Author(s): Stephen Badger. Published on November 2, 2015.

Large-Loss Fires in the United States in 2014

Six fires in apartment complexes under construction were among the largest fires in the country last year, which totaled more than $654 million in direct property loss across all categories.
BY STEPHEN G. BADGER


OVER THE PAST 10 YEARS, the number of large-loss fires in the United States, defined as fires that result in property damage of at least $10 million, has ranged from 16 to 45 a year, with an average of approximately 25 fires per year. In 2014, 25 large-loss fires caused a total of almost $654.3 million in direct property losses. While these fires accounted for just 0.002 percent of the estimated number of fires in 2014, they accounted for 5.6 percent of the total estimated dollar loss. They also accounted for five civilian deaths, 15 civilian injuries, and 10 firefighter injuries.

Fifteen of those fires—nine more than in 2013—resulted in more than $20 million each in property damage. These fires, which included 13 in structures as well as one boat fire and a wildfire, resulted in a combined property loss of $518.6 million, which represents 79.3 percent of the total loss in large-loss fires and 4.5 percent of the total fire losses in the United States for 2014.

The largest fire of 2014 in terms of direct property loss was a pier fire in California that resulted in more than $100 million in damage. The fire, which was reportedly started by a welder’s torch, smoldered for more than 32 hours and burned under the pier and a warehouse on the 150-foot (46-meter) wharf, resulting in a partial collapse of the warehouse floor. Nearly 1,000 dock workers were evacuated from the area, and two cargo ships were moved to safer locations in the harbor. No injuries were reported.

A number of buildings under construction were also damaged in high-loss fires. Six apartment buildings or complexes in various stages of completion and a department store under renovation sustained losses totaling $187 million.

WHERE THE FIRES OCCURRED

Of the 25 large-loss fires that occurred last year, 21 involved structures and resulted in a total property loss of $579.4 million, or 88.6 percent of the combined losses for all large-loss fires. The other four fires—three vehicle fires and one wildfire—resulted in combined losses of $74.9 million, or 11.4 percent of the losses in all of the large-loss fires.

Of the 21 large-loss structure fires, seven occurred in structures that were under construction or being renovated, resulting in a combined loss of $187 million. Six of the structures were apartment buildings, and one was a department store.

A California wildfire complex destroyed 65 structures and resulted in nearly $30 million in direct property loss.

A California wildfire complex destroyed 65 structures and resulted in nearly $30 million in direct property loss. Photograph: Getty Images

In six of these structures, automatic detection equipment had yet to be installed. Detection equipment had been installed in one of the buildings but was not yet operational. Five other buildings had no suppression equipment. Suppression systems had been installed in two buildings, but they were not yet operational.
Six fires occurred in stores and office properties. Four large-loss fires occurred in stores in 2014 and caused $64.2 million in damage, while two fires in office buildings caused $76.5 million in damage, for a combined loss of $140.7 million.

Another four large-loss fires occurred in storage properties, resulting in a combined loss of $164.7 million. The pier/warehouse fire alone resulted in a loss of just over $100 million.

Two fires in industrial properties resulted in a combined loss of $35 million last year. One started in the gas distribution system of a compressor building and the other occurred in a nuclear energy plant.

Chart of all the Large-Loss fires of 20 Million dollars or more in 2014

Large-Loss fires of $20 million or more in 2015

One fire in a single-family home resulted in a loss of $22 million, while a single fire in a meat-packing plant caused a loss of $30 million.

Three of the four non-structure, large-loss fires involved vehicles, including a cargo ship and a yacht. The third vehicle fire involved six special-purpose trucks used at a gas well drilling facility and designed to carry specialized equipment such as pumps and drills, as well as sand or cement. These fires caused a combined loss of $45.1 million. The fourth non-structure fire was a wildland/urban interface fire that destroyed 65 structures, 46 of which were single-family homes, and burned more than 26,000 acres (10,522 hectares), for a loss of $29.8 million.

