Author(s): Richard Campbell. Published on May 1, 2020.


Fire incidents from across the country




Scrapped autos fuel major barge fire

Firefighters were dispatched to an auto scrap facility shortly after 8 p.m. by multiple reports of thick black smoke and fire. Upon arrival, crews found flames issuing from a cargo of scrapped automobiles stacked atop a large barge, which was moored in a river and secured to a seawall at the end of the property.

Crews pulled hoses to begin suppression efforts, but were initially unable to gain access to the fire due to its location at the outermost edge of stacked vehicles at the far end of the barge. Firefighters were able to begin putting water on the fire with the assistance of ladder units, and the arrival of a fire boat provided a more direct line of fire attack. A foam truck from a nearby airfield responded to the scene.

As suppression efforts continued, news reports described billowing black smoke and explosions as combustible materials in the scrapped material ignited. Crews were reportedly able to bring the fire under control in about an hour, but crews remained on the scene for several more hours as crane operators removed vehicles to allow extinguishment of hard-to-reach hot spots.

The fire department reported that 39 pieces of fire aparatus and 131 personnel were involved in the response. The Coast Guard and environmental authorities also reported to the scene to prepare the deployment of booms for environmental containment.

Two firefighters were transported to a local medical center for treatment of minor injuries.

According to a crane operator, the fire began as he lowered crane jaws to grab a vehicle and it burst into flames. He reported observing what he believed to be propane tanks on the underside of the vehicle. The operator managed to remove the burning vehicle from the barge and place it on the shore, but the fire had already spread to other vehicles and began to spread further.

Fire department investigators identified puncture holes in the large tanks described by the crane operator, and determined that fuel or accelerant inside the tanks was ignited by a spark when the crane jaws grabbed the vehicle.

Damage to the barge was estimated at $400,000. No damage was reported to the seawall or scrapyard property as a result of the fire.



Smoking materials suspected in fatal apartment fire

One man died in an early evening fire that started in the bedroom of his third-floor apartment, possibly from smoking materials.

A second occupant of the unit and other building residents were able to escape the fire, but the victim remained behind to try to extinguish the fire himself, according to fire department reports.

Firefighters arrived shortly before 7 p.m. to find heavy fire venting from windows on the third floor of the three-unit residence. Crew members learned from the evacuated residents that one occupant was still inside the structure on the top floor.

As crews attacked the fire from outside, interior teams made their way to the third floor, where they were able to locate the occupant in a bathroom, unconscious. Crews transported the occupant outside, but he later succumbed to his injuries.

News reports indicated that the main body of fire was extinguished by 7:30 p.m., with firefighters from nearby communities providing mutual aid.

Investigators determined that the fire started on a carpet and bedding materials in the victim’s bedroom and that smoking materials were the most likely source of ignition.

The building was equipped with hardwired smoke detectors in common stairways at the front and rear, with battery-operated smoke detectors in the units. However, investigators reported that smoke detectors on the third floor had been removed.

Fire department reports indicated that the victim had asked his brother for help in extinguishing a fire that had started in the bedroom, but that the fire grew rapidly. The brother was driven back by fire and smoke while making a rescue attempt.

The structure was a wood construction, but no additional details were available. The fire caused an estimated $150,000 in damage to the building, valued at $800,000.


Electrical overload blamed for camper fire that kills two children

A midmorning fire in a camper that claimed the lives of two children was caused by an overloaded electrical system, according to fire department investigators.

News reports indicated that the camper was being used as a temporary shelter while a manufactured home nearby was undergoing renovations.

The fire department was dispatched to the scene at 10:30 a.m. following a phone call from the father, who was outside the camper when the fire broke out.

Firefighters quickly extinguished the fire upon arrival, but the camper was fully involved in flames and there was no chance of saving the children.

According to investigators, electricity for the camper’s electrical system was being supplied by a second camper. The fire started when heat from the overloaded electrical system ignited wooden material in the kitchen area.

The fire was detected by the father while he was working on a vehicle and saw smoke and fire on the camper’s exterior. He was able to pull a third child out of the camper but flames and heat prevented access to the bed area where the two victims were located.


