The Great Fire of London

The Great Fire of London

“With one’s face in the wind, you were almost burned with a shower of firedrops.

We staid till, it being darkish, we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side [of] the bridge, and in a bow up the hill for an arch of above a mile long: it made me weep to see it.” – Samuel Pepys on seeing the Great Fire of London, Sunday, September 2, 1666.

Fire has been an ever-present threat for as long as people have been civilized, in the literal sense. It is both destructive and uncontrollable, spreading like, well, like wildfire.  Needing only air and a fuel source, it can jump from one spot to another with vicious velocity. This is why, once upon a time, large cities around the world were routinely laid low by all-consuming conflagrations. Just type “great fire of” into Google and you’ll get a quick rundown of some of the most famous. Add to these the innumerable smaller towns and villages that disappeared in a shower of sparks, and it becomes clear that fire is perhaps the greatest threat to established dwellings.

From a modern perspective, the history of fire safety could well be described as a one step forward, one step back process. When chimneys gained popularity in the Middle Ages, they were a vast improvement over lighting a fire in the middle of a great hall under a hole in the roof. Still, through the nineteenth century, wooden homes and businesses could be built in direct contact with each other. This condition is part of what allowed so many famous fires to fan-out so fast. Beginning in the 19th century, fire fighters could tap into municipal water supplies to battle blazes; however, as late as the post- WWII building boom, homes were built with basement garages. What could possibly go wrong with parking a hot car and storing combustibles below the living room?

Fire is as much of a threat as it has ever been, but these days building practices do much more to address the danger. When I inspect a home, fire safety concerns are a part of each system in the house, be it electrical, structural, or heating – even insulation factors into fire safety.

When it comes to garages, fire prevention looms large. Modern garages are designed to be fire-containment areas. Statistically, kitchens and garages are the two most fire-prone rooms in the house. This being the case, the aim is for the garage to be an envelope of sorts. If fire breaks out in the garage, the goal is for people to be able to get out and call the fire department before it has the chance to spread.

It is important to understand how this envelope works. The interior of modern garages are covered in fire-resistant materials: dry-wall, spackle, and metal. Likewise, the door between the garage and rest of the living space is also a metal or fire-rated, exterior door. These won’t stand up to a large fire for long, but even seconds count during an emergency.

So what compromises the ability of a garage to contain fire? Interruptions to the drywall are what I see most frequently: holes from heavy equipment stored in the garage and missing sections of drywall that have been cut away for shelving of some sort. In a number of homes, I have seen parts of the ceiling removed so that supports for elevated storage can be attached to the ceiling joists / trusses.

Fire can easily work its way through unsealed holes in the garage interior.

Fire can easily work its way through unsealed holes in the garage interior.

A subtler disruption in the drywall can be recessed lighting. Remove the actual light in your mind’s eye and you’ll realize that recessed lighting puts a bunch of holes in the ceiling. The scary truth of it is that fire doesn’t need much to get into the wood framing above the garage, and from there the whole house is at risk.[1]

Though their requirement is relatively recent, I always recommend that the door from the garage to the rest of the house have self-closing hinges. These days self-closing hinges are very unobtrusive. However, if you’re nostalgic for those mundanely municipal units that groan and shudder for a full minute, I’m sure they would do the trick as well. The trick with self-closing hinges is that they can be disabled, and forgotten. Often this is done during a move when it is nice to have the garage door stay open. Still, self-closers are a cheap, easy-to-use upgrade that makes a house safer.

Making older attached garages fire-containment areas may not be as cheap, but it is possible. Lots of mid-century homes have paneling in the garage and wooden interior passage doors that should be replaced.

Wood paneling, here peg-board, is definitely not fire-resistant.

Wood paneling, here peg-board, is definitely not fire-resistant.

The Great Fire of London began in a small bakery. In the 17th century businesses and dwelling space were often one and the same. We’ll never know the exact circumstances of how the fire started, but too many fires are the result of unwitting negligence.[2] Collectively, we have an awful ability to see past potential danger in places we see every day. That hole in the garage wall from the bike handles or that time you knocked the bracket for the garage door loose when the Christmas tree was tied to the top of the car are easily forgotten in a part of the house that doesn’t need to look good. Danger can never been completely engineered away, but whether you’re buying or renovating, think about your garage from a fire-safety standpoint.

–          Joe


[1] Well driven screws do little to compromise the fire containment of the space. Being metal, they are also fire-resistant. Poorly driven screws or screw holes that have not been patched, however, are problematic.

[2] A clumsy cow knocking over a lantern is the legendary starter of The Great Fire of Chicago.