The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Fire Science: Two Words that Make Us Feel Funny

By Shannon in News on Nov 12, 2006 4:00PM

Chicagoist has a huge sciencey streak in us. One of our favorite experiments in high school chemistry occurred when our teacher put flammable liquids with progressively higher numbers of carbons (propane, pentane, even nonane!) into an empty water cooler bottle, which he proceeded to light on fire. Man, was that cool, seeing those licks of flame kick around the bottle like a pyro's wet dream. We all knew it was a potentially dangerous situation, making it all the more savory. Studies in fire are precious indeed.

relax, this is state of the art equipmentThe Chicago Fire Department understands this fully. They took advantage of the dissolution of the Robert Taylor Homes and purposefully set the last remaining highrise on fire Friday. How ironic is it, after several recent high-profile fires, that the CFD actually starts the blaze in this case? Well, their reason was a grand one: They wanted to test an experimental way to possibly make building fires more escapable and easier to fight. What better way to experiment than with a live burn in viable building? The process, called positive pressure ventilation, involves pointing huge mobilized fans at specific angles and entryways in order to control air flow, pressure and temperature. In ideal situations, a fire's heat can be reduced and its smoke output redirected in an escape route so that residents can get out and firefighters can get in.

Fire commissioner Ray Orozco claims this is the first time a live fire has been done in a highrise for PPV research. Even without that benefit, PPV has been used across the globe, including England and Japan. It has its detractors - it's not foolproof, for sure. Misuse of PPV, like blowing smoke or fire into a room instead of out, can result in more deaths, not less. As valuable as a real controlled fire is for testing, reality often makes a mockery of theory. But now, with over two dozen experiments executed and recorded, the CFD should have a powerful new weapon in their arsenal when it's go time.

Sofa burning experiment via the Building and Fire Research Laboratory.