Author(s): Ken Tremblay. Published on November 2, 2015.

STORAGE

Propane heater ignites gasoline vapors in deadly garage fire

ALBERTA, CANADA—A 39-year-old man who was repairing the fuel pump on a pickup truck in a detached garage died when a propane-fired heater ignited gasoline vapors that had leaked from the truck’s fuel tank. A 35-year-old woman who had entered the garage just before the fire ignited was also killed.

The wood-frame garage (pictured above), which was 24 feet (7.3 meters) long and 22 feet (6.7 meters) wide, had no fire detection or suppression systems.

The man had removed the vehicle’s fuel tank so he could reach the fuel pump, spilling gasoline onto the concrete floor. When the gasoline vapors reached the propane heater, the vapors ignited in a flash fire that spread across the floor and up the walls to the ceiling. A third occupant escaped unharmed and called 911 at 6:30 p.m.

The garage, valued at $30,000, and its contents, valued at $40,000, were destroyed. Both victims died of exposure to smoke and heat.

RESIDENTIAL

Sprinkler extinguishes cooking fire in apartment building

FLORIDA—A woman was heating oil in a pan in her kitchen when the oil overheated and ignited activating a sprinkler that extinguished the flames before firefighters arrived.

The four-story, wood-frame apartment building, which was 40 feet (12 meters) long and 175 feet (53 meters) wide, had concrete block walls and a wooden roof covered with asphalt shingles. The home was protected by a monitored wet-pipe sprinkler system.

Firefighters received the alarm at 8:15 p.m. and arrived nine minutes later to find that the sprinkler had already extinguished the blaze, which was confined to the kitchen.

Damage to the property, which was valued at more than $1 million, was estimated at $6,000.

Natural gas leak in garage ignites, kills elderly man

TENNESSEE—An 87-year-old man died in a fire that started when he hit the HVAC unit in his garage as he tried to park his car. The impact ruptured the natural gas line to the unit, causing gas to leak into the garage and eventually ignite.

The garage was attached to a two-story, wood-frame, single-family house, which was 30 feet (9 meters) long and 40 feet (12 meters) wide. There was a smoke alarm on the second floor. There were no sprinklers.

After the man parked his car, he went inside and began to take a shower, apparently unaware that the leaking gas in the garage had ignited. Because the only smoke detector in the house was on the second floor, the victim knew nothing about the fire until he was alerted by a neighbor, who called 911. The neighbor urged the man to leave the house, but he instead went into the garage, where he was overcome by smoke.

The house, valued at $175,000, sustained an estimated $50,000 worth of damage. Its contents, valued at $50,000, were destroyed.

Portable heater blamed for deadly residential fire

NORTH CAROLINA—The occupant of a single-family home died in a fire that started when a portable heater ignited clothing and blankets in the room in which he was sleeping

The one-story, wood-frame house, which covered an area of approximately 1,000 square feet (93 square meters), had a single smoke alarm in the hallway. There were no sprinklers.

A neighbor saw smoke coming from the house and called 911 to report the fire. Firefighters found the victim in the living room with third-degree burns and pronounced him dead at the scene.

Investigators learned that the man had closed off all the rooms in his house but the living room, where he was sleeping on the couch and had set up a portable kerosene heater in the room to try to stay warm. Because the door to the room was closed, the smoke failed to reach the smoke detector before it was too late.

The house, the estimated value of which was $85,000, sustained $15,000 in damages. There was an additional $5,000 in damage to its contents.

Garage fire in single-family home kills man

MISSOURI—A 68-year-old man who relied on a walker to compensate for a mobility impairment died of smoke inhalation when a fire broke out in the garage attached to his house.

The fire spread so quickly throughout the single-family house that firefighters, who arrived just five minutes after receiving the alarm, found that 65 percent of the structure was already involved in flames.

The two-story, split-entry, wood-frame ranch house, which was 36 feet (11 meters) long and 24 feet (7.3 meters) wide, had smoke alarms on each level. However, one alarm had a dead battery, and the battery had been removed from the other. There were no sprinklers.

Several of the home’s five occupants awoke to find the fire and alerted the rest of the family, four of whom managed to escape. Neighbors called 911 at 3:10 a.m., and a police officer who arrived first on the scene reported that the structure was heavily involved in flames. Minutes later, the first-due engine company arrived, and the occupants who had escaped told firefighters that one person was still in the house.