Hoarding conditions slow firefighter response at fatal home fire

Firefighters responding to a late afternoon house fire that claimed the life of an elderly man were slowed by hoarding conditions throughout the residence, according to fire department reports.

The fire department responded to the scene shortly after 5:30 p.m. following a phone call to 911 by a passerby who saw smoke coming from the residence.

Upon arrival, crews found the house fully charged with light smoke. The 911 caller was at the scene and informed crews that he was a neighbor and believed that the vehicle in the driveway was an indication that the owner was home. He also said that the owner ordinarily spent much of his time in the basement.

Crews made a 360-degree circuit of the residence and found a fully involved fire in the basement and heavy smoke on the ground floor. A police officer who had been first to arrive informed crews that he had tried to kick in the front door, but stacks of material behind it prevented the door from opening enough for entry.

Firefighters initiated a transitional attack on the fire at the rear of the house, where fire was blowing through two basement windows. As the attack continued, additional crews started opening windows from the exterior to check for possible occupants, then removed the front door and began removing boxes and other material in order to enter.

A rapid intervention team made entry through the front door and found the occupant on the floor of a hallway. Crews initially reported signs of life, but medical personnel confirmed that the occupant was deceased after the body was moved outside. Crews then made their way down a stairwell to the basement and reported high temperatures but could find no signs of fire. Clutter in the basement was reported as reaching three-quarters of the way up the wall, with a narrow path for access. Following extinguishment of fire in the basement, crews performed a secondary search of the first floor and found no additional occupants.

Investigators determined that the fire began in a basement bedroom at the rear of the residence. The blaze appeared to start high and burn down the fuel load. Investigators were unable to determined the cause of ignition. They indicated that there was no automatic detection equipment in the residence.

The house was a single-story wood structure with a ground floor area of 900 square feet (84 square meters).

The house and contents, which together were valued at $97,500, were a total loss.


Smoking materials blamed for house fire that kills elderly woman

An elderly woman with a mobility disability died in a late-night house fire that investigators say was ignited by discarded smoking materials.

Firefighters were dispatched to the residence by a phone call from a passerby shortly before 10 p.m. Crews reported fire showing from a large picture window at the front of the house, with multiple police officers already at the scene.

Crews learned that police units had kicked in a kitchen door at the rear of the residence and found the victim on the floor, unresponsive. Officers had removed the victim and begun resuscitation efforts, and fire department medical personnel provided additional assistance.

The victim was transported to a local hospital and later succumbed to her injuries.

Fire crews obtained water supply from a nearby hydrant and began extinguishing visible fire through the front window. Additional crew members then entered the residence and began a primary search, which proved negative, then finished extinguishment inside the structure. A secondary search also proved negative.

Investigators determined that the fire started in a first-floor family room when smoking materials that had been discarded in a wicker garbage can ignited a fire, which then spread to a chair.

Fire department reports indicated that the residence was not equipped with smoke detectors.

The house was a single-story wood structure with a ground floor area of 1,232 square feet (114 square meters).

Damage to the house, valued at $225,000, was estimated at $125,000. The fire caused an additional $40,000 in damage to the home’s contents, valued at $75,000.


Fatal fire caused by child playing with cigarette lighter

One child died in a house fire that was ignited when another child was playing with a cigarette lighter.

The fire department was dispatched to the residence after one of the home’s occupants called 911 at 7:30 p.m. after being alerted to the fire by a smoke detector. Reports from the residence indicated that an infant was still inside the structure and believed to be in a rear bedroom.

Crews reported seeing a column of black smoke as they made their way to the scene. Upon arrival, both floors at the rear of the two-story structure were said to be heavily involved with fire. A circuit around the perimeter of the structure also found that the fire had melted the siding on exposed homes on each side of the structure.

Crews made entry through the front door to begin fire attack and search for the occupant at the rear of the residence. A second company conducted a primary search of the front of the house before moving to the second floor, where they encountered heavy smoke conditions and moderate heat.

Interior crews knocked down fire in the rear bedroom and located the missing child in a corner of the room and determined that the child was deceased. The room was soaked down to prevent further flare-up, and the room and the child’s body were preserved for investigators.

