Author(s): Richard Campbell. Published on March 2, 2020.


Fire incidents from across the country



One dies in apartment building fire and explosion

One person was killed in a massive fire and explosion that destroyed a four-unit apartment building, displacing eight residents.

The fire department began receiving multiple 911 calls shortly before 2 p.m., with reports of a house explosion with a person on fire. On arrival, crews from a truck company reported a working fire with heavy fire involvement on one side of a two-story structure. Bystanders and medical personnel were attending to a building occupant, who was subsequently transferred from the scene to a burn center by helicopter.

Shortly after firefighters arrived, the roof collapsed into the second floor and fire department personnel issued a request for a second alarm, which was quickly followed by a request for a third alarm.

Crews set up for aerial master stream operations, while an engine company advanced a hand line and blitz gun to begin fire attack. Crews began suppression activities from the front and sides of the structure. Additional master stream operations were directed to the front of the building with the arrival of newly arriving units.

The main body of fire was contained within approximately 15 minutes of first arrival, but the last crews did not clear the scene until nearly 8 p.m. Seven fire department apparatuses and 35 personnel were involved in the response.

According to fire department reports, witnesses described puffs of white smoke at a front corner of the building near the roof, followed within seconds by an explosion on one side of the building, where a wall was blown out. News reports indicated that one other person was in the home at the time of the explosion and was able to escape without injury.

The local gas company responded to the scene to shut off gas services to the building due to concerns about damage to gas meters, according to newspaper coverage. Personnel from the Red Cross were also on hand to help occupants displaced by the fire.

The occupant who was burned succumbed to his injuries in the hospital several days after the fire.

The investigation into the cause of the fire was still open at the time of the fire department report of the incident.

The apartment building was a wood construction, with wood clapboard siding covered by asphalt brick covering. The structure occupied a ground floor area of 1,800 square feet (167 square meters). Each of the four units was equipped with battery-operated smoke alarms. Investigators could not determine whether the alarms were operational.

The building, valued at $222,000, and its contents, valued at $55,000, were a total loss.

Frying pan starts fire that kills one

A man died in a house fire that began when a frying pan filled with burning oil was dropped on a carpet as other occupants tried to throw it outside.

The fire department was dispatched by a call from the home at 8 p.m. The caller reported that a kitchen fire had started and had spread to the living room. Firefighters arrived within six minutes of dispatch and found heavy fire conditions on the main level of a one-and-a-half-story residence, with flames coming from the front windows and entry door.

As crews stretched an attack line to the front of the house, they were told that someone was still inside the home, on the second level. Crews informed dispatch that they would be attempting rescue of a trapped occupant and placed a ladder to the roof. Two firefighters attempted entry through a second-level window but were quickly forced out by intense heat.

After returning to ground level, the firefighters advanced with a hand line through the front door and began extinguishing fire as they progressed. They were able to make entry approximately six feet into the home before they were stopped by high heat and fire conditions. They were joined by a second firefighting crew and continued to extinguish fire from the front door. Firefighters brought the fire under control approximately 45 minutes after arrival.

When firefighters searched the structure, they found the victim at the base of stairs leading to the upper level, already deceased. Three other occupants of the residence were able to evacuate without injury.

Investigators learned that the victim was asleep in an upstairs bedroom when other occupants of the house retired to other rooms on the main floor after cooking a meal. After the house began to fill with smoke, the downstairs occupants discovered that a stove burner was still on and that oil in a frying pan had burst into flames. One of the occupants grabbed the frying pan but dropped it in the living room as he tried to remove it from the house, setting the carpet on fire. The downstairs occupants attempted to extinguish the fire with blankets before rapid fire spread forced them to evacuate.

The house was not equipped with smoke alarms.

In news reports, the fire chief said the blaze was a reminder to the public not to remove cooking equipment in the event of a fire, emphasizing the importance of evacuating the home and calling 911 immediately if a fire can’t be easily extinguished.

The house was a wood construction and occupied a ground floor area of 976 square feet (91 square meters).

The fire caused an estimated $155,000 in damage to the structure, valued at $173,000, and $36,000 in damage to the contents, valued at $40,000.

Cigarette and medical oxygen blamed for fatal fire

An elderly woman died in a late-night fire that began when her cigarette ignited bedding while she was using medical oxygen.

Firefighters were called to the scene when a neighbor saw smoke coming from an apartment window at 11 p.m. Arriving crews reported heavy black smoke conditions to the floor upon entry and found the victim, still wearing a nasal cannula, in the living room near the front door.

