Author(s): Richard Campbell. Published on July 1, 2019.


Fire incidents from across the country




Cigarette blamed for destruction of commercial building

A commercial establishment housing multiple businesses was destroyed in a three-alarm fire that began when a cigarette fell from an outdoor deck and ignited leaf debris on the ground below.

A passerby reported the fire to 911 at 11:58 p.m. Crews first reached the scene approximately 10 minutes later and found the building fully involved with fire and beginning to collapse, requiring them to undertake defensive firefighting efforts.

Eventually, over 40 pieces of equipment were involved in the response, which concentrated on preventing the fire from spreading to nearby properties. Newspaper reports indicated that residents of three neighboring apartment buildings were evacuated during operations.

Crews used multiple elevated water streams and handheld hose lines to bring the fire under control, successfully containing it to the building of origin. The last firefighting units did not clear the scene until shortly after noon the following day.

Investigators determined that the fire began on the first-floor exterior deck of a restaurant, where a lit cigarette fell from a railing into leaf debris between deck boards. After igniting, the fire spread to a concealed combustible space and into the building. Reports estimated that the fire began approximately an hour before it was spotted, noting that the building was set back from the road and not easily visible.

The building was a two-story wood construction with an asphalt shingle roof cover, and occupied a ground-floor area of 11,000 square feet (1,022 square meters). According to news reports, the building was home to at least nine businesses. It was not equipped with either smoke detectors or sprinkler systems.

The building and its contents, together valued at $1.5 million, were a total loss. 


Heat gun ignites grocery store fire

A late-night fire in a 24-hour grocery store caused extensive damage to store merchandise, but no injuries, according to fire department and news reports.

The fire department responded to the fire after an employee saw smoke and called 911 at 11:30 p.m. News reports indicated that approximately 200 people were in the store when the fire was discovered and that employees assisted with evacuation.

As firefighters reached the scene, smoke was visible from a storage area near loading docks at one side of the single-story structure, according to local news reports. Crews were reportedly extinguishing fire and clearing smoke at the facility for over four hours.

Investigators determined that the fire began when a heat gun, which was left on a shelving unit while still plugged into an electrical receptacle, ignited plastic packaging material stored nearby.

The facility was equipped with a wet-pipe sprinkler system, but the fire burned the system’s wiring before it could activate.

The building occupied a ground-floor area of 225,322 square feet (20,933 square meters). The facility was constructed with wood stud walls, wood stud floor framing, and a metal roof deck covered with tar and rock.

The fire caused an estimated $1,000 in damage to the building, valued at $8.7 million, and $20,000 in damage to building contents. 


Multiple vehicles destroyed in fire at towing facility

An early-morning fire destroyed several vehicles parked at a towing facility, but firefighters were able to keep the fire from spreading to nearby structures and additional vehicles.

Firefighters responding to the fire at 2:43 a.m. reported seeing a thermal column en route and upgraded the incident to a working fire. Arriving crews found four semitrucks fully involved with fire, with a number of nearby passenger and commercial vehicles exposed to the flames.

Crews began pouring water on the fire with a handline and deck gun in a defensive strategy to prevent the fire from spreading, and added a second handline to the attack as additional crews arrived on scene.

The fire was determined to be under control shortly before 3:30 a.m., and crews conducted primary and secondary searches of the vehicles and extinguished hot spots. Incident command contacted environmental authorities due to fuel spills from ruptured fuel tanks.

The fire destroyed four semitrucks and heavily damaged an additional vehicle. Losses were estimated at $1.5 to $2 million. The cause of the fire remained under investigation at the time reports were filed. 

Public Assembly


Sprinkler system extinguishes fire caused by spontaneous combustion

A restaurant sprinkler system extinguished an overnight fire that began when soiled cleaning rags spontaneously combusted in a kitchen storage area.

The fire department was dispatched to the scene by an alarm monitoring company shortly after 1 a.m. Arriving firefighters reported heavy smoke throughout the kitchen and dining areas, but credited the sprinkler system with preventing a major fire.

News reports indicated that the fire was almost completely out when firefighters arrived and that crews set up ventilation fans to remove smoke and took the burning rags outside.

Investigators reported that rags used for cleaning stoves and other equipment had been placed in a pile on a storage counter after being removed from a dryer. After staff left for the evening, the rags spontaneously combusted and fire spread from the counter to a wall before being extinguished by two sprinklers from the facility’s wet-pipe sprinkler system.

The restaurant was a single-story wood structure occupying a ground-floor area of 19,948 square feet (1,853 square meters).

The fire caused an estimated $30,000 in damage to the building, valued at $1.3 million, and $1,500 in damage to contents of the restaurant, with an estimated value of $500,000. 



Three people die as a result of apartment fire

An early-morning fire at an apartment complex claimed the lives of three residents.

