19 October 2011

Flashover in a Bottle

One of the most feared words in the vocabulary of modern firefighters is "backdraft." We fear the very thought of one, and with good reason. Despite what it is called in the fire service, the scientists that study fire and it's development simply see this as another form of a flashover, which by it's definition is a rapid change in a developing room fire to a full room fire. So, a backdraft would fit the classification of a flashover.

The backdraft phenomena is often classified into a group of dramatic fire behavior situations called smoke explosions. I would propose to you that a smoke explosion is simply a "bottled flashover."


During a house fire, generally, the percentage of available oxygen to support combustion will drop until the fire self-ventilates. What you get as the level of oxygen drops the self sustaining chemical chain reaction will become less efficient and less complete, however the fire will continue to burn openly. When the fire self ventilates, either through burning through the area above the fire or by a window failure it will become less and less ventilation limited and more fuel limited.

If the fire is completely contained (such as in concrete buildings, building with energy efficient windows, or without windows at all) the heat will remain but will not trigger a reaction with the fuel in the air simply because the oxygen concentration is too low. The fire has become ventilation limited, and the fire enters a "hot smoldering" phase.

At this point, the heat remains very high at the ceiling level but may drop off as it gets closer to the floor. The smoke layer will be very low to the floor but may be cooler than expected. The rapid progression of the fire to flashover has been slowed down by the exclusion of oxygen by combustion products.This where the flashover becomes bottled, unable to find another oxygen source, it sits and it waits like a shaken soda bottle until someone comes along to open it.

With the opening of a secondary oxygen source (say during a poorly coordinated horizontal ventilation effort, or plain ignorance through improper size up) and the percentage of oxygen suddenly rising, the fire now has free reign to continue open burning as it is now no longer ventilation limited. The result as the fuel-oxygen ratio drops rapidly back into the explosive range is an equally rapid oxidation reaction.


The best way to handle the danger is to vertically ventilate as high as possible. It makes sense to ventilate superheated smoke and gas up and out of a structure. This removes the threat of explosion as you make entry into the structure by not only removing heat but also allowing the gases to exit. Horizontal ventilation is not to be used where you can help it.

Sometimes, however, you may be forced to use horizontal techniques to access a structure where these events are seeming to be occurring. John Norman (FDNY, ret) in his book Fire Officer’s Handbook of Tactics (2005) had an excellent example, and suggests creating a small penetration of the space and large amounts of water immediately directed in, utilizing an indirect attack method FROM THE EXTERIOR. The superheated gas will vaporize the water into steam, creating a barrier and absorbing the heat necessary to trigger an explosion as well as cool the seat of the original fire if it can be reached.

Since we are discussing the use of an indirect attack, it should be mentioned that at this point you are no longer concerned about rescuing occupants as the heat and fire gases will probably have already killed them. An indirect attack should only be used in situations where the rescue of occupants cannot be undertaken because of fire progression or structural instability.


Norman, J. (2005). Fire Officer's Handbook of Tactics (3rd ed). Tulsa, OK: Penwell Publishing.

Quintiere, J. (1998). Principles of Fire Behavior. Albany, NY: Delmar Publishers.

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