Modern houses favour open, airy living spaces instead of compartmentalised rooms. That means that interior house fires burn faster and hotter than they used to, reaching flashover – the point at which contents start bursting into flame simultaneously – more quickly. To test new techniques for fighting this type of fire, the New York City Fire Department, in collaboration with the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, set fire to 20 abandoned townhouses – formerly Coast Guard barracks – on the city’s Governors Island.
One of the key goals: investigate different ways of ventilating a burning building, since kicking open a door can sometimes blow in enough oxygen to trigger flashover. Each townhouse was outfitted with 100 sensors to monitor temperature, heat flow and gas levels, and the results will be used to suggest changes to firefighting tactics and building codes. – Alex Hutchinson