Posted: August 3rd, 2022

fire behavior and combustion

FIR 2303, Fire Behavior and Combustion 1

Course Learning Outcomes for Unit II

Upon completion of this unit, students should be able to:

1. Detail the physical properties of the three states of matter.
1.1 Explain why radiative, conductive, and convective heat transfer in fires is especially important.
1.2 Describe the difference between thermally thin and thermally thick materials related to heat

conduction and radiation.
1.3 Explain how the methods of heat transfer create issues in firefighting with the development and

movement of fire.

Learning Outcomes

Learning Activity


Unit Lesson
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Unit II Essay


Unit Lesson
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Unit II Essay


Unit Lesson
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Unit II Essay

Required Unit Resources

Chapter 4: Flow of Fluids

Chapter 5: Heat Transfer

Unit Lesson


In the previous unit, we covered the concepts associated with the dynamics of fire and the outcome of
combustible reactions being determined by thermodynamics. In addition, we understood the lack of
preparedness was cited for firefighter injuries and fatalities. Several authors suggested it was the result of the
attitudes and behavior of firefighters over simplifying fire behavior and combustion (Gann & Friedman, 2015).
In the lesson, we covered the main constituents in fire growth, learning the rate at which fire will spread over
adjacent combustible materials is affected by mass, energy, heat, and enthalpy. We learned an enthalpy flow
is from one point to another because of a temperature difference. We understood that fire starts at the
boundary where vaporization of a liquid turns into a volatile gas mixing with air (oxygen) reaching a
continuous state resulting in combustion (Figure 1). The sauce pan will absorb some energy by the layer of


Three States of Matter

FIR 2303, Fire Behavior and Combustion 2



volatiles above the surface of the cooking oil. Then
convective and conductive heat exchange occurs
above including the volatile gas.

We understood that combustion, as a negative
enthalpy reaction, is an exothermic chemical
reaction between a fuel and an oxidizer resulting in
the generation of substantive heat and light (Gann
& Friedman, 2015). We saw an explanation of
enthalpy reaction where cooking oil, as a liquid,
became vaporized and, as it burned, suspended
solids in smoke resulting in flammable, volatile
mass of solids and aerosols (Figure 2 and Figure

Combustion, according to these authors, always involves oxidation at the molecular level. In this unit, we will
cover the three states of matter.

Three States of Matter

Matter is found in three states: solid, liquid, and gas (Gann & Friedman, 2015). As firefighters, when we enter
a structure fire, we see matter in the form of physical material all around us. Some of the physical material
undergoes a chemical reaction producing intense heat and light through a process of enthalpy. If there are
three states of matter, is fire a solid, a liquid, or a gas? Is there a physical and chemical change with matter?
What are the phase changes related to fire?

Fire has a significant effect on matter or structure. As reviewed in Unit I’s Points to Ponder–Building on the
Scenario, the structure fire resulted from a sauce pan with cooking oil (liquid matter) left unattended on the
stove. The fire grew to one or two rooms (solid matter) being involved. One reason the fire grew rapidly is the
characteristic of the matter in the compartment (rooms) enclosed the flames. We saw the heat generation and
the nature of combustion products in Figure 2 as the fire transitioned during the growth of the fire to the fully
developed phase in the one or two rooms of the apartment. The fire was spreading with turbulent smoke. How
was the fire transmitted from the different states of matter? As firefighters, do we really care about the
conductivity of materials regarding heat or even if heat remains at a uniform temperature as it is transmitted
across the different materials (matter) and its thickness? When we advance handlines down the hallway, do
we see the conductivity of solid materials and how fast the heat flows through it using radiant exposure
equations (Figure 4)? Is it even important to a firefighter? Several years ago, experienced fire tacticians
focused on the temperatures involved in structure fires due to the assigned rating of the personal protective
equipment and not on the transfer of heat from one matter to another (International Fire Service Training
Association [IFSTA], 2013). They based this on the color, volume, velocity, and density of smoke as an
indicator of the estimated temperature. After all, are we only concerned with reading smoke?