The victim was transported to the hospital and firefighters located remains of a fire in the bedroom, which they extinguished with a small amount of water. Crews reported that fire had originated on top of the bed and set fire to curtains as it self-vented out a window.

The victim succumbed to smoke inhalation injuries en route to the hospital.

The apartment was a single-story wood and brick construction and occupied a ground floor area of 720 square feet (67 square meters). The residence was not equipped with smoke alarms.

The fire caused $75,000 in damage to the residence, valued at $100,000, and $10,000 in damage to its contents, with an estimated value of $20,000.

Man dies when stove pilot light ignites gasoline vapors

One man died in an early morning house fire that began when gasoline vapors were ignited by the pilot light of a kitchen stove.

A passerby reported the fire in a 911 call at 2:33 a.m.

Upon arrival, crews reported fire showing at one side of a two-story residence. Crews made entry and were able to quickly extinguish the fire, locating the body of the victim after extinguishment.

Investigators determined that the victim had been working on a vehicle gas tank inside his residence earlier in the day. The gas tank was stored in the kitchen and vapors from gasoline inside the gas tank were ignited by the stove pilot light, with fire spreading to other combustible materials.

The residence was a wood construction and occupied a ground floor area of 492 square feet (46 square meters). It was not equipped with smoke alarms.

The house, valued at $22,700, and its contents, valued at $15,000, were a total loss.

Electrical fault blamed for apartment fire that kills three

A late-night fire as a result of an electrical fault claimed the lives of three residents of an apartment that was not equipped with smoke detectors.

Firefighters were dispatched to the fire at 10:30 p.m. by a call to 911. First-arriving crews reported smoke coming from the front of a two-story apartment building. As the incident commander performed a 360-degree walkaround of the structure, crews prepared to mount an offensive attack.

Fire began venting from the front window of a first-floor unit and incident command returned to report that heavy fire was coming from the same apartment at the rear, where an open door had contributed to fire spread.

Crews initiated an interior attack through the front entrance, breaching a door in the involved apartment, where they encountered heavy fire and smoke. After making progress in the front room, crews found heavy fire coming from a hallway in the center of the unit, and incident command ordered crews out of the building when fire began breaching the roof.

Two hand nozzles were deployed at the front of the structure and two at the rear in a defensive attack, with a blitz nozzle placed at a rear corner to attack fire on the second floor. Crews placed ladders to the second level at the front and rear of the structure for secondary means of egress.

After substantial progress was made on fire extinguishment, incident command called for a primary search of the structure, where reports indicated possible occupants on the second floor. No occupants were found on the second floor, but the search found three occupants in the first-floor unit. All three occupants were moved to the front yard for treatment by medical crews, but they later succumbed to smoke inhalation injuries.

According to news reports, residents of other apartments were able to evacuate the building without injury.

Investigators determined that the fire was ignited in the kitchen by an electrical fault, where an electrical cord for the freezer was not properly grounded.

The apartment building was constructed with a wood frame and brick walls and occupied a ground floor area of 2,720 square feet (252 square meters).

The fire caused $125,000 in damage to the building, valued at $200,000 and an additional $50,000 in damage to its contents, valued at $100,000.

Occupant dies in fire caused by
unattended cooking

One man died in an early morning house fire that started when he fell asleep while cooking oil heated on his kitchen stove.

Local firefighters were called to the scene by a next-door neighbor, whose attic smoke detector began sounding at 4:27 a.m.

On arrival, firefighting crews reported a working fire in a three-story residence, with heavy smoke showing from the second and third floors of the structure. Engine crews advanced a hand line to the front entrance and proceeded to the second floor, where they found the unresponsive victim in a room next to the kitchen. Crews requested that medical personnel assume care for the occupant, then initiated fire attack.

After knocking down the fire, crews looked for extension, then were sent to an adjacent structure to check for any extension, with none found. Medical crews reported that the occupant succumbed to his injuries, causing a request for the fire marshal to report to the scene.

Investigators determined that the victim fell asleep after placing cooking oil on an electric stovetop in his second-floor apartment. After the oil ignited, it spread to cabinets and throughout the kitchen and entered a decay stage by the time of the fire department’s arrival. It was unclear how long the fire burned before it was detected.

Investigators reported that there were no working smoke alarms in the victim’s apartment.

The building was a wood construction that occupied a ground floor area of 1,500 square feet (139 square meters).

The fire caused $17,500 in damage to the building’s contents, valued at $35,000.

