Author(s): Richard Campbell. Published on January 3, 2017.



Heater blamed for $5.5 million residential construction fire

A fire at a multi-unit residential construction site (pictured at left) caused an estimated $5.5 million in damage. There were no injuries reported.

A passerby called 911 to report the fire just before 5 a.m., but investigators indicated that the fire had a lengthy head start before it was first spotted.

Newspapers reported that 4 fire departments responded to the fire, which continued to burn three hours after units first reached the scene. Cold temperatures were blamed for equipment icing up and complicating extinguishment.

Investigators determined that the fire started when a construction heater in a third-floor hallway ignited nearby combustibles. The fire originated on one side of a firewall near the center of the building. Because doors had not yet been installed, the fire was able to travel to an unprotected side, where there was substantial fuel, then traveled via the attic throughout the entire structure.

Residential sprinklers and smoke alarms were not yet operational.

The structure was three stories in height and constructed with a wood frame and walls and wood joist floor framing, with a wood truss roof frame.

No information was available on the square footage of the structure. However, newspaper reports indicated that the complex had 306 units ranging from 642 to 1,346 square feet (56 to 125 square meters).


Smoking materials, supplemental oxygen blamed for fatal fire

Firefighters were able to evacuate a resident after responding to a report of fire from a neighboring apartment, but the resident succumbed to smoke inhalation injuries after being transported to a local hospital.

Investigators determined that the fire started when smoking materials ignited a recliner and believe that the resident fell asleep while using supplemental oxygen. News reports indicated that crews pulled the resident from the apartment as fire spread through the living room.

The fire was limited to the victim’s unit, which was part of a larger apartment complex.

Smoke detectors located in hallway common areas successfully activated, but investigators were unable to determine whether a stand-alone smoke alarm in the victim’s residence was operational. The apartment was not protected by a sprinkler system.

The complex was three stories in height and had a ground floor area of 9,717 square feet (903 square meters).

The fire caused $75,000 in damage to the structure, which was valued at $4 million, and $35,000 in damage to apartment contents.


Cooking materials cause deadly fire

A male resident died of smoke inhalation injuries after cooking materials left on a stove ignited as he slept, resulting in a fire that spread to cabinets and then throughout the kitchen and other areas of the home.

Firefighters responded after a passerby spotted the fire at midnight and called 911.

The house was a single-story structure and occupied a ground floor area of 800 square feet (74 square meters). It was constructed with a wood frame and roof deck and asphalt shingles. It was not equipped with smoke alarms or an automatic extinguishing system.

The fire caused an estimated $20,000 in damage to the structure, which was valued at $40,000, and $3,000 to its contents, valued at $5,000.


Stove used for heating starts fatal apartment fire

One man died in an early morning apartment fire that started when items of clothing caught fire after they were placed near a stove to dry.

Firefighters were summoned to the fire in a 15-story apartment complex by a neighbor’s 911 call at 2:37 a.m. First arriving units found heavy smoke conditions in the victim’s apartment on the sixth floor, but indicated that the fire had largely burned itself out by the time they reached the scene.

Crews found the occupant unconscious and face down in a rear living room near the kitchen and pulled him into the hallway, passing him to another crew, who carried him to the third floor to perform CPR. The resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful and a medical examiner on the scene indicated that the victim succumbed to apparent smoke inhalation injuries. One firefighter was taken to the hospital for treatment of strain injuries in his neck.

Investigators determined that the occupant was using the gas stove to heat the apartment. He had left laundry hanging from kitchen cabinets over the stove when the clothing caught fire.

The apartment was equipped with a battery-operated smoke alarm in the hallway. The fire department noted that a centrally monitored smoke alarm would have permitted faster notification. The apartment was not equipped with sprinkler protection.

The building was constructed with concrete walls and floor framing and a concrete-on-steel roof deck.

No information was available on the dollar value of losses.


Assisted living facility damaged in fire started by smoking materials

A fire at an assisted living facility that investigators attributed to smoking materials caused more than $3 million in damage. No injuries were reported in the fire.

The fire department was notified of the fire at 5:45 a.m. by a monitoring company after a fire alarm sounded at the care facility. A second alarm was called when a responding firefighter on his way to the engine house observed heavy fire from the care facility’s third floor and attic.

The first arriving crew reached the scene at 5:53 a.m. to find fire in two apartments on the third floor and the attic. Facility staff informed the crew that all residents had been evacuated from the building, which contained 108 units.

The initial crew deployed a handline and began to knock the fire down from the ground. A second apparatus arrived at 5:55 a.m. and was assigned to establish a water supply to the first engine and set up a ladder. The crew from the second apparatus was then instructed to use a supply hose to suppress the remaining fire that could not be extinguished from ground level.

