The area under your house is called the crawl space, since in most cases you cannot walk upright, but must crawl. If it is a livable space, then it is called a basement. The crawl space is usually where the water and drain pipes and wiring runs and where the air handler for your HVAC is found.
I have been in some crawl spaces where my belly is tight to the ground and my back is rubbing the floor joists. There is nothing good about fires in this space.
A malfunction with electrical wiring or mechanical equipment under a house can cause a fire. The problem is that it is not until an issue exists that we must go under our house. It is recommended that you go under your house periodically, no matter how difficult it is to get under there. Fires in the crawl space occur on an infrequent basis, but can still have the same result: displacement of occupants.
To fight a crawl space fire adequately requires, in many cases, that firefighters cut a hole in the floor. I remember trying to fight a fire in a crawl space from the crawl space. The largest area was right inside the crawl space door, but then you found yourself wedged between the ground and the floor joists, trying to work in limited visibility and in full protective clothing. In fact, I remember having to retire my turnout gear due to contamination caused by rat poisoning. It was after a long and unsuccessful attempt to fight this fire that the incident commander finally authorized us to cut the floor.
Another cause of these fires is a faulty fireplace. As houses age, they deteriorate. Whatever the breakdown is, it can lead to a fire situation. In situations involving the fireplace, these fires may smolder or burn then go out until the next time the fireplace is burning. You may smell smoke and think that it is normal. It is not until the fire shows itself, or the burning smell continues after the fireplace is no longer burning, that you know there is a problem. The only way to deal with this is to keep cutting away walls or flooring until you get to clean wood. The overhaul on these fires is extensive.
As always, the greatest protection is to have adequate numbers of properly operating smoke alarms. In most cases, these fires will burn for a while undetected, since the crawl space is usually not monitored by smoke alarms. Unless someone from the outside sees something or the fire presents itself, either by smoke or flames on the inside, such a fire could smolder for hours or days. A good thing to have when using gas or wood, which is required in new construction, is a carbon monoxide detector. These detectors work in two scenarios, an acute high dose of carbon monoxide or a cumulative buildup over time of carbon monoxide. Both are deadly and undetectable, except by a detector.
No matter how much of a pain it may be, make it a point to go under your home, end-to-end and side-to-side, periodically. Detecting a problem when it is small may prevent you from having to stay in a motel until the problem is fixed.
I will leave you with this bizarre and seemingly unrelated story. We went fishing in the Gulf Stream a few years ago. On the way back, the people in the cabin began to smell something burning. When one of the guys opened the engine compartment below, the fire got air and took off. It had been burning under people’s feet for hours. Thankfully, we were able to deal with it and did not have to jump overboard.
A fire below you is never a good thing, whether you are at home, on a boat, at a motel or at the office. Prevent fires at all costs!