Author(s): Stephen Badger. Published on September 1, 2019.

Catastrophic Multiple-Death Fires and Explosions in the United States in 2018

Last year, 29 of these incidents resulted in 215 fatalities, topped by the deadliest wildfire in California history


On November 8, 2018, a wildland/urban interface fire broke out in Northern California’s Butte County. The Camp Fire, as it came to be called, became the deadliest fire and most destructive in the state’s history, killing 86 people and injuring 12, including five firefighters, and leaving three people missing and unaccounted for. Property damage was estimated at more than $8 billion.

The Camp Fire was the most severe among the largest-loss-of-life fires and explosions in the United States in 2018, which NFPA categorizes as catastrophic multiple-death fires. These events are defined as fires or explosions that cause five or more deaths in a home or three or more deaths in a non-home structure, or in fires outside of structures, such as wildfires or vehicle fires. Fatal vehicle crashes with a post-crash fire are included in this study if a fire in the vehicle caused the crash or the local coroner or medical examiner confirmed to NFPA that the victims died of thermal injuries or inhalation of products of combustion rather than impact injuries.


Related Content

Read previous Catastrophic Multiple-Death Fires in the United States reports from 2003 to 2017.

See the complete 2018 catastrophic multiple-death fires by type.

In 2018, 29 fires or explosions were considered catastrophic multiple-death fires. These events killed 215 people, including 38 children under the age of six. Of those 29 fires, 11 occurred in homes and accounted for 62 deaths, including 26 children under the age of six. Ten fires or explosions occurred in non-home structures and accounted for 39 of the deaths, including seven children under the age of six. Additionally, eight fires occurred in non-structure settings, including five vehicle fires and three wildland/urban interface fires, and accounted for 114 deaths, including five children under the age of six.

Catastrophic multiple-death fires are an important part of the nation’s overall fire picture. In 2018, firefighters in the US responded to an estimated 1,318,500 fires. An estimated 499,000 of those occurred in structures, and an estimated 819,500 occurred outside of structures or in vehicles. These fires accounted for an estimated 3,655 deaths, 2,910 of which occurred in structures and 745 in non-structure, vehicle, or outside fires. The 29 catastrophic multiple-death fires in this report accounted for 0.002 percent of the total estimated fires in 2018, while the 214 deaths accounted for 5.9 percent of the total fire deaths in the US last year.

This is the second consecutive year where a wildland/urban interface fire topped the list of catastrophic multiple-death fires. In 2017, a wildfire killed 44 people.

Catastrophic home fires

There were 11 catastrophic multiple-death home fires in 2018, compared to 14 the year before. Seven of those 2018 fires occurred in single-family homes, one occurred in a two-family home, and three occurred in apartment buildings. Home fires killed 62 people, 22 fewer than in the previous year. Of the victims, 26 were children under the age of six, five more than the previous year. One fire killed 10 people, two fires killed six people each, and eight fires killed five each.

The largest multiple-death home fire in 2018 was also the year’s largest-loss-of-life structure fire, and occurred in a two-family house in Illinois. The fire killed 10 people, including four children under the age of six. This fire, which is still under investigation, broke out at 3:54 a.m. on an exterior stairway of the two-story home, which was of unprotected ordinary construction. No information on detection or suppression equipment was reported.

Rescue workers recover a body in Paradise, California, following the Camp Fire in November. The Camp Fire became the costliest and deadliest wildfire in teh state's history, killing 86 people. Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

The first six-fatality home fire occurred in Tennessee in April. At 5:24 a.m., a passing motorist called 911 to report a house fire. Responding firefighters arrived in six minutes and found a one-story, wood-framed, single-family home that was heavily involved in fire. This home was equipped with smoke alarms, but it was not reported if they operated. Firefighters found two vehicles in the driveway, but no one was outside to meet the firefighters, leading them to believe the family was still inside. Hose lines were stretched and firefighting operations began. Search and rescue operations were initiated when the fire was knocked down. The victims were located and removed, and CPR was initiated by firefighters and EMS personnel.