At 6 a.m., two firefighters initiated a primary search of the third floor to confirm that all rooms were clear. Additional arriving crews conducted searches of the building’s remaining floors and wings. Primary and secondary searches of the entire facility were complete by 6:32 a.m.

Due to freezing conditions, incident command contacted the local public works department to apply salt in areas where crews were working and to keep roadways open for transporting residents, who were evacuated to a local high school gymnasium. A local hospital also made space available for residents until other arrangements could be made.

Investigators determined that the fire started when discarded smoking materials that had been deposited in a planter on a third floor balcony ignited an artificial plant, then spread to the exterior sidewall, roof, and deck.

The facility was a three-story, multi-family residence with three wings and occupied a ground floor area of 23,389 square feet (2,173 square meters). It was constructed with a wood frame and walls and had asphalt shingling. The facility was equipped with smoke detectors in all living areas and heat detectors in the attic space, as well as an automatic sprinkler system. Two sprinkler heads opened and prevented fire from entering the rooms, although parts of the interior suffered extensive smoke and water damage.

The fire caused $3 million in damage to the structure and $80,000 to contents.


Smoking in bed blamed for blaze that kills one, injures another

An early morning house fire claimed the life of one resident and caused moderate injuries to a second, but two other residents were able to escape.

Firefighters were dispatched to the scene at 5:16 a.m. and arrived nine minutes later to find heavy smoke showing from a side window on the second floor of the house. Two occupants standing outside the residence informed firefighters that two additional occupants were still inside. Firefighters learned that the remaining occupants were likely located in the room where smoke was showing, as well as in a front bedroom also on the second floor.

Crews began rescue efforts by ladder at the front bedroom, but were met with heavy smoke after breaking the window. Unable to see anybody inside after sweeping the interior with a thermal imaging camera, the rescue team was forced to retreat to ground level when fire spread quickly through the room and out the window.

While the initial rescue was still in progress, a second rescue team entered the house and attempted to locate the victim in the side room. Inside, they spotted a male victim on the stairs and quickly removed him from the house, then returned to mount an interior attack on the fire. Crews continued their rescue efforts at the front of the house by taking a handline up the ladder and extinguishing the fire in order to permit entry. The body of a female resident was found in the bedroom.

The injured resident was transported to an emergency care facility. Media reports indicated that he was released after treatment for burn injuries.

A newspaper report quoted the fire department’s investigator as indicating that the fire was caused by smoking materials while a resident was smoking in bed.

Damage to the house, a two-story structure, was estimated at $45,000.


Woodstove ashes start fatal fire

An elderly man suffered fatal injuries in a house fire that began when ashes from a woodstove ignited a cardboard box in which they were being stored.

A friend of the resident called 911 after stopping by the house and discovering the fire.

According to news reports, flames could be seen shooting from the windows and from the roof of the house shortly after the fire was detected. Firefighters from at least six departments assisted in fighting the fire and were said to be at the scene for several hours.

Investigators indicated that the fire started in the basement, where the wood stove was located, and spread via an open stairway to the main floor where the victim was located. The man was unable to escape due to poor health and was found in the doorway of the residence. The cause of death was a combination of burn and smoke inhalation injuries.

The house was a two-story structure with a ground floor area of 1,200 square feet (111 square meters). It was constructed of wood with asphalt shingles. The house was equipped with smoke alarms that were found to be operational.

The structure, valued at $94,000, and its contents, valued at $50,000, were a total loss.


Kerosene heater blamed for fire that kills three children

A fire that claimed the lives of three children started when a kerosene heater was tipped over and ignited carpet and paneling, with fire rapidly spreading through the residence.

The fire department was notified of the blaze by a 911 call from the children’s mother.

The fire department indicated that the mother was trying to move the heater when it tipped over. According to newspaper reports, the exit was blocked by fire and the mother straddled a window while trying to get the children out, but fell out of the window and was unable to get back inside.

Firefighters arrived at the structure, a manufactured home, and used a hose line in their initial attack on the fire. Reports indicated that the hose line provided a quick knockdown. The children had succumbed to their injuries by the time crews gained entry.

The fire department indicated that the family was using the kerosene heater in order to save money on heating bills.

The home was constructed with a wood frame and walls, wood and steel beam floor framing, and a metal roof deck. It occupied an area of 984 square feet (91 square meters). It was not equipped with smoke alarms or automatic extinguishing equipment.

The home and contents were valued at $14,000 and were a total loss.


