Fire officials tackle challenges of high-rise blazes

In the smoky caldron of a high-rise fire, it is the firefighter’s worst nightmare: a door left ajar, a window that suddenly breaks under intense heat and a blast of wind.

At its worst, the outcome is catastrophic. Known to firefighters as a blowtorch effect, the instant combination of fire and wind can blast fireballs across rooms and down corridors without warning, within seconds, and at temperatures that render hoses and protective clothing of little use.

In New York City, at least 11 people, including four firefighters, have died as a direct result of those kinds of fires since 1980, and dozens of others have been badly burned. For firefighters, “it is like walking into the barrel of a loaded shotgun,” Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said.

Now, amid an expanding search across the nation for better ways to prevent or contain high-rise infernos, the Fire Department, federal fire experts and engineers from Polytechnic University in Brooklyn have taken over part of Governors Island, the 172-acre former Coast Guard installation off Lower Manhattan, for a week of pyrotechnics intended to test “alternative strategies and tactics for wind-driven events.”

Firefighters from departments in Los Angeles; Chicago; Austin, Tex.; and several other cities across the country will be observing. By Friday, a seven-story brick apartment building will have been gutted by a daily series of fires that will be intentionally set. The building, one of several on the island that have been designated for demolition later this year, has been laced with fireproof wiring, sensors to record heat and pressure, and video cameras to analyze each blaze: the movement of air, fire, and smoke, and the impact of wind when it enters the mix.

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