By this time, the garage door had failed, and heavy and flames were shooting from it, as well as the open front door and the room above the garage. A vehicle parked in front of the garage was also burning.

The incident commander ordered a defensive attack using a large-diameter hose on the side of the house closest to an exposure. Once the crews knocked down the fire, they tried to enter the home to search for the victim, but by then, the floor and roof had collapsed into the basement.

After stabilizing the scene and removing some of the debris, firefighters found the victim’s body in the garage. The evidence suggested that he had been on the second floor before it collapsed.

Investigators determined that a space heater was operating in the garage near the point of origin, but they could not determine the ignition sequence.

The four other occupants of the house, who ranged in age from 2 to 37, were treated at a hospital for smoke inhalation and released. Damage to the structure, valued at $135,000, and its contents, valued at $50,000, was estimated at $170,000.

Man, three dogs die in house fire

NEW YORK—A 45-year-old man died of smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide intoxication in a fire that started on the second floor of his single-family house.

The two-story, wood-frame house, which measured 129 feet (39 meters) long and 40 feet (12 meters) wide, had once been a multi-unit dwelling and an antique shop before it was converted to a single-family home. It had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.

A neighbor discovered the fire when he smelled smoke and went looking for its source. Once he saw the smoke coming from the home’s eaves and the soot-blackened windows, he banged on the door to alert his neighbor.When he failed to get a response, he called 911.

Firefighters received the call at 12:22 p.m. and arrived within five minutes to find heavy smoke filling in the living room and fire visible on a wall near the television and couches. They used a single hose line to knock the fire in the living room down before going upstairs, where they had difficulty opening the door to the second floor because the victim’s 100-pound (45-kilogram) mastiff dog had collapsed against the door.

The rescue company eventually found the victim lying on his back in the hallway near the living room on the first floor. The body of another large dog was lying by his head, and the body of a third dog was found in its cage. All three animals had died of exposure to smoke and other products of combustion.

Investigators determined that the fire started in the living room, but they could not pinpoint the cause. Damage to the house, valued at $250,000, was estimated at $180,000. Damage to its contents, valued at $25,000, was estimated at $20,000.

Man dies in fire started by electrical malfunction

SOUTH CAROLINA—An 84-year-old man managed to get his 86-year-old wife to safety when the power lift chair she was sitting in caught fire. Unfortunately, he reentered the house to try to extinguish the fire and was overcome by smoke.

The one-story, single-family, wood-frame house had a battery-operated smoke alarm in the hallway. The house had no sprinklers.

The victim’s wife had just sat in the reclining chair and used the remote control to recline when she and her husband heard a popping noise and saw smoke coming from the chair. The man pulled his wife from the chair and called 911 at 6:30 p.m.

Investigators found that the chair’s wiring was pinched between the metal foot bar and the wooden frame, causing an electrical arc.

The house, valued at $120,000, sustained $60,000 in damage, while its contents, valued at $60,000, sustained $30,000 in damage.

Man dies in apartment fire

MASSACHUSETTS—A 58-year-old man died of smoke inhalation and burns after he was rescued from his third-floor apartment.

The four-story, wood-frame apartment building was 125 feet (38 meters) long and 35 feet (10 meters) wide and contained several units, each of which had a local single-station smoke alarm with a heat detector connected to the building’s fire alarm. The system automatically notified the fire department. There were no sprinklers, but a standpipe had been installed in the building’s stairwell.

The fire department received the alarm at 9 p.m., and responding firefighters noted fire showing from a third-floor window when they arrived. As they ascended the stairs, they passed building occupants who were on their way down. Crews located the unit of origin, connected to the building standpipe, unlocked the apartment door with a master key, and knocked the fire down with a hose line.

They quickly found the victim on his hands and knees near the front door, obviously in distress, and removed him from the apartment. Emergency medical technicians took him to the hospital, where he died.

Investigators could not determine the exact cause of ignition.

Damage to the building, valued at $2 million, and its contents, valued at $100,000, were estimated at $175,000.

Charging battery malfunctions and starts garage fire

HAWAII—A 14.8-volt lithium polymer battery that was being charged on a workbench in a residential garage malfunctioned and ignited, resulting in a fire that spread to the other contents of the workbench.

