May 18, 2023 - News

What a five-alarm fire means, and why it’s so devastating for Charlotte


The massive fire that started at a construction site in SouthPark on May 18 is among the worst fires Charlotte’s seen in the 21st century.

What’s happening: An under-construction apartment building caught fire Thursday morning while crews of workers were on site. The exact cause is undetermined, but we know the fire spread rapidly through what appears to be a primarily wooden structure.

  • Two construction workers remain unaccounted for as of 1:30pm, according to Charlotte Fire.
  • 15 workers were rescued from the site Thursday morning, including one worker on a crane who has been transported to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, the fire department said during a press conference.

A five-alarm fire — the most severe response for a fire — is rare in Charlotte. It could take days for the smoke to fully dissipate.

[Read more of our reporting as it develops: Massive fire breaks out at SouthPark construction site]

How it works: A fire’s severity is ranked using a fire alarm dispatch system that explains how many firefighting teams will be needed to put it out and how long it’ll take to put out the fire.

  • One-alarm: This is the most basic response typically for small home fires.
  • Two-alarm: More alarms means more back-up, like what’s needed for a larger home fire.
  • Three-alarm: Anything past this point is considered a very large fire with a considerably larger team.
  • Four-alarm: A four-alarm fire is even more severe and happens rarely — only a couple times a year in most cities.
  • Five-alarm: This is a catastrophic event and very rare. It’s the most severe level of the alarm system and means that over 20 fire engine squads will be on the scene. In even more rare cases, fires can reach a sixth alarm.

Flashback: When a five-alarm fire broke out at a similarly under-construction apartment building in Raleigh in 2017, it spread to nearby buildings and displaced about 100 people. The fire is believed to be Raleigh’s largest in 100 years.

  • The largest known Charlotte fire in the 20th century was in 1954 when Railway Freight Station’s two-block-long Uptown building caught fire and destroyed the entire station and 23 freight cars.
  • The deadliest Charlotte fire was in 1940 when a fire at Guthery Apartments killed nine people.

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