The fire department was dispatched to the scene following a call to 911 by a neighbor at 2:15 a.m. Arriving crews reported heavy flames from the rear of a two-story apartment building, with four units involved on both levels. Two staircases to the second floor had burned away, preventing access to second-floor units.

In a nearby parking lot, firefighters found an occupant with burn injuries who had managed to evacuate the building. An ambulance team assumed care of the victim as an engine company attacked the fire and tried to keep it from spreading to other parts of the building. A ladder truck positioned its aerial for a possible defensive attack and to access the roof, while arriving engine companies were separately assigned to undertake search and rescue and to assist with fire attack.

As firefighters knocked down the fire, search crews gained entry to the second floor with ground ladders. Inside the structure, the teams located five occupants trapped in a second-floor apartment who were quickly moved outside. Additional medical units were requested to assist with the treatment and transport of the evacuees, who were taken to two local hospitals. Three of the victims later died.

The fire was brought under control shortly after 3 a.m. Crews remaining on the scene cycled through rehab as they conducted overhaul activities.

Investigators determined that the fire started below the exterior staircase at ground level but were unable to pinpoint a cause. They indicated that each apartment was protected by a single smoke alarm and that alarms not melted by the fire were sounding at the time of the response.

The building was a wood construction occupying a ground-floor area of 7,200 square feet (669 square meters).

Four units of the apartment building, valued at $9.6 million, suffered heavy damage from the fire and four units sustained light smoke damage. Damage to the building was estimated at $900,000. The fire caused an additional $250,000 in damage to building contents. 


No smoke alarms, visual impairment are factors in fatal condominium fire

A female occupant died in a condominium fire that investigators believe burned for at least 25 minutes before being discovered by a neighbor, who called 911 shortly after midnight.

On arrival, firefighters reported heavy smoke coming from the roof of a two-story structure containing four condominiums. As they began suppression efforts, they found that the front doors of all units had been left open as tenants evacuated the building.

Two crew members pulled a hose up an interior stairwell and from the hallway were able to see fire through a hole in the wall of one unit. Working in high heat conditions with limited visibility, one firefighter attacked the fire while the second completed a search of the living room.

As the firefighters repositioned the line to the kitchen doorway for better fire attack, they found the victim on the floor in a nearby hallway and quickly moved her outside to a waiting medical crew. Resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful and the victim died at the scene.

Firefighters continued attacking the fire inside the apartment and noted that heavy fire in the attic was visible through openings in the ceiling. Minutes later, they were ordered out of the building when the roof showed signs of collapse. Crews then mounted a defensive attack and the fire was extinguished at approximately 1:45 a.m.

Investigators determined that the fire originated on top of the kitchen stove, where a number of combustible items had been stored. After talking with another occupant who was away at the time of the fire, investigators believe that the victim, who had a visual impairment, may have tried to light a cigarette from the stovetop and that the combustible items ignited in the process. In addition to the complication posed by the victim’s visual impairment, there were no smoke alarms in the residence that could have provided the victim with an early warning of the fire.

Afterwards, several building residents told investigators that they had smelled smoke sometime after 11 p.m., but took no action after failing to notice anything from outside the building. It wasn’t until fire was visible that the resident across the street called 911.

The building was divided into four living units over two floors. Units were separated by concrete block walls that ran from the lower level to the ceiling of the upper level. The structure was a wood-frame platform construction, covered with vinyl siding on the exterior walls. The condominium unit of fire origin occupied a ground floor area of 600 square feet (56 square meters).

The fire caused heavy damage to two of the units. Damage to the structure, valued at $450,000, was estimated at $225,000. The fire caused an additional $100,000 in damage to building contents. 


House fire claims one occupant, injures a second

One person died and a second was injured in an early-morning house fire, according to news and fire department reports.

The fire department was dispatched to the scene at 3:54 a.m. following calls to 911 from the residence and neighbors. The call from the residence indicated that there had been an explosion.

On arrival, firefighters reported that the residence was fully engulfed by fire. An occupant who suffered cuts and burn injuries was transported to the hospital.

Crews deployed two attack lines and a deck gun to control the fire, but were unable to enter the structure due to the danger of roof collapse. After the fire was extinguished, crews located the body of a second occupant in a bedroom.

Investigators determined that the fire began in a storage room and indicated that it may have involved a hot water tank, but were unable to establish a definitive cause.

The house was a single-story structure with a brick and wood frame, brick walls, and a wood roof deck. It occupied a ground-floor area of 980 square feet (91 square meters).

The fire caused $50,000 in damage to the house, valued at $55,000. Its contents, valued at $25,000, were a total loss. 


Search for pets proves fatal in house fire

A late afternoon house fire claimed the life of a female resident after she re-entered the home to rescue her pets.

