Fire incident report Bürgerwald Tunnel: Retaining people in vehicles?

On 2 June 2020, a car burned down in the Bürgerwald Tunnel near Waldshut-Tiengen (D). Eleven people suffered smoke inhalation injuries. We spoke with fire chief Peter Wolf about the most important findings from this firefighting operation.

The fire incident

On 2 June 2020, a female motorist drove into the Bürgerwald Tunnel in the direction of Waldshut-Tiengen at around 8:20 a.m. Shortly before reaching the west portal, she noticed the smell of fire and saw flames. She brought her car to a stop in the tunnel 134 meters from the portal exit. Eighteen vehicles were jammed behind her vehicle, which after a short time were completely engulfed in smoke. The first emergency calls were received by the control centre before the alarm of the fire alarm system. The graphic below shows the situation when the Waldshut-Tiengen Fire Service arrived.

From the west portal, the firefighters had a practically unobstructed view of the scene of the fire. Thick black smoke escaped from the east portal. Peter Wolf: «So we had a well-developed upstream side. On the downstream side, however, the smoke filled the entire tunnel profile and practically exited horizontally from the east portal. It only rose after about 50 m into the air.» The pictures below show the location at the portals.

Rapid firefighting

As foreseen in the operational planning, the fire fighting on the upstream side was started immediately according to the tactical principle «extinguish in order to rescue». The first fire apparatus drove to the fire site and was supplied with water by the second apparatus from a hydrant at the portal. Immediately afterwards, the first search and rescue team, also on the upstream side, in other words from the west portal, initially advanced to the scene of the fire.

Retaining people in the vehicles

From Peter Wolf's point of view, the decision of the search & rescue team leader was of central importance for the success of the operation. «This is a very experienced man. He correctly realised that the fire would be extinguished immediately, and the smoke production then would be stopped. » Therefore, people who were in the vehicles in the smoke were reassured by the search and rescue team with appropriate gestures and asked to stay in their vehicles. «That,» says fire chief Wolf, «has worked well.» A short time later, the fire was completely extinguished, and «only» white smoke came out of the east portal.

Eleven self-rescuers suffered smoke inhalation injuries

By the time the fire service arrived, several people had already fled on foot through the escape tunnels. How many exactly is not known. Of these self-rescuers, eleven suffered smoke inhalation injuries and had to be taken to hospitals. One patient had such severe smoke inhalation injuries that he had to be flown by a rescue helicopter to a special clinic for pressure chamber treatment. The driver of the vehicle that caught fire was uninjured.

The firefighters experienced the extent of the smoke in the tunnel tube during the clean-up. Peter Wolf: «The lorries that had been standing in the smoke stank when they drove out as if they had burned themselves! That was very impressive.»

Tactics «extinguish in order to rescue» has proven to be success-ful

The most important summary for Peter Wolf: «The tactic of ‹extinguish in order to rescue› has proven itself completely. The incident would have had far worse consequences if we had tried to save all the occupants of the vehicles through the smoke.» According to Peter Wolf, the detailed deployment preparation and the special tunnel fire training had also paid off. «On the whole, everything went well, and my people did an outstanding job,» Wolf praises his team, which had around 120 people in action. The fact that not everything went smoothly is hard to avoid with such a large-scale operation. For example, tunnel ventilation did not have the desired effect. And a fire apparatus approached with some personnel not cleared for breathing apparatus use. « Overall, communication with the partner organizations still has potential for optimization. And on that,» says Peter Wolf, « we will now work together so that it goes even better next time.»

Retaining is generally an option for rescue

From the point of view of Peter Wolf, who had worked for the Berlin fire service before his time as full-time fire chief of the Waldshut-Tiengen Fire Service, retaining people is generally an option. «As is often the case in Berlin, I use the motto: ‹Extinguishing is (often) the best way to rescue people.› This guiding principle also fits in the vast majority of fires in buildings; the concept of retaining people. If this were considered more frequently, many problems could be avoided.»