HOW THE FIRES STARTED

The cause of ignition was reported for 16 of the 25 large-loss fires of 2014, including 13 of the structure fires, two of the vehicle fires, and the wildland/urban interface fire. Five structure fires started when heat sources were installed or placed too close to combustibles or when hot work was done too close to combustibles. One of these five fires involved a heater used to dry drywall compound that was placed too close to stacked wood at a construction site, while another started when grinding work was being done too close to woodwork. The other three were ignited by heat from welding or cutting operations.

Two of the structure fires were intentionally set, one in a department store and the other at an apartment building under construction. Two more structure fires were caused by arcing or a short circuit, one above boxed goods and the other in wiring. One fire started when embers, sparks, or flames escaped from a fireplace, while another occurred when an aircraft crashed into a flight safety building. The remaining two fires resulted from roof work, but no other details were provided.

In 15 of the 21 structure fires, the properties were open and operating; 14 were at full operation and one was in partial operation. In five of the 21 structure fires, the properties were closed and unoccupied. Six of the structure fires broke out between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. and caused a direct property loss of $120.2 million.

Welding operations were also the cause of two vehicle fires. Another large-loss vehicle fire was due to a part failure.

DETECTION AND SUPPRESSION SYSTEMS

Information about automatic fire or smoke detection equipment was reported for 18 of the 21 large-loss structure fires. Eleven occurred in properties that had no automatic detection equipment. This includes six of the buildings that were under construction. Of the systems in the seven other structures for which information was reported, only one did not operate. The building was under construction, and the system had been installed but was not yet operational.

Fire in a mercantile building in Ohio resulted in an estimated $20 million in property damage.

Fire in a mercantile building in Ohio resulted in an estimated $20 million in property damage. ​Photograph: AP/Wide World

Information about automatic suppression equipment was reported for 18 of the 21 structure fires. Eleven had no suppression equipment at all, including five of the buildings under construction or being renovated. Of the remaining seven structures, two had wet-pipe systems that operated and controlled or helped control the fire, two had systems installed that were not yet operational, and three had systems that were not in the area of origin and did not operate.

Of the fires for which presence of both detection and suppression equipment was reported, 11 had neither an operational detection system nor an operational suppression system. Both types of systems were operational in four fires. Two structures had detection equipment only, and one had suppression equipment only.

WHAT WE CAN LEARN

There were four more large-loss fires in 2014 than there were in 2013, for a 19 percent increase. However, there was a decrease of $190.5 million, or 22.6 percent, in associated property losses in 2014 compared to the year before, in large part due to the fact that one fire in 2013 resulted in more than $400 million in losses. None of the large-loss fires of 2014 resulted in damage on that scale.

In eight of the past 10 years, at least one fire has resulted in a loss of more than $100 million—in 2014, that fire was the pier fire in California—and over that period a total of 21 fires have resulted in more than $100 million in losses. One of those fires, a wildfire, resulted in more than $1 billion in losses, and nine other wildfires did more than $100 million in damage. Of the other 11 fires to reach the $100 million mark, nine were structure fires and two were vehicle fires. In 2014, for the first time in several years, the highest loss in terms of direct property damage was not a wildland fire.

The large losses in buildings under construction illustrate the vulnerability of building projects when they are not protected by suppression systems. NFPA 241, Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition Operations, contains several provisions for protecting buildings during construction, including installing sprinklers and other protection features as soon as possible.

Welding was blamed for a fire that heavily damaged a pier and warehouse in California, resulting in more than $100 million in property damage.

Welding was blamed for a fire that heavily damaged a pier and warehouse in California, resulting in more than $100 million in property damage. Photograph: AP/Wide World

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 reviews all daily newspapers in the United States and notifies NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division when major large-loss fires occur. NFPA’s annual survey of the U.S. fire experience is an additional data source for this report, although not the principal one.

Once a potential major large-loss 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 and accurate data available on large-loss fires.

This report only covers fires for which NFPA has an official dollar-loss estimate. Other fires may result in large losses, but no official information on the amount of damage was reported.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

NFPA would like to thank the U.S. fire service for its contributions of data on major large-loss fires, 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 incident 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.

STEPHEN G. BADGER is a fire data assistant in NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division and a retired firefighter from the Quincy, Massachusetts, Fire Department. Top Photograph: Newscom