Overloaded receptacle blamed for fatal fire in manufactured home

A female resident suffered fatal smoke inhalation injuries after an electrical receptacle outlet ignited nearby combustible materials and started a fire that spread throughout the interior of her manufactured home.

The fire department was summoned to the scene at 11 p.m. following a 911 call from a passerby, but investigators indicated that there was a 15- to 20-minute delay between ignition and detection because the residence was situated in a remote location.

News reports indicated that neighbors tried to put out the fire and rescue the victim after seeing heavy smoke and flames shortly after 11 p.m. Firefighters needed approximately 25 minutes to extinguish the fire, according to the reports.

The victim had a hearing disability and unspecified physical disability.

Investigators determined that ignition occurred in an electrical wall receptacle outlet in the rear of the structure. In news accounts, investigators indicated that the electrical receptacle outlet was overloaded and that it overheated and ignited nearby combustibles. A newly purchased space heater may have contributed to the overloading.

The home was equipped with smoke alarms, but investigators could not determine whether they operated. Firefighters found no evidence to indicate that the home was equipped with smoke alarms for the hearing impaired.

The manufactured home had a wood frame and metal roof, with a ground floor area of 400 square feet (37 square meters). The structure and its contents, collectively valued at $40,000, were a total loss.


Sprinkler extinguishes kitchen fire at apartment complex

Cooking oil left heating on a stove started a grease fire that spread to overhead kitchen cabinets before a sprinkler in the ceiling activated and extinguished the flames.

Firefighters were dispatched to the fire at 7:13 p.m. when a resident of the apartment complex called 911 to report that the sprinkler system had activated in a neighboring unit and that he could smell a burning odor.

Crews reported nothing showing from the exterior as they arrived on the scene of the two-story structure. Crews entered the building and found that one sprinkler head had activated in the apartment of fire origin on the second floor, with fire in the kitchen extinguished. Incident command assigned crews to shut off water flow and to undertake salvage and secure utilities.

Investigators determined that a resident of the apartment was heating cooking oil on the stove when he went outside, then heard an outdoor alarm sounding after the sprinkler system activated.

Information on damages and the size of the structure were not available.


Man dies when propane heater ignites flammable vapors

An elderly man died from burn injuries sustained after a propane heater ignited flammable vapors in his garage.

The fire department was dispatched to the victim’s residence after a passerby reported seeing a person on fire running from the garage. Crews observed smoke and fire coming from the garage when they arrived at the scene, and a police officer directed crews to a nearby carport where the victim was located.

Shortly afterward, an emergency medical services team arrived with a cot and burn blankets and took control of the patient while firefighters extinguished spot fires in the garage. The victim was transported to a university medical center but succumbed to burn injuries later that evening.

Investigators determined that the victim operated a vehicle painting business out of his garage and that he was preparing to paint a vehicle when heat from a propane heater ignited paint thinner vapors, which subsequently ignited flammable liquid on his person and clothing. The garage was not equipped with an approved vehicle paint booth.

The garage was a single-story structure constructed with concrete block walls, concrete flooring, and a wood roof frame, with asphalt shingling. It occupied an area of 624 square feet (58 square meters).

The structure was not protected by smoke alarms or an automatic sprinkler system.

The fire caused an estimated $10,000 in damage to the structure, which was valued at $50,000, and $10,000 in damage to the contents, also valued at $50,000.


Electrical wiring causes house fire that kills elderly resident

An elderly resident died when degraded electrical wiring ignited combustible material in a wall cavity in the kitchen of his residence.

The fire department was summoned to the scene following a neighbor’s call to 911 at 1:15 a.m., but investigators estimated that the fire had burned for an hour before it was detected.

According to news reports, firefighters discovered flames shooting from the rear of the house upon arrival, but they located the victim on a couch in a front room of the home. The man was rushed to the hospital, but succumbed to smoke inhalation injuries shortly afterward.

Reports indicated that the resident had an unspecified mobility disability.

The house was equipped with smoke alarms in the living room, the bedroom, and on the second floor. The engine company indicated that the smoke alarms were activated by the fire. The house did not have sprinkler protection.

The two-story house was constructed with brick walls and a wooden roof frame, with an asphalt roof deck. The home occupied a ground floor area of 700 square feet (65 square meters).

The house, valued at $80,000, and its contents, with an estimated value of $50,000, were a total loss.



Sprinkler extinguishes department store fire caused by electrical fixture

A sprinkler system controlled a fire in a department store that was caused by a short in a light fixture.

