Simulation of an Attic Fire in a Wood Frame Residential Structure - Chicago, IL

Report Date: August 2014

In 2012 in Illinois, a captain in the Chicago Fire Department sustained injuries at a 2-½ story apartment building fire and then succumbed to the injuries at a local hospital. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program determined that rapid fire growth in the area where firefighters were operating was caused by a hidden oxygen-limited fire that was fueled by ventilation of exterior doors. The NIOSH report is available here.

At the request of NIOSH and the Chicago Fire Department, the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) Fire Research Division performed a physics-based investigation of the incident to better understand the fire dynamics. As part of the investigation, NIST performed computer simulations of the event using their Fire Dynamics Simulator (FDS) and created a visualization of the event using their Smokeview software. The NIST study determined that fire started in the attic and spread to the enclosed porch, becoming a ventilation limited fire with progress stopped by a closed door. The door eventually failed due to the high temperatures and pressures present on the involved side. This caused a new flow path into the second floor hallway and kitchen, leading to a rapid increase in temperature and change in conditions where the captain and a firefighter were operating.

As a tool to explain and share their findings, NIST has created a summary of the events and a narrated video detailing the fire behavior and interior conditions during the incident. The summary and video can be found here. These investigations should be used to learn from tragedy in an effort to avoid similar losses in the future.

The full NIST report is available to download below.


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  • National Institute of Standards and Technology

    The NIST Fire Research Division develops, verifies, and utilizes measurements and predictive methods to quantify the behavior of fire and means to reduce the impact of fire on people, property, and the environment. This work involves integration of laboratory measurements, verified methods of prediction, and large-scale fire experiments to demonstrate the use and value of the research products.

    Through its programs in measurement, prediction, systems integration, and the dynamics of fire and its interactions with the built and natural environment, the division provides leadership for advancing the theory and practice of fire safety engineering, fire fighting, fire investigation, fire testing, fire data management, and intentional burning.

Weinschenk, Craig G., Kristopher J. Overholt, and Daniel Madrzykowski. Simulation of an Attic Fire in a Wood Frame Residential Structure - Chicago, IL. Gaithersburg, MD: National Institute for Standards and Technology, Technical Note 1838, 2014. Print.

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