The victim called 911 to report the fire at 5:30 p.m. News reports indicated that the occupant was instructed to get out of the house, but she stated an intention to find her pets. A police officer who was first on the scene found a purse outside the main entrance, but reported he was unable to enter because of heavy fire conditions.

On arrival, firefighters pulled an attack line through a side door and encountered heavy smoke and moderate flames in the kitchen area. After knocking down the flames, they used a thermal imaging camera to search for the occupant in the kitchen and living room, then began a search down a hallway that led to a bedroom and closet. After encountering significant heat, they backed down the hallway to the kitchen, where crews had set up a positive ventilation fan and opened a sliding door to create a path for smoke and heat. A second team took custody of the thermal imaging camera and renewed the search efforts.

Eight minutes into the search, they located the occupant on the bathroom floor of the master bedroom. Crews evacuated the occupant through a nearby patio door, and medical personnel began resuscitation efforts and transported to the hospital, where she later succumbed to her injuries.

After knocking down the fire, crews searching for the occupant’s pets found a dog in the basement and a cat in the yard. The dog was treated with oxygen and transported to an emergency veterinarian, while the cat was placed in a temporary shelter.

Investigators determined that the fire began when grease from a deep fryer ignited nearby materials and spread upward and outward from the stove to cabinets and up to the ceiling.

In news reports of the incident, the fire chief warned the public about the hazards of inhalation exposures and the importance of evacuating a house fire and remaining outside. The fire chief also stressed the importance of working smoking detectors. None were found in the residence.

The house was a wood structure with a ground-floor area of 2,000 square feet (186 square meters).

Damage from the fire was estimated at $115,000, but information on the pre-fire value of the house and contents was not available. 


Smoking materials suspected in fatal apartment fire

One person was killed and multiple residents temporarily displaced by a flashover fire in a multiunit apartment building.

Firefighters were dispatched to the scene at 9:12 a.m. by a 911 call reporting a fire with someone trapped. Dispatch was instructed to issue a request for additional assistance from a mutual aid company.

Firefighters arrived to find a first-floor apartment in an eight-unit apartment building fully engulfed by fire. Crews pulled a hose to a sliding door and knocked down a large amount of fire from the exterior, then attempt entry. As crews made their way inside, one firefighter fell partway through a section of floor that had burned away. He was pulled out by team members without injury and continued fighting the fire.

Due to the hazardous floor conditions, crews backed out and moved to an opposite hallway, where they breached a door to gain entry. Inside, they found a victim and determined that he was already deceased. A team was sent to the second floor to check for additional occupants and to pull the ceiling in order to attack fire in the attic space. The county medical examiner was summoned to take custody of the victim’s body.

Crews were forced to breach a wall in an adjacent apartment to gain a line of attack and bring the fire in the kitchen under control.

Investigators determined that the fire originated in the living room and flashed over after smoldering undetected for a period of time. Fire then ventilated out of a sliding door, engulfing an overhead balcony and traveling into the structure’s attic. Smoking materials were believed to be the source of ignition, but investigators were unable to make a conclusive determination.

All units in the building were equipped with smoke detectors in the living area and bedroom. In news accounts, the fire chief credited the detectors, as well as a building resident who knocked on doors, with helping to save lives.



Hoarding conditions complicate escape and rescue in fatal house fire

A female occupant died in an early-morning house fire that began when combustible materials that were piled atop an extension cord ignited after the cord reached an ignition temperature.

Firefighters were dispatched to the scene after the occupant called 911 at 3:21 a.m. Arriving crews encountered hoarding conditions inside the home that hindered their firefighting and search-and-rescue efforts. Crews described having to step over boxes in every room, but were eventually able to make their way to the third floor, where they found the occupant in bed. Crews carried her outside for transport to the hospital, where she was later pronounced dead.

The fire began at the base of a second-floor stairwell, and reports indicate that the occupant was unable to escape from the third floor due to the accumulation of possessions that blocked her egress. Firefighters were able to bring the fire under control following evacuation of the victim.

In news accounts of the fire, the fire chief noted that extension cords were being used as a primary power source and reminded the public that they should only be used on a temporary basis.

The house was a three-story wood structure with a ground-floor area of 1,170 square feet (109 square meters). The house was equipped with smoke detectors, but investigators indicated that they did not sound.

The fire caused $30,000 in damage to the house, valued at $130,000. There was an additional $30,000 in damage to the home’s contents, with an estimated value of $100,000. 


Disabled woman dies when fire starts in trash can

A fire that began in a kitchen waste basket claimed the life of a female resident with a mobility disability.

Firefighters were called to the scene when a person walking near the home called 911 to report the fire at 10:30 a.m.