Occupant dies when materials on stove are ignited by burner

An elderly woman with a mobility disability died in an apartment fire that began when materials stored on top of her kitchen stove were ignited by a stove burner.

Firefighters were sent to the scene following a 911 call by a neighbor shortly after midnight.

Upon arrival, crews found smoke showing from the front door of the apartment, part of a larger apartment building. Neighbors reported to crews that they had made an unsuccessful attempt to gain entry and that the occupant was believed to still be inside the unit.

Firefighting crews forced their way into the residence and found the occupant in the kitchen, then moved her outside for transport to the hospital. Reports indicated the crews were able to extinguish the fire in approximately five minutes.

Investigators learned that the occupant did not use her stove for cooking, and instead used it as a place to store mail and other materials. They indicated that the control for the burner was in the “on” position and that flame from the burner ignited the materials stored there.

The occupant reportedly succumbed to her injuries during transport to the hospital.

The apartment was not equipped with smoke alarms or sprinkler protection.

The apartment building was a two-story wood structure occupying a ground floor area of 7,000 square feet (650 square meters).

The fire caused $50,000 to the structure, valued at $250,000, and an additional $50,000 in damage to its contents, with an estimated value of $175,000.

Residents displaced by fire sparked by fireplace ashes

Firefighters responding to reports of a structure fire with trapped residents were able to rescue two occupants from a second-floor unit of a condominium complex.

During the response, one firefighter experienced chest pains and was transported to the hospital, but no civilian injuries were reported.

Firefighters were sent to the scene when a resident called 911 shortly after 2:30 a.m. following the activation of smoke alarms.

On arrival, crews reported fire showing through the roof of a three-story building. A search-and-rescue team deployed and evacuated the second-floor occupants while other companies began efforts to confine and extinguish the fire on the third floor and roof area.

All other residents of the complex were accounted for and able to evacuate on their own.

Newspaper accounts reported that 70 firefighters were involved in the response and that the fire took approximately an hour to extinguish. Fifteen residents were reportedly displaced by the fire.

Investigators determined that the fire began on a third-floor balcony, where fireplace ashes had been placed in a plastic container. The hot ashes ignited vinyl siding, and fire spread up the exterior wall into the roof area.

A newspaper report of the fire cautioned that fireplace ashes should be placed in a metal container, soaked in water, and stored away from structures on a concrete surface.

The building was equipped with a wet-pipe sprinkler system, but coverage did not extend to the exterior porch. Although two sprinklers were activated by the fire, they were ineffective in controlling the bulk of the fire located in the roof.

The structure was constructed with a wood frame and wood and brick veneer walls. There were 12 units in the building, but no other information was available on the building’s size.

The fire caused an estimated $300,000 in damage to the building, valued at $600,000, and $100,000 in damage to contents, valued at $150,000.


Safety systems minimize damage in commercial laundry fire

Firefighters were dispatched to a commercial laundry facility at 9 a.m. by a private alarm company following the activation of an automatic alarm system.

On arrival, crews were flagged down by a facility employee, who reported fire inside the building. An engine company positioned at the center of the building and found heavy smoke inside. After making entry, crews located the fire in a dryer and began extinguishment after shutting down utilities to the entire dryer bank.

Following extinguishment, crews searched for extension, conducted primary and secondary searches of the facility, and performed salvage and overhaul operations.

Investigators determined that the fire started when the dryer’s heating element ignited fabrics inside.

The fire caused $5,000 in damage to building contents, valued at $1 million. There was no damage to the building, valued at $5 million.


Fire at manufacturing facility ignited by electrical spark

No injuries were reported in an early evening fire at a manufacturing facility that began when a static spark ignited flammable vapors, but the fire caused an estimated $30,000 in damages.

The local fire department was called to the scene at 6 p.m. following notification by a central station alarm. On arrival, an engine company reported that smoke was showing from overhead doors at the front of a large, single-story manufacturing complex, with a working fire visible toward the rear of the structure.

Firefighting crew members reported that they would initiate a low-rise procedure for fire attack, while members of a second firefighting company established a water supply by using a reverse hose to the nearest fire hydrant. All occupants of the building were accounted for.

Inside the facility, firefighters found that a wet-pipe sprinkler system was controlling the spread of the fire, but substantial fire remained, which crew members were able to control and extinguish. Following extinguishment, firefighters set up positive pressure ventilation to clear the structure of smoke, then monitored the facility for the presence of flammable vapors, which proved negative.

News reports of the incident indicated that the fire department’s hazardous materials team, as well as personnel from the state’s natural resources division, also responded to the scene to conduct assessments of potentially hazardous releases.