Figure 1

Figure 3 Figure 2

FIR 2303, Fire Behavior and Combustion 3


There have been a lot of articles and discussion on reading smoke to help predict fire behavior and
temperatures within a structure. Dodson (2005) suggested that since 1970, many experienced fire tacticians
felt that the ability to read smoke was intuitive and that their experience and understanding of fire behavior
could not be taught through cognitive abilities but could be learned only through repeated exposure at actual
fires. Could these same fire tacticians read smoke today? with the same accuracy? with a multitude of low-
mass synthetic matter? This is not saying reading smoke is not important. It is one of those skills that we need
to understand in addition to understanding the states of matter and how fire is conducted through the different
materials. In the fire academy, we learned about convection, radiation, and conduction as the methods of heat
transfer. Maybe in a simpler time, this was all we needed to know. However, there is more to fully
understanding the transfer of heat in today’s world of dangerous synthetic materials (matter) that respond to
heat like gasoline on a fire.

As we see fire and smoke, we need to understand there is more than just fire and smoke. It is gasification of
solids and aerosols in the form of soot (hydrocarbons and fibers). The explanation of transfer learned in the
fire academy for conduction is the transfer of heat from one body to another by direct contact. The illustration
used in many textbooks is a firefighter advancing towards a fire (Figure 5) suggesting this is the simplest form
of heat transfer (IFSTA, 2013). Radiation is explained as heat waves traveling in straight lines in all directions
(IFSTA, 2013). The most common method of heat transfer is convection and defined as the transfer of heat
through the circulation of matter that is heated (Avillo, 2008).

Some authors have even stated different views on the modes of heat transfer. Gann and Friedman (2015)
suggested the transfer occurs in two ways of conduction and radiation, stating that convection is an
independent mode of heat transfer. Avillo (2008) suggests there are three modes of heat transfer and lists
them as conduction, radiation, and convection, and that they contribute to fire extension on the fire ground. In
fact, many fire instructors have stated there are three modes of heat transfer. What are your thoughts on the
modes of transfer? We know that everything is made up of matter (molecules), and when heated, they absorb
heat and energy. Some molecules in matter move faster than others, based on color, thickness, and texture
of the surface. It is believed that convection is not an independent mode of heat transfer, and it contributes,
along with radiation and conduction, to transfer heat, which is thermal energy.

Figure 4 Figure 5: Conduction

Figure 6: Radiation Figure 7: Convection

FIR 2303, Fire Behavior and Combustion 4


Let’s look at a charcoal grill example.
Place charcoal in a grill, and ignite it
(Figure 8). You will feel heat from the
flames in the form of radiation (radiant
heat) when it is first lit. Then what
happens when the flames died down
and the charcoal turns to embers with
no flame? If you place your hand over
the charcoal about two feet away, you
feel the radiant heat and convection.
Then, slowly move toward the charcoal
embers, and you feel the radiant heat.
Then, back your hand away from the
charcoal, and the heat is diminished. If
you place food on the grill grates, you
see conduction (Figure 9) at the surface
by direct contact. While sitting close to
the grill you will feel the convection
(Figure 10) as the heat is being
circulated around the grill and towards
you. If you place the lid/cover over the
grill, you no longer feel the heat from

convection if the lid is sealed properly. In addition, with the lid off, if you introduce a fan between you and the
grill, you will no longer feel the heat as convection (Figure 11). However, if you were to relocate to the
opposite side you would feel intense heat as the fan’s wind has increased the movement of the heated
molecules in the air as convection. The fan would have an effect on conduction and radiation as the wind
would increase the rate of release of heat from the glowing embers of the charcoal to the grill grate and
produce more radiant heat. Nonetheless, convection is an independent mode of heat transfer. Some
textbooks combine it with conduction because the air molecules are referred as fluid (Gann & Friedman,
2015). Using the grill example applied to a structure fire, wind would have the same effect and increase the
rate of release of heat to create a hostile fire environment.

