IN SEVEN OF THE PAST 10 YEARS, wildland fires have produced the largest direct property loss fires in the United States, and five of those have resulted in more than $400 million in damage. This includes 2013, when the Black Forest Fire in Colorado resulted in $420.5 million in damage, the highest loss in terms of direct property loss of any fire that occurred in the country.
The Black Forest Fire began early in the afternoon of June 11 in a bowl-like wildland/urban interface area not far from Colorado Springs. By the time it was over, it had burned 14,280 acres (57,789 hectares); destroyed 489 homes, a commercial property, and 188 outbuildings; and damaged an additional 31 homes and five outbuildings. It also killed two people who became trapped in their garage as they tried to evacuate.
The fire department began receiving calls about smoke in the area at about 1:30 p.m. By the time firefighters arrived at the scene and began suppression efforts, the wind had picked up, pushing the fire uphill to steeper terrain and forcing fire crews to withdraw or risk entrapment and burn over. Within the first eight hours, the fire traveled 8 miles (13 kilometers), producing flames more than 150 feet (46 meters) high, and additional companies from area fire departments were dispatched to protect structures.
On the second day, the fire traveled another 5 miles (8 kilometers) along several fronts. Firefighting operations were hindered by the rapid rate of fire spread, which was brought on by erratic winds and bolstered by dry, heavy fuel loads, creating secondary hazards such as heavy smoke that obscured street signs critical to firefighter orientation and escape. Aerial resources were also limited by the winds and extreme fire behavior.
After the fire was over, Pikes Peak Wildfire Prevention released a report, titled “Partners Report to The Governor of Colorado January 21, 2014,” that noted contributing factors such as “narrow driveways and inadequate turn-around radii for fire engines, dense trees on either sides of the driveways that simultaneously ignited during the fire event, and un-thinned ‘dog hair’ trees in and around homes and rights of way.” Most of the structure losses occurred within the first 24 hours, due in many cases to burning embers. The report also stated that “no amount of fire engines, firefighters, bulldozers, slurry bombers, or helicopters could have stopped the Black Forest Fire. Unmitigated forest fuels, combined with up-sloping terrain and high winds, immediately overwhelmed any attempts at containment.”
However, the Black Forest Fire was only one of the large loss fires of 2013. Every year, NFPA reports on large-loss fires and explosions that occurred in the United States the year before. Such fires and explosions are defined as any event that results in property damage of at least $10 million. In 2013, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 1,240,000 structure and non-structure fires, which caused an estimated loss of $11.5 billion. Many of these fires were small or resulted in little or no reported property damage. However, 21 of them resulted in losses of $10 million or more each, for a total of almost $845 million in direct property losses. Although these fires accounted for only 0.002 percent of the estimated number of fires in 2013, they accounted for 7.3 percent of the total estimated dollar loss. In human terms, these 21 fires killed nine firefighters and eight civilian, and injured another 18 firefighters and 278 civilians.
The number of large-loss fires has ranged annually from 16 to 45 over the past 10 years, with an average of approximately 24 fires per year. When adjusted for inflation to 2004 dollars, the number of fires in 2013 that could be categorized as large-loss fires—that is, fires resulting in a loss of $10 million in 2004 dollars—drops to 12, with an adjusted loss of $606 million.
Six of these fires resulted in more than $20 million each in property damage. One of these was the Black Forest Fire, and the other five occurred in structures, resulting in a combined property loss of $660.5 million. This represents 78.2 percent of the total loss in large-loss fires and 5.7 percent of the total fire losses in the United States in 2013.
Where fires occurred
Of the 21 large-loss fires that occurred last year, 17 involved structures, resulting in a total property loss of $387.7 million. Six of these structure fires occurred in manufacturing properties: a fertilizer plant, an egg processing plant, an oil reprocessing plant, a steel mill arc-furnace building, a plastics laminate plant, and an aluminum die-cast plant. These six fires resulted in total losses of $202.6 million.
Four more fires occurred in special properties. Two of the properties were apartment buildings under construction, and the other two were a highway tunnel and a highway interchange that were severely damaged following separate vehicle crashes. The combined loss of these four fires was $52.7 million.
Another three fires occurred in residential properties, one each in a single-family home, a high-rise apartment building, and a cluster of rental cabins. The combined losses for these fires totaled $76.9 million.
Of the final four structure fires, two occurred in restaurants and resulted in a combined loss of $25 million. The third and fourth fires occurred in a warehouse and a high school, and produced losses of $20 million and $10.5 million, respectively.