After primary and secondary searches confirmed that there were no remaining occupants in the residence, crews performed ventilation and overhaul activities.

Investigators determined that the fire began when a second child set fire to a toy while playing with a cigarette lighter in a closet in the rear bedroom.

The house was equipped with one smoke alarm in a common area near the rear bedroom, but smoke alarms in other locations had been removed and were not operational.

The fire department reported that 17 apparatuses and 40 personnel responded to the fire. The last unit did not clear the scene until just before 9 a.m. the following morning.

One firefighter was transported to a clinic for a sprain or strain injury when he was struck by a partial ceiling collapse.

The house was a two-story wood structure comprised of two units and occupied a ground floor area of 1,600 square feet (149 square meters).

The fire caused $150,000 in damage to the house, valued at $250,000, and $50,000 in damage to contents, valued at $62,500.


Heat from lamp causes fatal house fire

An early morning house fire that began when a lamp was knocked over and ignited window drapes claimed the life of a male occupant.

The fire department responded following a call to 911 at 4:46 a.m. by another occupant of the residence. Initial reports indicated that an occupant was trapped on the second floor of the two-story structure, where smoke conditions were reported.

Firefighters entered the structure for a rescue attempt, but found the trapped occupant on the floor of his second-floor bedroom. Crews were able to knock the fire down.

Two other residents of the house were able to evacuate.

The resident who called 911 reported that he was asleep on the first floor when he was awakened by a smoke detector. After discovering the fire on the second floor, he indicated that he tried to enter the victim’s room but was driven back by thick smoke. He then alerted a third occupant and the two made their way outside.

There was no working smoke detector in the victim’s bedroom, according to fire department reports.

Investigators determined that a lamp had been knocked over during the night and came in contact with bedroom curtains, igniting a fire that then spread to an interior wall covering. Intoxication may have been a factor that complicated the victim’s ability to escape.

The house was a wood structure and occupied a ground floor area of 1,088 square feet (101 square meters).

The fire caused $20,000 in damage to the structure, valued at $51,000, and $5,000 in damage to contents, valued at $25,000.


Smoking while on oxygen blamed for fatal fire

A woman with a mobility disability died in a fire that ignited when she lit a cigarette while using a nasal cannula in her living room.

Neighbors called 911 at 7:44 a.m. to report the fire and attempted to rescue the victim without success before firefighters reached the scene minutes later.

According to news reports, the victim lived by herself in a first-floor apartment at the rear of a five-unit apartment building.

On arrival, firefighters entered the apartment and found the deceased victim in her living room, where fire on her clothing had spread to nearby pieces of furniture. Crews extinguished the fire and preserved the scene for investigators and the coroner.

Investigators reported that the victim had a history of smoking while using oxygen and had been warned to stop by friends and family members. They indicated that the oxygen concentrator was in the “on” position and that the tubing had melted onto the victim.

Another building occupant was able to escape the fire and attempted with a passerby to locate the victim until being driven back by fire.

The fire department indicated that a single smoke detector in the victim’s apartment was not operable.

The building was a three-story wood structure with a ground floor area of 2,340 square feet (217 square meters).

The fire caused an estimated $15,000 in damage to the building, valued at $110,000, and an additional $5,000 in damage to its contents, valued at $50,000


Lithium ion battery in vape device causes fatal house fire

A house fire that claimed the life of a male resident was caused by the catastrophic failure of a rechargeable lithium ion battery used in a vape device, according to fire investigators.

The fire department was dispatched to the scene by an alarm monitoring company after it was alerted by the residence’s fire alarm system shortly before 9:30 a.m.

Firefighters reported nothing showing from a two-story wood frame residence upon arrival, but smoke was discovered coming from the west gable end of the residence during a 360-degree circuit of the property, and the call was upgraded to a complete structure response.

Crew members initiated a fast attack and forced entry at the front of the residence, advancing a fog nozzle to the second floor. While extinguishing a small fire in the corner of a bedroom, crews discovered a fire victim on the floor and quickly transported him outside. Medical crews determined that the occupant was already deceased.

