Chester County insurance lab helps put science on the street

dworthington@heraldonline.comNovember 12, 2013 

— It was just like many of the fires the Richburg Volunteer Fire and Rescue department responds to – a porch almost engulfed in flames, threatening to consume the rest of the house.

The volunteers started spraying water at the base of the house and then working their up the wall as the flames stretched almost to the top of the roof.

The water stopped the fire’s intensity. The volunteers then worked the perimeter of the house. The smell of burning plastic suggested something was still on fire. They upended the front porch – built from composite plastic – to find more fire.

Soon the smell of burning wood was replaced by the smoke that hung close to the ground around the burnt house.

But this was not a usual fire for the volunteers. It was inside the cavernous Chester County lab of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety.

The fire was deliberate, but it had not been set. The lab showered the house with burning embers. The lab’s giant fans swirled the embers. Some embers bounced off the roof. Other embers caught the dry shrubs and pine straw on fire. The fire moved from the shrubs to the cedar shake siding, moving across the front of the house. When the fire reached the corner of the house – shielded from the wind – the fire really took hold.

“Just like what happened in Horry County,” said Ray Shane, South Carolina’s fire marshal.

In 2009, a wildfire destroyed 76 homes, damaged 97 and caused $50 million in property losses in North Myrtle Beach. It was the state’s worst wildfire. There have been other serious wildfires in Horry County since then, but none as deadly as the 2009 fire.

When Tuesday’s fire turned the corner, Richburg volunteers T. Melton and Barry Branch grabbed a fire hose and went to work. They saved the basic structure, a test house the institute intends to use repeatedly for other ember tests. Had Melton and Branch waited, institute officials said, the fire would have quickly consumed their test house.

It was, lab officials said, another example of the work they do. It’s not science just for the sake of science, they said. It’s science with the focus on finding ways to save life and property and putting those findings to immediate use.

The lab creates weather indoors and measures its effects on full-scale houses and buildings. In one test, winds equal to a hurricane smashed into a house and scattered its pieces among the Chester County countryside outside the lab’s large doors. Synthetic hail – about as close as you can come to the real thing – has smashed into roofs, cars and patio furniture. The result of each hit was carefully recorded on film and the impacts measured precisely.

Each aspect of these tests has been carefully documented so that lab can repeat the tests to see if results vary.

Tuesday’s embers test was for a select audience. U.S. Rep Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was on hand. U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., chairman of the Economic Development, Public Building and Emergency Management Subcommittee of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committe, was also there to watch.

Joining them was U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-Indian Land, and representatives from Homeland Security, insurance companies and various fire officials.

Earlier in the day, Gov. Nikki Haley toured the facility, but left before the embers test.

Each was wowed by the work of the lab. Each saw the potential of the lab’s work to help governments better prepare for natural disasters. Lab officials made sure their guests saw the benefits of not only better materials and construction techniques, but the need for better building codes to make structures more weather resistant.

None, however, was more studious than the volunteers from the Richburg Volunteer Fire and Rescue department. The volunteers carefully watched the fire, learning how it spread. They watched to see how fast – or slow – the fire moved and learned what material burned first. Pine straw piled against the foundation of the porch ignited the embers.

“Typically, we rush in and put and a fire out,” Melton said. “We don’t get to see how a fire behaves, how fire travels.”

Tuesday – as well as other times they have visited the center – was a learning experience.

“This is putting science on the street,” Melton said.

Don Worthington •  803-329-4066

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