The second fire occurred in Indiana. At about 1:50 a.m., an occupant in the home called 911 to report the fire. Responding firefighters found a fully involved two-story, wood-framed, single-family home. The home had no smoke alarms. The fire broke out in the kitchen and spread throughout the first floor. Heat and smoke vented up an open stairway to the second floor where the occupants were sleeping. Interior firefighting operations were initiated, but minutes later the roof collapsed and firefighters were forced to withdraw to a defensive attack on the fire. The cause of the fire was not reported.

The remaining home fires, each resulting in five fatalities, broke out in five single-family homes and three apartment buildings. (The number of units was not reported in any of the apartment fires.) Eighteen of the 40 victims were children under the age of six. Three of these homes are known to have had smoke alarms and two were known to have no detectors installed. The alarms did not operate in any of the homes with smoke alarms, with the reasons not reported.

There were four homes known not to have a suppression system and the other four had no information reported.

Seven of the 11 home fires broke out between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., killing 42 people, including 16 children under age six. The area of origin was known in six of the 11 home fires. Two fires broke out in the kitchen area, and one fire each broke out in the den, living room, exterior stairway, and porch.

Catastrophic non-home structure fires

Ten of the 29 catastrophic multiple-death fires and explosions in 2018 occurred in non-home structures, resulting in 39 deaths including seven children under the age of six. There were five such fires in 2017, accounting for 19 deaths with none under the age of six.

In 2018, two of the 10 deadliest fires in non-home structures occurred in vacant buildings that were originally dwellings. One fire each occurred at a gas well drilling site, rehabilitation facility, group home, getaway cabin, boiler/mechanical building at a hospital, motel, boarding house, and travel trailer. One fire and explosion killed six people, two fires killed five each, two fires killed four, and five killed three.

The deadliest non-home fire broke out in a 27-room extended stay motel in Michigan. The fire department received a call for a room fire at 1:46 a.m. When firefighters arrived, they found heavy fire and smoke from several first-story rooms, and were notified of the entrapment of six people in a room on the second floor. Search-and-rescue personnel made their way to the second story to search the room where the trapped occupants were reported. The search was conducted but no one was found in the room. The victims were located in the hallway and a stairway. They were removed and attempts were made by EMS to revive them. A secondary search was performed but no other victims were located. The motel was equipped with smoke alarms but no information was reported on their operation. There was no automatic suppression equipment present.

Indiana firefighters work to extinguish a deadly home fire. Indiana Department of Homeland Security Via AP

Two of the remaining structures had detection equipment present, but neither system operated—one system was disconnected or had no batteries, and the other was installed but not yet operational. Five structures had no suppression equipment, one had a system that was not yet operational, and no information was reported in the other three structures.

Five of the 10 non-home fires broke out between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., killing 22 of the 39 victims in non-home fires, with four of the victims under the age of six.

The area of origin was known in five of the non-home fires. One fire each broke out in the processing/manufacturing area, cellar, boiler room, bedroom, and bathroom. The area of ignition was undetermined in two fires and not reported in three fires.

Catastrophic non-structure fires

In 2018, there were eight non-structure fires, five of which were vehicle fires involving three cars, one helicopter, and one tow boat. Three were wildland/urban interface fires, two involved crashes with fire, and one was the result of an undetermined explosion. These fires killed 113 people, including five children under the age of six. By contrast, in 2017 there were two non-home fires categorized as catastrophic multiple-death events, both of which were wildland fires that accounted for 47 fatalities in total. The three catastrophic multiple-death wildfires in 2018 all occurred in California and killed a total of 96 people.

By far the deadliest was the Camp Fire, with 86 fatalities. Around 6:30 a.m. on November 8, a brush fire began when high winds downed electrical transmission lines, which ignited dry vegetation. Winds, low humidity, and critically dry fuel helped the fire spread rapidly into nearby communities, consuming more than 100,000 acres (40,468 hectares) in the first two days and forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents. The blaze eventually burned 153,336 acres (62,053 hectares), or nearly 240 square miles (622 square kilometers). It destroyed an estimated 19,000 structures, including 13,972 single-family homes, 276 multi-family homes, 528 commercial structures, and 4,293 other structures. At least one town was almost completely wiped out by the fire.