Investigators determined that the fire originated in the victim’s bedroom, where the rechargeable lithium ion battery for a vape device went into a thermal runaway, causing a catastrophic failure of the battery, which then ignited ordinary combustibles around the foot of the bed.

The residence was a two-and-a-half story wood structure with gable roof framing and occupied a ground floor area of 960 square feet (89 square meters). It was equipped with a monitored residential fire alarm system.

Damage to the structure and contents was estimated at $20,000.


One dies in unattended cooking fire

An early afternoon house fire that claimed the life of a female occupant was ignited by cooking materials left unattended in the kitchen, according to fire department reports.

News reports indicated that firefighters were able to rescue another occupant and that a third occupant escaped the fire on his own.

Firefighters were dispatched to the fire at 1 p.m. after a 911 call by a neighbor. Responding crews observed a smoke column while en route to the scene and requested a second alarm following reports of a person trapped on the second floor of the residence.

An engine company and battalion chief were first to arrive and made entry through the front door to begin searching for the occupant. As additional companies arrived and pulled attack lines for extinguishment, interior crews reported that thermal imaging cameras were only displaying a white screen due to high temperatures.

Exterior crews set up ground ladders and broke windows to provide ventilation and visibility for those inside. Thick black smoke began pouring from the interior once the windows were broken, gradually providing enough visibility for interior crews to locate the female occupant on the floor of a second-floor bedroom. Crews immediately rushed her outside to an awaiting medical crew, who transferred her to an ambulance and began treatment. The victim was later pronounced dead at the scene by a coroner.

Firefighters knocked the fire down in approximately 20 minutes and then began overhaul activities.

Investigators found one smoke detector on the floor but did not indicate where it was operable.

The house was a two-and-a-half story wood structure occupying a ground floor area of 1,162 square feet (108 square meters).

The fire caused $50,000 in damage to the structure, valued at $73,000. The contents, valued at $5,000, were a total loss.



Fleeing motorist dies after ramming airport fuel dispenser

Firefighters were dispatched to a local airport around 7:30 a.m. by a report of a vehicle fire and an injured person.

On arrival, crews reported that several law enforcement personnel were already on the scene, where a vehicle had crashed into an airport fuel dispenser and was heavily involved with fire.

Crews pulled an attack line and began extinguishment, with units from a second company providing a backup line and tanker. Crews also accessed an emergency shutoff switch for the fuel tank to prevent a major fuel leak.

The fire was concentrated in the front engine and interior passage area of the vehicle and front exterior of the fuel tank and fuel lines. Following extinguishment, crews used a thermal imaging camera to check for hot spots.

The operator of the vehicle was inside the car, deceased. Crews assisted the medical examiner in removing the body for transport to a funeral home before returning to service and turning the scene over to law enforcement authorities.

Law enforcement reports indicated that officers were in pursuit of the vehicle when it crashed through the airport gate and continued to flee until ramming into the fuel dispenser platform. Reports indicated that the operator exited the vehicle and walked around, then jumped back into the burning vehicle after ignoring communications from law enforcement.

Damage to the fueling apparatus was said to be superficial. Hazardous materials crews were called to the scene for mitigation and clean-up of fuel released from the dispenser.

No cost estimates were available on damage from the fire.


Firefighters respond to vehicle fire that kills one

One person died in an early morning car fire that started after the vehicle left the road and struck a tree in a residential area.

Firefighters responded to multiple calls from other drivers at 6:30 a.m.

News reports indicated that a witness to the crash pulled the operator out of the vehicle before first responders and medics reached the scene.

On arrival, crews found a vehicle approximately 40 feet off the roadway in the front yard of a single-family home, with the engine compartment fully involved with fire.

Firefighters tended to the victim until medical crews arrived, during which time the fire spread to involve the entire vehicle.

As medical crews assumed care for the patient, firefighters were able to quickly extinguish the fire.

The vehicle operator was taken to a local hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.

Police officers speculated that the victim may have lost control of his vehicle after suffering a medical event or being cut off by another vehicle.

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: D.J. SONSTENG PHOTOGRAPHY