threatening attached buildings, all of them of ancient vintage and highly flammable.
“Every structure is different and the fire shows itself to you in different ways,” explains O’Brien. “Fire is like water, it wants to find its own way out. You had to wait till the fire got to you because we couldn’t attack it from the inside anymore and it wasn’t coming through the roof. Fighting it was very complex. We’re moving hose lines, we’re moving equipment. It’s like doing a marathon continuously.”
O’Brien’s crew took a defensive position on the roof of a Yonge St. restaurant, a 16-foot alley gap from the club, deploying 65 mm handlines and three water towers pumping away. “We could see the whole thing collapse as we were fighting it, the centre was collapsing . . .”
Four alarm. Five alarm.
“We went on the fifth alarm,” says Capt. Cheryl Rendle. All the way from Fire Station 145, north of Wilson and Dufferin. They were actually sent first to Fire Hall 135, to fill in at that station before being rerouted to the actual fire.
They staged a couple of blocks south, then were forwarded to get hose lines on the fire from the condo complex at 1430 Yonge. “That building was ridiculously close. You could almost reach out (from the club) and put your hand on it. That’s one of the reasons it was good for us to be on the roof. We protected that building.”
Nearly all residents had already been evacuated. Some were escorted back to their units to retrieve medications. Others, though, they rescued a . . . rat. “A rat in a cage,” laughs Rendle. “We just called it a pet over the radio.”
Another crew rescued a dog.
“We were on the sixth floor, putting our water on the fire from balconies,” says firefighter Barry MacIntyre. “Spots would look like they were going out, you’d put the hose line somewhere else and then the other one would pop up again.
“From where we were, you could look into the building through the roof, you could see it glowing inside but we couldn’t get access to that. We couldn’t get at it from a horizontal angle. When a building collapses onto the fire, it continues to burn underneath where we can’t get water on it.”
That’s why an excavator was eventually summoned, squeezing through a narrow opening from the street. But it was a slow and laborious process . . .
. . . Which 56-year-old Acting Capt. Chris Lawrence had never before experienced in his quarter-century fighting fires.
“Even late at night, maybe 11 o’clock, standing on the roof of Scallywags” — a restaurant at 11 St. Clair Ave. W. — “that fire was not going out. It just wouldn’t go out.”
By then, ironically, all that water had created its own dilemma: 1430 Yonge, with five floors below ground including three levels of parking, was flooding.
Capt. Chris Rowland had brought his specialized technical rescue squad — no water hoses but equipped with “trash pumps,” commonly used to pump water (that may have trash floating in it) from basements or low-lying areas during firefighting operations — to the scene from Station 445 up at Burnhamthorpe and Martin Grove Rds., far in the west end. Their assignment was underground water control — flushing out the tons of water that was putting tremendous strain on the structural foundation of the building with enough pressure to crush concrete walls and the upwards of 200 vehicles parked down there on three levels.
“Saving the cars was a byproduct. Our real fear was all that water going down through the basement and coming through the concrete walls.”
Rowland eyeballed a Land Rover, in particular, as a gauge for the rising tide, watching the water rise from tires to mid-window height and floating. At the lowest level, the water had risen to about 3 metres (10 feet).
The crew ripped out screening from exhaust fans in the basement and “fished” vacuuming hoses through the ventilation shafts from a hole cut out of the building’s back wall. That ingenious tactic sucked out most of the water, flushing it into a lane leading toward St. Michael’s Cemetery, which then drained into street sewers that were being cleared by City of Toronto vacuum trucks.
“We were kind of chasing our tails,” says Rowland. “They needed to put water on the top but we had to get rid of it from the bottom. It has to go somewhere.”
Rowland and his crew cleared the scene at 3 a.m.
The one-alarm crew, first to arrive, walked back to their fire hall at 5:30 in the afternoon — left the truck there — to dry off, change into spare gear. Returned half an hour later and officially checked out at 8:30. O’Brien and his gang were relieved mid-afternoon but were back from 6:30 to 2:30 a.m. David’s crew got back to their station at midnight. Rendle’s pulled out after nine hours — then continued their 24-hour shift by answering two medical calls and responding to a gas leak.
The Badminton and Racquet Club of Toronto fire, which began with a trace of smoke at 9:30 a.m., Feb. 14, was officially pronounced under control at 5:45 a.m. on Feb. 15.
Rosie DiManno usually appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
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