Investigators determined that the fire began when static electricity ignited toluene vapors during a liquid transfer operation above a storage tank. Improper mixing techniques were reported to have contributed to the ignition.

Fifty sprinklers operated in response to the fire.

The facility, an industrial coatings manufacturer, occupied a ground floor area of 155,711 square feet (14,466 square meters). It was constructed with steel walls, roof deck and roof cover, with concrete floor framing.

The fire caused an estimated $30,000 in damage to the contents of the facility. No damage was reported to the structure, valued at $1.4 million.

Ventilation unit blamed for fire in food processing plant

A fire in a ventilation unit at a food processing plant forced the evacuation of facility employees and prompted an extensive fire department response, but no injuries were reported in the early morning incident.

Crews were dispatched to the scene shortly before 3 a.m. On arrival, crews reported that all employees had evacuated and that moderate smoke and fire were visible in a ventilation unit and duct work on the building’s roof.

Crews were informed that the fire was near an ammonia line, but maintenance personnel indicated that they could shut down isolation valves to the ammonia supply lines and vacuum the system to remove as much ammonia as possible from the unit and supply lines. Firefighters laddered the roof with maintenance personnel in order to ensure safe egress while the ammonia lines were shut off.

At the building entrance, an engine company was instructed to don self-contained breathing apparatus and assess the interior of the facility for fire extension and to back out if gas monitors showed any sign of ammonia leakage. Crew members reported that there was no fire inside the building and that the sprinkler system had activated near the entry point for the ventilation shaft.

After exiting the structure, they were assigned to fire suppression of the ventilation unit, pending evacuation of ammonia. Crews breached the ventilation unit when it was determined to be free of ammonia and extinguished remaining fire. Crews then ventilated the building by opening exterior doors and ventilation points on the roof and setting up positive pressure fans at overhead side doors.

Twenty-one firefighters were involved in the response

Investigators determined that the fire began when a ventilation unit fan malfunctioned and stopped facilitating air flow, allowing heat from a gas burner to build up. After igniting, the fire was fed by gas as it spread up duct work.

The facility was equipped with a smoke detection system and a wet-pipe sprinkler system, both of which operated and were effective in alerting occupants to the fire and controlling the spread of the fire.

The facility was a single-story structure with a ground floor area of 150,000 square feet (13,935 square meters).

The fire caused $150,000 in damage to the property, valued at $40 million, and $2,000 in damage to its contents, valued at $300,000.

Public Assembly

Sprinkler extinguishes fire that starts in fitness club dryer

A fire that ignited inside a fitness center dryer sent one employee to the hospital for smoke inhalation injuries, but damage from the fire was otherwise limited to the machine and its contents.

Fire crews were dispatched to the facility at 7:51 a.m. with a report of a building fire. An engine company reached the scene less than three minutes later and reported nothing showing. Crews entered the building and used a pump can to extinguish the remaining fire inside the dryer. A sprinkler above the dryer had controlled the fire and kept it from spreading.

Following extinguishment, crews overhauled the immediate area around the dryer, checked for extension on the first and second floors and the roof, and set up ventilation. The last units cleared the scene at 9:16 a.m.

Ambulance crews transported one person to the hospital for smoke inhalation injuries described as moderate. News reports indicated that he was a maintenance worker who discovered the fire and attempted to put it out with a fire extinguisher. The reports indicated that the facility would be closed for several days during repair.

Investigators determined that the fire started inside the dryer while it was operating with a load of 40 to 50 towels, but could not determine what caused the towels to ignite.

The building was a two-story structure that occupied a ground floor area of 50,900 square feet (4,729 square meters). It was protected by a wet-pipe sprinkler system.

The fire caused an estimated $50,000 in damage to the building, valued at $30 million, and $25,000 in damage to its contents, valued at $3 million.


Electrical arcing ignites fire at
recreation center

Firefighters responding to a fire at a newly opened indoor trampoline park battled heavy smoke conditions but were able to bring the fire under control approximately 30 minutes after arrival.

Fire crews were dispatched to the scene at 9:15 a.m. On arrival, crews reported a moderate amount of smoke showing from the front of a large one-story commercial building, and occupants and employees were waiting outside. Employees indicated that occupants had evacuated the building but were unable to identify where the fire was located.

Inside the building, crews found that the facility’s sprinkler system and fire detection system had activated and reported zero visibility with high heat conditions.