Building on the Scenario

Firefighters in Apartment 2-B observed the propagation of flames from the kitchen through the
open doorway into the living room. The radiant heat began to cause the fabric on the couch to give
off smoke. Flames devoured the fabric on the back of the couch and then part of the floor. The
smoke initially decreased at the ceiling level and then rapidly started to develop. As heat continued
to build, the flames grew in magnitude then began to spread across the ceiling and other items.
Radiant emission from the flames and the hot upper layer of smoke increased. The fire in the living
room increased continuing to burn their heads where their Nomex hoods were not donned
properly, and even firefighters who donned their hoods properly were being burned. Once again,
the fire appeared to rapidly decrease, and the heat rate being produced decreased quickly until the
sliding glass door broke allowing the wind to reignite the material inside the room. The firefighters
finally had enough pressure in the handline and opened the nozzle. The nozzle did not appear to
have an effect on the flames, and smoke continued to bank down. Command became concerned
as thick black smoke in the thermal column was pushing into the atmosphere and then appeared
to be drawn back towards the fire. The black smoke issuing out the windows and sliding glass door
became turbulent as the volume increased. The smoke appeared to be thicker and thicker almost
like black soot. Wind gusts began to drive the fire along the soffit/eaves of the third floor giving the
appearance that the fire was doubling in size. At the same time Tower 2 was conducting search
and rescue and checking for extension using the Thermal Image Camera (TIC) in Apartment 2-H
(across from 2-B) and noticed a significantly high temperature reading at the ceiling. After opening
the gypsum board and removing 16 inches of fiberglass installation, smoke and embers were seen
around the steel I beam, and then within seconds, fire spread across the ceiling.

Figure 9 Figure 8

Figure 10 Figure 11

FIR 2303, Fire Behavior and Combustion 5


Points to Ponder

What chemical changes occurred in the scenario fire shown in the column on the left of this page? Was the
smoke coming off the solid fuel of the couch pyrolysis, creating gaseous fragments that are different from the
structure of the couch (Figure 12)? Gorbett and Pharr (2011) referred to this as a stoichiometric mixture of the
couch oxidizing during the combustion process where the proportion of reactants is such that there is no
surplus of any reactant after the chemical reaction is completed. In other words, it is the ideal mixture where
complete combustion occurs. What happened to the floor? The walls? The entire structure? The exposures?
Was this an endothermic reaction as seen in Unit I? Was this direct molecular contact through convection,
radiant heat, or conduction? Heat conductivity of a solid material is critical in how fast heat will travel; it is
known as thermal conductivity.

In thermal conductivity matter such as liquids or gases, are poor
conductors compared to solids? The thickness of solid materials
determines the speed in which heat travels and contributes to raising
temperatures within the apartment. Some insulating materials, such as
fiberglass, cannot stop the travel of heat but will reduce the rate of
travel (Avillo, 2008). Gann and Friedman (2015) suggested that 16
inches of fiberglass is considered thermally thick, resulting in having
good insulation qualities. The authors described thermally thick material
(16-inch fiberglass insulation) as having no heat loss from the surfaces
of the material (wood, gypsum board) adjoining the fiberglass as long
as they maintain their ambient temperature. If the fiberglass insulation
was 3 inches, then it would be considered thermally thin and insulation
qualities would diminish (Gann & Friedman, 2015). This means the
thinner layer of fiberglass would allow fire to penetrate into the area
being insulated when exposed for long periods of time. For a thermally
thin material, one or more of the other surface’s (wood, gypsum board)
temperature is elevated, and heat is lost to one of the surrounding
materials. In the scenario, the firefighters who donned their hoods
properly were being burned due to the thermally thin material because
of the exposure time to the heat allowing the garment to become too
thermally thin allowing radiant heat and convective heat to burn them.


