Ladder fuels on a multi-story structure

lisbon portugal plants window
An apartment building in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

I took this photo in August of 2012 in Lisbon, Portugal, and was looking at it again today and thought about ladder fuels. I’m not sure about the flammability of this ornamental vegetation, but wondered if a fire could spread up the exterior of this apartment building through the plants… and eventually into the interior of the structure. It might stay green year round since in January the average high temperature there is 55F and the average low at night is 45F.

Some high-rise fires have spread up the exteriors, feasting on synthetic material like laminated styrofoam.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

8 thoughts on “Ladder fuels on a multi-story structure”

  1. It looks like a lot of the larger plants are Juniper, which in known for explosive, high temperature flame spread!

  2. I expect that whatever is on the porch of each apartment is probably more flammable than the live plants on the exterior.

  3. This is very interesting that this was posted…

    I recently reached out tot he MTDC about the flame propagation properties of cannabis plants at indoor grow sites. We have been seeing a lot of interesting things occur in 200,000 square foot buildings with thousands of plants, fans on 24/7 humidities at 50% or less and unknown fuel moisture content.

    I am concerned that we could potentially see wind driven fires indoors. The building codes folks don’t seem to think this a big deal, probably because it has not affected anyone yet.

    Regarding the posted photo, depending on the fuel characteristics, there could be a repeat of the devastating fire that occurred in London not to long ago from fire transferring from floor to floor as a result of the flammable finish. Most of the openings of high rise are not rated for fire (windows) which can also be a problem.

    I’ll be curious to get other peoples thoughts on this…


    1. Hey Bob, I’d love to get that info about cannabis flame propagation properties. We’re working on the fire plan for Humboldt County, CA and it’s a significant issue here.

      1. I would also like to understand the flammable properties of cannabis. “let’s just do it tomorrow”.

  4. Bill, this makes me shudder….I had a really bad experience along these lines, in the Santa Barbara front country just East of highway 101 and Hwy 154 coming off San Marcos Pass. At the time, (1978) I was the Helishot Captain out of San Marcos Station.
    Had a call for a grass fire in an area that was under development with one or two older, established homes. Made a couple turns over the fire, could see Santa Barbara County equipment a few miles out, but coming. Homes appeared to be fairly well fire “prepped” with the exception the grass was brown. Got inserted at the toe of the fire (street) and begin building handline. Key observation I failed to make, was the contractors had a ditch across the access road to install water services to the new development. “Murphy” showed up with the wind and the fire took off for one of the homes that had two “Pencil Point” Junipers on the West facing side of the home. Went across the lawn, into the Junipers, which became twin blow torches under the exposed roof overhang, and fed into the attic vent. Long story short, my failure to see the ditch across the road, and those Junipers caused a total structural loss. The dead grass was short, and had there not been Junipers, I’m sure it would have bumped the house and gone out. Hate to admit it, but I will never forget it, or shed the shame either.jw

  5. The exterior of an 84-floor apartment building in Dubai has caught fire twice, in 2015 and 2017. Interior spaces also burned. Not sure where it started, inside or outside, but it spread quickly up the exterior of the building.

    Some of these high rise fires spread rapidly because of aluminum composite exterior cladding that is offset from the structure, providing a protected chimney for the fire — like in the London fire mentioned by Bob. Other issues are flammable cladding that ignited easily and provides fuel that melts as it burns, dropping flaming chunks of synthetic material.

  6. I would like to participate with you in registering the fires that are happening in Sudan and send it to you for publication

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