The fire is out on Graves Avenue and the firefighters and the reporters have left, then the building inspector comes around and pins his notice on the front door and the people who clean up arrive.
The crew of people from the firm that someone had hired to clean up were in and out of the building when I was there on Monday. Today it is raining and there’s only a tarp on the roof. More water is probably comng in as I type. There is a stench to a fire-damaged building that you can smell fifty feet away. A dead building smell, a mix of ash and rot and smoke and sodden drapes and mattresses and God knows what. Food is going bad in the refrigerator, electricity is shut off. The fire that was under control in under an hour rendered this whole building uninhabitable. According to the official fire report, the fire started on the third floor porch where someone was smoking. Hot ashes ignited a fire in the plastic siding, and it spread to the porch ceiling. Fire damage seemed to have been largely confined to the porch and roof, but the firefighters had to chop holes in the third floor ceiling to get access to the fire. Damage to the building was estimated to be seven hundred thousand dollars. The water that was used to put the blaze out affected the whole building. Looking through the front door I could see a ceiling had dropped at the bottom of the first floor stairwell.
Firefighting the way it is traditionally done is a brutalistic affair, featuring big guys with boots and OBAs manhandling heavy hoses through which roar tons of water. And that water once it has cooled and put out the fire has to be liberally re-applied, pumped and pumped until all the hot spots are cold.
Meanwhile the water sticks around, flooding the floors, pouring down stairwells, penetrating the ceilings and saturating the insulation between the walls. The firefighters at Graves Avenue made a heroic effort to contain and divert the water to keep it from damaging the lower apartments, but there’s only so much you can do to fight gravity. After the water has penetrated the buildings innards, you have the hazard of black mold forming. The big fire up on Round Hill last August destroyed Rogers Hall in the old Clark School campus. When the snoke cleared, it seemed that the adjoining Hubbard Hall had been saved, but all the water poured on a fire wall between it and Rogers took its toll.
Hubbard Hall (picture taken last year)
There were initial forecasts that the tenants would be back in their luxury apartments by October first, but the cleaned up units failed inspection because the insulation behind the walls was water soaked. Eight months have gone by and only last week was the owner able to list the front apartments in Hubbard Hall with rental agencies.
Northampton has new fire engine on order with CAFS capability
So now, with high property values contributing to high financial losses from even small fires, it makes more sense in most cases to use foam, which originally was developed to put out airport fires. This November, Northampton will get a new Pierce pumper that will be equipped with a thousand gallon Class A foam system, which should cut collateral damage and enable Northampton to put out fires where water pressures are low. The Chief told me that it will be operating out of the Florence station, and training firefighters to use this new system has already started.
Small rural fire departments like Cummington have pioneered use of the CAFS-equipped pumpers. CAFS stands for Compressed Air Foam System which routinely put out fires with a minimum of water,using air injection of a fire retardant mixed with the water in the tanks of their new pumper. The hoses that apply the foam are light, which means women who are fire-fighters may not have to spend so much time at the gym. What foam does is to bond with the carbonized wood, so it sticks to and seals off the burning surface from the oxygen in the air. It stays put on the fire, doesn’t evaporate or run off. Cummington uses Phoscheck, a chemical recommended by the U.S. Forest Service. They used only 32 gallons of suppressant to put out the fire featured in this article. One gallon of suppressant produces 20 gallons of foam, which makes the water go a lot further.
Here is an article with some cogent selling points for the CAFs system (caution, website belongs to a manufacturer of CAFs equipment.