Of the four non-structure large-loss fires that occurred last year, one was a vehicle fire involving a passenger jet parked at the gate at an airport, which did $10 million in damage, and three were wildland fires that resulted in a combined loss of $447.1 million. One of these wildland fires was the Black Forest Fire, which alone resulted in almost 50 percent of the total large-loss fire losses in 2013. These four non-structure fires resulted in combined losses of $457.1 million, or 54.1 percent of the combined losses of all the large-loss fires.
The cause of ignition was reported for 11 of the 21 large-loss fires, including 10 structure fires and one non-structure fire. Three of the structure fires resulted from mechanical or part failures, including a gas line leak, a failure causing the release of molten materials, and a mechanical failure that caused equipment to overheat. The two fires that damaged highway structures were started by vehicle crashes. Other structure fires occurred when a nail penetrated a wire, causing high-resistive heating; when an industrial furnace backfired; when a furnace was started improperly; and when smoking materials were abandoned or discarded too close to combustibles. The final structure fire for which the cause is known was an arson fire. The one non-structure fire for which the cause is known occurred in the aircraft when its lithium-ion cell battery ignited.
The operating status of the structure was reported for 14 of the structure fires. In 10 cases, the facility was open and operating, eight at full operation and two in partial operation. Four were closed and unoccupied. Eight of the 17 structure fires began between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.
Detection and suppression systems
Information about automatic fire or smoke detection equipment was reported for 12 of the 17 large-loss structure fires. Seven of the properties had no automatic detection equipment. The other five structures had smoke detection equipment that provided complete coverage in one and unreported coverage in four. Three structures had heat and smoke detection systems that provided complete coverage in one structure and unreported coverage in two. Two structures had unreported types of systems that provided unknown coverage. Only two of the systems operated effectively. The operation of the other three was not known.
Information about automatic suppression equipment was reported for 14 of the 17 structure fires. Nine of the structures had no suppression equipment. Of the remaining five, three had wet-pipe sprinklers, one of which provided complete coverage and two unreported coverage. One structure had a dry-pipe system of unreported coverage, and one was an unreported type system.
Two of the five suppression systems operated, and three did not. Of the systems that operated, one was effective and helped contain the fire, and one system operated but was ineffective because of explosion damage. Of the two that did not operate, one system had not been completely installed, and one was not in the area of ignition. The operation of the final system was not reported.
Complete information on both detection and suppression equipment was reported for 12 of the 17 large-loss structure fires. Four of the structures had neither a detection nor a suppression system. Four structures had just detection equipment, and three had just suppression equipment. Only one structure had both types of systems.
What we can learn
In 2013, there were five fewer large-loss fires than there were the year before, and there was a drop in associated property losses of $617.9 million. This decrease in fires of 19.2 percent and decrease in damage of 42.2 percent is largely due to the fact that there was only one fire in 2013 that did more than $400 in damage. In 2012, there were two.
In seven of the past 10 years, at least one fire has resulted in a loss of more than $100 million. In 2013, there were two such fires: a wildfire and an explosion and fire in a fertilizer plant. Over the past 10 years, 21 fires have resulted in more than $100 million in losses, including one that did more than $1 billion in damage. Of these largest losses, 10 were wildland fires, nine were structure fires, and two were vehicle fires.
Adhering to the fire protection principles reflected in NFPA’s codes and standards is essential if we are to reduce the occurrence of large-loss fires and explosions in the United States. Proper construction, proper use of equipment, and proper procedures in chemical processes, storage, and housekeeping will make fires less likely to occur and help limit fire spread should a fire occur. Proper design, maintenance, and operation of fire protection systems and features can keep a fire that does occur from becoming a large-loss fire.
Where we get our data
NFPA identifies potential large-loss incidents by reviewing national and local news media, including fire service publications. A clipping service reads all U.S. daily newspapers and notifies NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division of major large-loss fires. NFPA’s annual survey of the U.S. fire experience is an additional data source, although not the principal one.
Once a fire has been identified, we request information about it from the fire department or agency having jurisdiction. We also contact federal agencies that have participated in investigations, as well as state fire marshals’ offices and military sources. The diversity and redundancy of these data sources enable NFPA to collect the most complete data available on large-loss fires.
NFPA would like to thank the U.S. Fire Service for its contributions of data, without which this report would not be possible. In some cases, the fire department, forestry officials, or government officials were unable to contribute complete details to NFPA because legal action is pending or ongoing, the incident was of a sensitive nature, or the size of the situation was overwhelming. The author also wishes to thank Norma Candeloro and the staff of the Fire Analysis and Research Division for providing the support this study requires.