The fire department was notified of the fire at 11:01 a.m. through the store’s fire alarm system and calls to 911. The first units on the scene reported heavy smoke upon arrival and recommended that a second alarm be called. After entering the store, crews found that the sprinkler system had almost completely extinguished the fire. Firefighters pulled pillows and bedding stock that were stored on the shelves and still smoldering into sprinkler spray in order to complete extinguishment.

Visual conditions throughout the store were reduced by heavy black smoke. Crews stretched a hose line into the fire area while searching for extension. No extension of the fire was found after a search of the facility.

Crews set up positive pressure ventilation fans to ventilate the structure and also used carbon monoxide meters to check air quality in the department store and the larger mall in which it was situated. Due to concerns with the air quality, the local board of health was called to the scene. The entire mall was temporarily closed, with the exception of one store that had solid barrier doors separating it from the rest of the mall.

Estimates were not available on dollar loss from the fire, but reports indicated that damage was limited to smoke damage and the damage to shelving and merchandise.

Investigators determined that an electrical short in a fluorescent light fixture in a department store caused plastic to melt and drip onto merchandise stored on a shelf below, starting a fire that spread to other items along three layers of shelving over a length of approximately 20 feet. However, two heads of a wet pipe sprinkler system activated and almost completely extinguished the fire before firefighters arrived, preventing further damage.

The building was constructed with block walls, cement slab floor framing, and steel truss roof framing with a metal roof deck and a roof covering of rubber over foam insulation.

The building was one story in height and had a ground floor area of 10,000 square feet (929 square meters).


Sprinkler system extinguishes office fire

A fire that started in the ceiling of an equipment closet in a four-story office building was knocked down by a single sprinkler by the time firefighters responded to the scene, just four minutes after being dispatched by an alarm company.

The fire began at approximately 7 p.m. in the area of a fan located in the ceiling of the closet, which was being used as a computer room. When firefighters arrived, no signs of fire were visible from the exterior of the building, but smoke could be seen banked down to four feet from ground level inside.

Crews laid a hose to the front entrance and an interior crew entered the building, where it determined that the fire had been extinguished and advised that they could perform overhaul with a pressurized water extinguisher. Firefighters shut down the sprinkler system and used fans for ventilation while checking for extension inside the building.

Investigators were unable to determine whether the ceiling fan malfunctioned and started the fire or whether network wires fell on the fan and caused it to overheat. Media coverage indicated that the assistant fire chief said that the fire would have been much worse if the sprinkler system had not worked as intended.

The four-story building had a ground-floor area of 5,000 square feet (465 square meters) and was protected by an automatic sprinkler system and smoke detectors on all floors.

Damage to the building, which had an estimated value of $3.7 million, was estimated at $20,000.


Overloaded electrical circuit starts fire that kills building owner

An early morning fire in a commercial building that was not rated for residential use claimed the life of the owner, who was using the storage room as a living area.

The fire department responded to the fire following a 911 call from a passerby at 2:30 a.m.

Newspaper coverage reported that heavy smoke was pouring from the building when firefighters arrived on the scene. The reports indicated that crews entered the building and began ventilating it, then found the victim in a storage room while performing salvage and overhaul operations.

The victim’s body was transported to the state crime lab. The victim was determined to have died as a result of smoke inhalation injuries.

Investigators found multiple electronic appliances and extension cords plugged into a power strip in the storage room and believe that the fire started when an overloaded electrical circuit ignited unknown combustible materials nearby, then spread throughout the structure. Investigators indicated that the fire originated in an area that was between the victim and a suitable exit.

The fire chief reminded the public in news reports that extension cords were for temporary use and should not be used for appliances that require significant amperage.

The building was a single-story structure constructed of metal, with a steel roof and concrete floor. It had a ground floor area of 2,880 square feet (268 square meters). It was not protected by either automatic detection or sprinkler systems.

The building and its contents, collectively valued at $75,000, were a total loss.


Sprinkler douses spontaneous-combustion blaze

A late-night fire in a commercial establishment undergoing interior renovation was extinguished by an automatic sprinkler system before firefighters arrived at the scene.

The fire department was alerted to the fire by a water flow switch alarm at 10:08 p.m. and was on the scene within five minutes. There were no signs of fire upon arrival. After gaining entry to the building, firefighters observed a smoky haze and found that a sprinkler had activated over an area of wood that was still smoldering. Crews ensured that the fire was out and secured the water flow from the suppression system.

The fire originated near the south wall of the building, where a display case was being constructed with wood panels in the area below the activated sprinkler. Investigators learned that panels had been treated with varnish earlier in the day and noted that the fired burned upwards and outwards from ground level between the wooden panels, which bore distinct “V” patterns of burn marks on the inside. Investigators also noted the presence of open cans of wood varnish and rags soaked with varnish and oil throughout the store. The investigation concluded that a reaction between incompatible products or the spontaneous heating of rags and materials containing organic oils had ignited surrounding combustibles.

