Cherry Road Fire - Basement fire memorial Image

25th Anniversary of the Cherry Road Fire that Claimed the Lives of Two Firefighters

May 29, 2024

Twenty-five years ago, a basement fire in a townhouse on Cherry Road in Washington, D.C., claimed the lives of firefighter Anthony S. Phillips, Sr. and firefighter Louis J. Matthews, and resulted in career-ending injuries to firefighter Joe Morgan.  

This fire was the first time in the U.S. that a line-of-duty death (LODD) was analyzed using a computational fluid dynamics model known as the Fire Dynamics Simulator (FDS).

The model results showed that the opening of the basement sliding glass doors provided outside air (i.e., oxygen) to a preheated, under-ventilated fire compartment. Within 60 seconds of the rear slider being opened on the basement level, the fire transitioned to flashover. The rapid growth of the basement fire forced high-temperature gasses approximately 1500 °F up the basement stairwell at speeds more than 18 mph. These high-velocity gasses flowed into a preheated, oxygen-depleted, first-floor living room, which interrupted the combustion process and limited the volume of visible flames in the living room. See Figures 1 and 2 below for a visual representation.

Fire conditions with the front door open (side A) and the basement sliding glass doors closed (side C).
Figure 1: Fire conditions with the front door open (side A) and the basement sliding glass doors closed (side C).
Figure 2: Fire conditions shortly after the basement sliding glass doors on side C were opened.
Figure 2: Fire conditions shortly after the basement sliding glass doors on side C were opened.   

Researchers at the Fire Safety Research Institute (FSRI), part of UL Research Institutes, needed information from the incident to validate the model results. Typically, during a LODD incident, the examination only includes thermal damage to the building and potentially other physical evidence. However, in this scenario, FSRI had an invaluable resource, thanks to firefighter Joe Morgan’s willingness to share eye-witness testimony of what he experienced on scene. Joe’s message recorded in this video underscores the value of training and maintaining situational awareness.

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While much was learned from the Cherry Road fire, as it was used to help quantify the heat and speed of a fire as well as help understand what we now refer to as a flow path with a low-intake/high-exhaust vent scenario, firefighters are still losing their lives to fires just like this one. 

Traditionally, firefighters enter the front door of a home with a fire on a lower level that could quickly become well ventilated if  a door opened or a window broke on the basement level. These basement-level vents serve as efficient fresh air vents for the intake portion of the flow path. Fresh air supplied to a ventilation-limited fire environment will enable the fire to grow. The open front door then serves as an efficient vertical exhaust vent to the basement fire. The exhaust portion of the flow path becomes the open path from the basement, up the stairway, through the upper floor, and out the front door. Firefighters who end up operating in this exhaust portion of the flow path are left in a high-risk area, as the resulting thermal conditions can quickly overwhelm the protective capabilities of their personal protective equipment.

In the past 25 years, FSRI has conducted significant research on low-intake, high-exhaust fires.  FSRI initially worked with the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) to conduct row home experiments on Governors Island. These experiments aimed to improve firefighter safety and occupant survivability by applying tactical considerations for controlling ventilation and flow paths and using offensive exterior fire attacks to maximize tenability. This study resulted in the Research for the Development of More Effective Tactics online training.

FSRI continued to conduct numerous experiments and partnered with other fire service organizations to amplify the findings in hopes of reducing firefighter injuries and deaths. FSRI worked with the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) to develop the Understanding and Fighting Basement Fires course that is available via FSRI’s Fire Safety Academy

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The Coordinated Fire Attack Project continued the examination of multi-level flow paths and methods to control them. FSRI and local fire departments conducted this project inside single-family homes, multi-family low-rise apartments, and commercial strip malls. In collaboration with the Cobb County Fire and Emergency Services Department and the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department, FSRI conducted a series of experiments in acquired apartment buildings. These experiments resulted in another online training course for the fire service that addresses floor below fires. 

District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department (DC FEMS) shared a fireground success story that also illustrated culture change and learning from research combined with experience. They used an exterior hose stream directed through a basement window on a lower-level fire, enabling crews on the floors above to search and continue their work. Watch their story here.

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The latest resource developed as a result of this research and 25 years of fireground knowledge is a result of a partnership between the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and the DC FEMS. This video highlights the challenges of and tactics for fighting row house fires. 

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As we look back on the Cherry Road fire from 1999 and the 25 years of research and learnings since, we hope the fire service will reflect on the following key takeaways:

  • Size-up is critical to identify key details about the structure and the fire itself. 
  • During size-up, recognize both the pre-existing flow path and those that might be created by responding firefighters in order to take action to prevent rapid flame spread through the structure. 
  • Control flow paths, especially those with an air intake on or below the fire floor and a high exhaust on the floor(s) above. This will enable you to limit the speed and growth of the fire throughout the structure.
  • Fight the fire on its own level. Get the primary line to a position where it can be the most effective.
  • In the case of a wind-impacted fire, fight the fire with the wind at your back. 

To discuss these takeaways with your fellow firefighters and access several of the videos listed above, please download “Continuing the Conversation: Low Intake, High Exhaust Flow Paths.”