The benefits of smoke detection equipment and fire sprinklers

Information about automatic detection equipment was available for 10 of the 21 catastrophic multiple-death structure fires. Two of the homes and two of the non-home structures had no automatic detection present. While six structures had smoke alarms, it was reported that five systems did not operate and the operation of the equipment in the sixth fire was not reported. When the reason for devices not operating was reported, missing batteries was most frequently the cause.

Smoke alarms have been proven effective in reducing the risk of death in home fires. The most effective arrangement is interconnected, multiple-station smoke alarms supplied by hardwired AC power with a battery backup. These should be located outside each sleeping area, on each level, and in each bedroom. Homeowners should routinely test smoke alarms according to manufacturers’ recommendations. NFPA recommends testing home smoke alarms at least monthly.

Workers clean up after California's Camp Fire. Getty

None of the homes were reported to have had automatic suppression equipment, and four non-home properties had no automatic suppression equipment. One of the non-home properties did have automatic suppression equipment, but the system was not yet activated. No information was reported for the other five non-home structure fires.

It is unfortunate that only one of the 21 structures was known to have suppression equipment, because sprinklers have been proven to save lives across many different kinds of properties, including homes. According to NFPA’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative (, the civilian death rate associated with home fires is 81 percent lower in homes with fire sprinklers than in homes without them. Additionally, sprinklers reduce the average property loss in home fires by 71 percent per fire, and the average firefighter injury rate is nearly 80 percent lower when fire sprinklers were present during fires. When home sprinklers are present, fires are kept to the room of origin 97 percent of the time.

When fire sprinklers and hardwired smoke alarms are both present, the home fire death rate drops by 90 percent. By comparison, when battery-powered smoke alarms are present but automatic extinguishing systems are not, the home fire death rate drops by 18 percent.

Batteries for smoke alarms should also be replaced according to manufacturer recommendations; conventional batteries should be replaced at least yearly. If an alarm chirps, indicating that the battery is low, the battery should be replaced right away. All smoke alarms, including hard-wired alarms and alarms that use 10-year batteries, should be replaced when they are 10 years old, or sooner if they do not respond properly when tested.

Smoke alarms are only effective if occupants leave the building when they sound. Children should be familiar with the sound of a properly operating smoke alarm and follow a practiced escape plan that emphasizes two exits from any location, as well as a designated meeting place once they have left the structure. Exit drills in the home are part of many schools’ curricula. Practicing the plan helps families determine whether children and others readily waken to the sound of a smoke alarm if it sounds during night; that knowledge, along with assistance for family members who require it, can be factored into the escape plan. Practicing escape plans, as well as basic fire prevention principles, might have prevented many of the fires and deaths included in this report.

Where we get our data, and acknowledgments

NFPA obtains its data by first reviewing national and local news media, including fire service publications. A news clipping service reads all daily US newspapers and notifies the NFPA Applied Research Division of fatal fires. Once an incident has been identified, we request information from the local fire department or the authority having jurisdiction. NFPA’s annual survey of US fire experience and mailings to state fire marshals are additional data sources, although not principal ones. We also contact federal agencies that have participated in the investigation of such fires.

The diversity and redundancy of these sources enable us to collect the most complete data available on catastrophic multiple-death fires throughout the US We understand that, in many cases, a fire department cannot release information due to ongoing litigation. In other cases, fire departments have been unable to determine the information we requested.

NFPA wishes to thank the US fire service and the medical examiners for their contributions of data, without which this report would not be possible. The author also thanks Nancy Schwartz, Deb Connell, and the staff of NFPA’s Research Data and Analytics Group. 

STEPHEN G. BADGER, a fire data assistant with NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division, is retired from the Quincy, Massachusetts, Fire Department.