No details were available on the size of the building. The fire caused no damage to the structure, valued at $500,000. The loss to contents, valued at $10,000, was estimated at $50.



Sprinklers extinguish fire at manufacturing plant

Firefighters were summoned to a manufacturing plant in the early morning hours by an automatic alarm after heat from a butane torch ignited a plastic storage shelf, but crews found that the facility’s sprinkler system had already extinguished the fire prior to arrival.

The fire department reported that a worker had used the butane torch before storing it on a plastic shelf in the facility’s tool crib. The hot parts of the torch ignited and melted the shelf, setting off the fire alarm and sprinkler system. The worker, who also used a fire extinguisher to douse the fire, suffered smoke inhalation injuries and was transported to the hospital for treatment.

Newspaper reports indicated that several workers were evacuated from the facility.

The facility was protected throughout by heat detectors with sprinklers. The plant, which manufactured filters for automobiles, was a single-story structure constructed with block and steel walls, concrete floors, a steel roof deck, and rock and tar walls. The size of the facility was listed as 595,200 square feet (55,296 square meters).

Damage to the structure, which was valued at $100 million, was estimated at $10,000, while its contents, valued at $50 million, experienced $30,000 in losses.



Church fire blamed on faulty wiring

Faulty electrical wiring was blamed for starting an early morning church fire that caused damage estimated at nearly $2 million.

The fire department was alerted to the fire by a dispatch center after the church’s alarm system activated. However, investigators estimated that it took approximately six hours for the fire to be detected because the accumulation of heat over a large area delayed ignition. Investigators reported that the building had multiple wiring code violations.

Newspaper reports indicated that firefighting crews attacked the fire inside the church but were forced to evacuate when fire threatened to collapse the roof. The reports stated that only the walls of the church were left standing in the aftermath of the fire, which was described as a three-alarm blaze.

The fire started in the ceiling over an assembly area near the stage. Investigators determined that an electrical overcurrent blew out a section of the electrical conduit system in the ceiling, which subsequently ignited combustible material in the assembly area below.

The church was constructed with a wood frame, which included heavy timber, wood walls, and roof deck, with asphalt shingles and a stucco exterior.

The structure was two stories high and had a ground floor area of over 10,000 square feet (929 square meters).

The fire caused $1.8 million in damage to the church, which was valued at $2.1 million, and $400,000 in losses to its contents, valued at $500,000.


$7 million arson fire destroys church and its contents

Firefighters responded to an early morning report of a possible structure fire to find heavy smoke emitting from a church roof, with firebrands discharging from the same area. Incident command ordered a second alarm shortly after initial firefighting units reached the scene at 6:31 a.m., while also requesting police assistance for traffic control and two additional command officers.

The church property consisted of four adjoining buildings. An assessment of the primary building indicated that it was fully involved from the basement to the roof, but heavy fire conditions prevented assessment of an adjoining structure. Incident command mounted a defensive strategy to contain the fire to the two buildings already involved.

One pumper was positioned at the south side of the structure to provide an aerial attack while crews from a second pumper established a water supply. A third pumper was positioned at a rear corner of the building to prepare master stream operations. Two additional pumpers supported these positions. A captain assigned to safety officer duties rotated crews for the duration of operations.

Aerial operations were initiated from a second location with the arrival of a ladder truck from a mutual assistance company, while crews used hand lines for exposure protection and suppression activities. When conditions permitted, the two exposed structures were investigated for possible fire extension in the roof, which was accomplished through a ventilation cut in the roof after the interior ceiling proved too difficult to open. Minor extension was found and extinguished with a hand line.

The fire was brought under control at 9:25 p.m., approximately three hours after operations began. Newspaper reports indicated that the state fire marshal determined the cause of the fire to be arson.

The church and its contents, collectively valued at $7 million, were a total loss.

FIREWATCH is compiled and written by Richard Campbell of NFPA’s Research Division. Firewatch is a collection of fire incidents involving a variety of occupancies and fire types. The intent of Firewatch is to illustrate the range of fire scenarios encountered by the fire service, present the challenges contained in those incidents, recount how the fire service addressed those challenges, and record the effectiveness of fire protection systems, where such systems exist. The incidents are identified by NFPA’s Research Group from fire reports submitted to NFPA by responding fire departments. Some of the fire incidents that appear in Firewatch are augmented with details provided by media accounts. Top Photograph: Chris Allen, Fishers Fire Department