It is critical that firefighters understand physical and chemical changes in order to reduce injuries or even
death. Some firefighters may believe that they just need to understand the simpler terms with the basic
knowledge of fire behavior and combustion. However, as more and more synthetic polymer construction
materials are being created, resulting in different reactions to fire, we need to understand the complex
physical characteristics of fire behavior and combustion. Gann and Friedman (2015) suggest heat is
transferred between bodies by conduction and radiation as modes of transfer. However, convection is not an
independent mode of heat transfer. Thermal conductivity of the steel I beam in the scenario would decrease
as temperature increases; whereas, the thermal conductivity of smoke increases with increasing


Avillo, A. (2008). Fireground strategies (2nd ed.). PennWell Corporation.

Dodson, D. W. (2005, September 1). The art of reading smoke. Fire Engineering, 158(9).

Gann, R. G., & Friedman, R. (2015). Principles of fire behavior and combustion (4th ed.). Jones & Bartlett


Figure 12

FIR 2303, Fire Behavior and Combustion 6


Gorbett, G. E., & Pharr, J. L. (2011). Fire dynamics. Pearson.

International Fire Service Training Association. (2013). Essentials of firefighting (6th ed.). Fire Protection


Suggested Unit Resources

In order to access the following resources, click the links below.

Creative Commons has a time-lapse model that shows how fast heat travels through different materials. Click
on the image below to see the model. Once the page populates, click on Preview, then the play button. The
model includes metal, stone, fiberglass, and wood, which are like the materials noted in the garden apartment
scenario for the case study; steel columns and steel I beams support the structure (metal), stone entrance,
fiberglass panels in the stairwell, light weight wood (Type V lightweight wood-frame construction).

This report presents detailed and reduced-order finite element modeling of heat transfer in composite floor
slabs with profiled steel decking.

Jiang J., Main, J. A., Sadek, F., & Weigand, J. M. (2017). Numerical modeling and analysis of heat transfer in

composite slabs with profiled steel decking (NIST Technical Note No. 1958). National Institute of
Standards and Technology.

Structural fire engineering (SFE) is a relatively new interdisciplinary subject that requires a comprehensive
knowledge of heat transfer, fire dynamics, and structural analysis.

Zhang, C., & Asif, U. (2015). Heat transfer principles in thermal calculation of structures in fire. Fire Safety

Journal, 78(November 2015), 85–95.

The fire industry relies on fire engineers and scientists to develop materials and technologies used to resist,
detect, or suppress fire.

Ezekoye, O. A., Hurley, M. J., Torero, J. L., & McGrattan, K. B. (2013, June 25). Applications of heat transfer

fundamentals to fire modeling. Journal of Thermal Science and Engineering Applications.

FIR 2303, Fire Behavior and Combustion 7


Radiation from buoyant diffusion flames, with and without impingement on a flat plate, is studied using a
unique quantitative comparison of measured and simulated images.

McDermott, R. J., Newale, A., Rankin, B., Lalit, H., & Gore, J. P. (2014, July 2). Quantitative infrared imaging

of impinging turbulent buoyant diffusion flames. Paper presented at the Thirty-Fifth International
Symposium on Combustion, San Francisco, CA, United States.

Learning Activities (Nongraded)

Nongraded Learning Activities are provided to aid students in their course of study. You do not have to submit
them. If you have questions, contact your instructor for further guidance and information.

For this activity, you are asked to prepare a reflection paper. Reflect on the concepts you have learned during
your readings. What do you understand completely? What did not quite make sense? The purpose of this
assignment is to provide you with the opportunity to reflect on the material you have read and to expand on it.
If you are unclear about a concept, either review it in the textbook, or ask your professor. Can you apply what
you have learned to your career? How?

This is not a summary. A reflection paper is an opportunity for you to express your thoughts about the
material you are studying by writing about it. Reflection writing is a great way to study because it gives you a
chance to process what you have learned and increases your ability to remember it.

When heated by a fire, building structural components (beams and columns) and partitions (walls, floors, and
ceilings) can weaken. Use this image, along with the questions, to guide you in reflecting on the course

Are the walls, floors, ceilings susceptible to a) ignition of combustibles of heat transfer from the steel I beam.
b) smoke passing through cracks, or c) flames passing through more extensive openings?

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