Crews pulled hoses to assist with search and fire attack and formed separate teams to perform searches along the building perimeter. As one crew moved to the rear of the building, they encountered high heat and smoke conditions and retreated to the front entrance, where the other team reported that it had found the origin of the fire in foam pits under a trampoline platform.

Crew members extinguished the fire and called for ventilation as they searched for fire extension and possible occupants. Heat and visibility improved after exterior crew members removed the facility’s front windows to provide ventilation. Once the fire was confined and contained, crews shut down the sprinkler system to prevent additional water damage.

The fire caused extensive damage, but all occupants were able to evacuate the building before the fire department’s arrival. One civilian suffered a minor injury while evacuating the building, and a firefighter experienced a minor fatigue injury during overhaul.

Investigators determined that the fire was caused by arcing from an overloaded electric junction box that was located underneath a foam pit.

The building occupied a ground floor area of 50,000 square feet (4,645 square meters).

The fire caused an estimated $300,000 in damage to the property, valued at $1.3 million and an additional $100,000 in damage to its contents, valued at $200,000.


Crews respond to fiery highway
collision that claims life of driver

Firefighters were dispatched at 9:30 a.m. to an accident scene on a major highway after an electric-powered passenger vehicle struck a median barrier and caught fire.

On arrival, crews found three vehicles involved in a collision, with one vehicle on fire. As crews initiated fire attack, medical personnel assumed patient care of the burning vehicle’s driver, who had been extricated by passing motorists, then moved the victim to an ambulance for transport to the hospital. Command requested an additional ambulance to the scene, but the driver of a second vehicle declined treatment and transport for injuries.

Following patient transport and fire extinguishment, the electric-powered vehicle was determined to represent a potential electrical hazard, and all personnel were advised to stay clear. Crews contacted the vehicle manufacturer, which had a facility located nearby, who sent representatives to the scene and determined that the vehicle could not be stabilized and should be towed to a tow yard.

The emergency response to the incident required closure of all four lanes of southbound traffic. The last fire crew members did not clear the scene until after 4 p.m.

The driver of the electrical vehicle later succumbed to injuries at the hospital.

A report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) indicated that the electric-powered vehicle struck a crash attenuator at the end of a concrete median, causing it to rotate counterclockwise and resulted in the separation of the front portion of the vehicle. Two other vehicles subsequently became involved in the collision.

According to the NTSB report, the fire was caused by the breach of the vehicle’s 400-volt lithium-ion battery during the collision sequence. The fire department was reported to have applied approximately 200 gallons of water and foam over a 10-minute period to extinguish fires in the vehicle interior and the exposed portion of the battery.


Wing of school destroyed in
intentionally set fire

A fire that resulted in an estimated
$2 million in damage to an elementary school was intentionally set, according to fire investigators.

Firefighters were dispatched to the scene following a 911 call at 3:51 p.m. reporting heavy black smoke at the rear of the school. Arriving crews found that a detached wing of classrooms was well-involved with fire with heavy smoke conditions. Crews set up for an external fire attack that sought to keep the fire from spreading to nearby buildings.

After cutting the locks on two gates at the rear of the property to provide access for fire department apparatus, firefighting crews placed hoses at the front and rear of the building for fire attack. A third hose was put into service with the arrival of additional fire department personnel. Crews maintained a defensive attack throughout the operation due to a partial roof collapse and other signs of significant damage to structural components of the building. Eventually, 10 units and 22 personnel were involved in the response.

The fire was determined to be knocked down at 4:18 p.m. and some units were cleared to return to their stations. Remaining personnel completed extinguishment with water and Class A foam. The last units left the scene at 8:46 p.m. School representatives assumed control of the property and made arrangements for fencing to be placed around the damaged building.

Fire investigators arrived on scene while the fire was still in progress. As they were being briefed by incident command, the investigators were approached by a nearby resident who reported that she had earlier seen three juveniles jump a fence and enter the school property, then saw smoke coming from the structure and the juveniles running away a short time later.

Subsequent interviews with the juvenile suspects established that the fire had resulted from the ignition of papers in a ventilation pipe and on a classroom door. The suspects were referred to juvenile authorities.

Firefighters were successful in confining the fire to the building of fire origin, but news reports indicated that a second wing experienced heat and smoke damage.

The building was a single-story structure with a ground floor area of 4,500 square feet (418 square meters) and was equipped with smoke detectors, which were determined to be operational. No additional information was available on the structure or fire protection systems.

Damage from the fire was estimated at $1.5 million to the building and $500,000 to its contents.

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: HARRISON JONES