The New York Fire Department Is Burning 20 Houses Down — On Purpose

A house fire in New Jersey. Photo: Flickr user Anthony Quintano

Plastic-filled furniture is changing how house fires burn. By the time fire fighters arrive, the fast-burning plastic has usually used up all the oxygen in the house. When the firefighters break open windows—a practice meant to help smoke and gas escape—oxygen rushes in, feeding the fire all over again.

Today, the New York Fire Department, along with a team of scientists, are going to burn down 20 vacant houses furnished with goodies from hotel liquidation sales. The aim: figuring out better ways of fighting these new-fangled fires, reports The New York Times:

For instance, it has long been considered a cardinal sin for firefighters to spray water on a room full of smoke with no flames. Water drives the smoke from the ceiling toward the floor, eliminating the low foot or two of visibility — and oxygen — along the floor that firefighters relied on to navigate an unfamiliar house and that survivors needed to breathe.

Some chiefs within the Fire Department have come to believe, however, that quickly dousing a smoky room to cool the gases near the ceiling might be more important than preserving any smoke-free corridor along the floor.

It’s possible that the results of the test will show that fire fighters’ current priorities are exactly backwards: instead of saving people, then fighting the fire, it might make more sense (and save more lives) for fire fighters to focus on killing the fire first, before it kills the inhabitants of the building.

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