Arriving crews reported finding smoke banked down to the floor throughout the single-story residence. They were able to locate the occupant on a couch in the living room and moved her outside, where they began resuscitation efforts and transported her to the hospital, where she succumbed to smoke inhalation injuries.

Investigators indicated that the fire was ignited by a discarded match or candle inside the wastebasket and that fire spread to cabinets and the ceiling in the kitchen.

The residence was equipped with an operational smoke alarm inside the bedroom, but investigators believe the victim may not have been able to hear it sounding because the bedroom doors were closed.

The fire caused an estimated $75,000 in damage to the house, valued at $200,000, and $25,000 in damage to its contents, which were valued at $100,000.

The house was a single-story wood construction with asphalt shingles. No other details were available.


Youth injured when aerosol can is thrown into campfire

A juvenile suffered burn injuries when an empty can of insect repellant exploded after it was thrown into a campfire.

The fire department was dispatched to a residence following a 911 call reporting burn injuries at 8:30 p.m. Arriving crews found an adult holding the juvenile, described as conscious and alert but in severe pain. Crews noted that the victim appeared to have second-degree burns on his legs and first-degree burns on his arms and face. They began taking vital signs until medics arrived and assumed patient care.

As the patient was transferred to an ambulance, crews notified dispatch to arrange for a medical flight to a hospital, using a local school parking area as a helicopter landing zone. One firefighter responded with medics to the landing zone.

Firefighters at the residence extinguished the remains of the campfire with a bucket of water.

News reports indicated that the victim was treated for second-degree burns, but no additional information was available.


Sprinkler extinguishes apartment kitchen fire

A fire that began in an apartment kitchen was extinguished by a sprinkler system before it could cause injuries or significant damage in a five-story apartment building.

Firefighters were dispatched to the scene by an alarm monitoring company at 5:40 p.m. Inside the apartment, they found that a cardboard box had been left on top of a stove and had been ignited by one of the stove’s burners. A sprinkler in the kitchen had activated and already extinguished the fire.

A fire department press release indicated that crews ensured the fire was completely out and assisted with cleanup.

The fire caused an estimated $500 in damage to the building, valued at $661,000. Damage to building contents, valued at $330,000, was limited to the box.

The apartment building was constructed with reinforced masonry and occupied a ground-floor area of 13,400 square feet (1,245 square meters). The building was protected by a wet-pipe sprinkler system.



Sprinkler extinguishes warehouse fire blamed on overhead light

Fire officials blamed a late-night fire in a warehouse on pallets of cardboard that were stacked high enough to be ignited by an overhead light fixture.

The fire department responded to the scene after an employee encountered an unknown flow of water inside the facility and discovered an activated sprinkler. Inside the warehouse, firefighters found that the sprinkler had almost completely extinguished the fire, with only a small flame remaining.

The fire caused an estimated $300 in damage to building contents, but no damage to the building. The building and its contents were valued at $3 million.

The facility was constructed with metal walls and exterior and a steel roof frame that was covered by asphalt shingles. The single-story structure occupied a ground-floor area of 24,700 square feet (2,295 square meters).



Vehicle fire in driveway of home claims life of driver

An elderly man was killed when he was unable to escape an early-morning fire that engulfed his car after it became stuck in a residential driveway.

Firefighters were dispatched to the scene after residents were alerted to the fire at 2:30 a.m. and called 911. Arriving crews found the vehicle in the driveway fully engulfed in flames and were advised by a sheriff’s deputy that the operator was believed to still be inside.

Firefighting crews pulled a handline and used tank water to suppress the fire. Following extinguishment, they confirmed that the operator was inside and already deceased and that there were no additional victims inside or outside the vehicle. The chief decided to open an origin and cause investigation after sheriff’s office personnel reported that there were no indications that the fire was produced by a vehicle collision.

Investigators noted that the tires on the passenger side had sunk into ground adjacent to the driveway surface and that the rear bumper rested against an embankment. Dirt scattered near the passenger tires and at the front of the vehicle was consistent with tires spinning in reverse, and natural vegetation on the embankment exhibited charring from the direction of the vehicle’s rear.

Video footage from the home’s security camera showed the vehicle entering the driveway, then backing up and pulling forward several times before getting stuck after partially dropping off the driveway surface. The video then showed the vehicle making continued efforts to move forward and reverse. Eventually, smoke began to appear from the tires, followed sometime later by signs of fire at the rear and then front of the vehicle.

The home’s occupants discovered the fire as it spread through the vehicle, and called 911. They used an extinguishing agent to try to put out the fire, but flames reached the engine compartment and then completely consumed the vehicle.

According to news reports, the investigation determined that heat from the vehicle’s catalytic converter and exhaust system ignited leaves and other debris. The fire marshal noted that the area is difficult to navigate. 

FIREWATCH is a compilation 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:Jane Tyska/Media News Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images