Firefighters warn about danger of older, 'balloon frame' homes

Flames can spread from foundation to roof in seconds, officials say

Fire crews have a warning about older homes, especially row houses, after a kitchen fire got out of control in minutes over the weekend.

According to firefighters, the way your home is constructed could make it a bigger fire risk.

It's called "balloon frame" construction, and thousands of homes around the region have it.

A fire that gutted a balloon frame home in Allentown on Sunday started small, with a family making pierogies.

"It pretty much ran right up to walls into the roof, and at that point, we just couldn't get ahead of it," said Capt. John Christopher, with the Allentown Fire Dept.

The reason the fire on Susquehanna Street got so out-of-control so fast is the way the house was constructed.

Balloon-frame homes, popular in the 1930s and 40s, are a common sight. Unlike newer houses, where each floor is constructed individually with fire stops between them, balloon-frame homes share just just exterior wall -- for the whole house.

Think of it like a pre-fabricated bookcase, where each shelf rests on pegs inside a pre-made, rectangular frame. The floors of balloon-frame homes are somewhat similar.

"The exterior walls of the home go from the foundation all the way to the roof," said Peter Farrell, with Lehigh Home Inspections. "And the floors are hung off of that framing."

That's dangerous because, once flames get into the walls, there's nothing to stop the flames from spreading to the roof in seconds.

"You put that fire out, but it had already gotten into the walls and that -- between the studs there -- it kind of acted like a chimney," said Christoper.

If you live in one of these homes, Farrell said retrofitting the walls could cost thousands.

"It would be very expensive to go ahead and rip out your lath and plaster walls and insert fire stops," he said.

The better advice, according to fire experts, is to keep plenty of smoke detectors throughout your house. If you do have a fire -- no matter how small -- in one of these homes, call firefighters anyway. Crews need to make sure heat isn't trapped in your walls.

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Allentown, PA 18102




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