The two-story, wood-frame apartment building, which measured 120 feet (36 meters) by 60 feet (18 meters), contained seven units. There were hardwired smoke alarms with battery backup on all levels and outside the sleeping areas of each apartment. The building had no sprinklers.

The fire activated a smoke alarm at 8:29 p.m., and someone called 911 within a minute of the alarm.

Responding firefighters found the fire in the garage, which contained plastic storage containers, wooden cabinets, and several appliances, as well as two battery chargers that were connected to a power converter. The converter, a hand vacuum, and a transmitter were plugged into an electrical power strip on a shelf in a corner of the garage.

Investigators determined that heat from the electrical equipment ignited the contents of the shelf and that the fire spread to other combustibles nearby before firefighters could extinguish the flames.

Together, the building, which insurers had valued at $1.6 million, and its contents, which were valued at $190,000, sustained an estimated $680,000 in damage. A single firefighter was injured during the fire suppression operations.

Woman killed by fire after falling asleep while smoking

WISCONSIN—A chronically ill 58-year-old woman who was heavily medicated fell asleep in a chair while smoking. Investigators believe that she awakened when the smoking materials ignited the chair and that she managed to open the sliding door to her apartment’s deck, where she succumbed to her burns.

The two-story, 16-unit apartment building, which was 120 feet (36 meters) long and 70 feet (21 meters) wide, had battery-operated smoke alarms in each unit, although the alarm in the unit of origin did not appear to have operated during the fire. There were no sprinklers.

A neighbor in an adjacent building discovered the fire and called the fire department at 8:05 p.m. Crews used a transitional attack by applying water to the room of origin from the exterior, then advanced the hose line inside to complete extinguishment.

Investigators determined that the woman fell asleep while she was smoking and ignited her chair and clothing. The chair and the rest of the contents of the living room were heavily damaged by fire; smoke and water damaged some of the other apartments in the building.

The value of the property and contents was not reported, but damage to the structure was estimated at $100,000. Damage to its contents was estimated at $70,000.

Woman using home oxygen dies in smoking fire

IDAHO—A 60-year-old woman died during a fire that started when she was smoking while using oxygen in her single-family home.

The two-story, wood-frame house, which was measuring 50 feet long (15 meters) and 35 feet (10 meters) wide, had smoke alarms on each level and outside all the bedrooms. There were no sprinklers.

A neighbor discovered the fire and called the fire department at 7 p.m. When firefighters arrived on the scene, they were met by police officers, who told them that there was a woman on the second floor that they could not reach. Advancing a hose line to the second floor, fire crews found the victim, who had
succumbed to her injuries before they arrived.

Investigators determined that the victim’s cigarette had ignited carpeting and bedding, as well as the oxygen tubing attached to her oxygen generator. The victim also had a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent.

Damage to the house, valued at $190,000, was estimated at $22,000.

Apartment fire caused by smoking kills one

NEW YORK—The occupant of a second-floor apartment died in a fire that spread from the living room of a second-floor apartment and vented out a window, igniting the building’s eaves and attic.

The two-story, wood-frame building contained eight units, each of which had a single-station smoke alarm. There were no sprinklers.

Another occupant of the building heard the smoke alarm in the unit of origin operating and called 911 at 2:11 a.m. Firefighters arrived to find smoke and flames coming from a second-floor window and saw that the occupants of one unit were trapped on a balcony. The crews attacked the fire first from the exterior, then from the interior, and helped the occupants from four of the eight units to get out of the building.

Investigators determined that the fire was caused by smoking. Damage to the building and contents was estimated at $1.15 million.

Car idling in garage catches fire, kills one

INDIANA—A 40-year-old man died in his parents’ garage when the car he was sitting in caught fire.

The detached, wood-frame, two-car garage contained a vehicle and a workbench with a portable heater that was unplugged at the time of the fire. It had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.

A passerby noticed smoke coming from the garage of the single-family house at 4:49 a.m. and alerted the homeowner, who tried to force open the garage door, saying he thought his son might be inside. When the door finally opened, a large volume of black smoke came rushing out, preventing the two men from entering.
Once firefighters extinguished the blaze, they discovered the body of the man’s son in the front seat of the car.

Investigators learned that the vehicle, which was rarely used because it frequently overheated, had been sitting in the garage for more than a year. They also learned that the victim’s parents had argued with their son the day before the fire about his prescription drug abuse and other issues and told him not to come into the house until he cooled off.

The investigators surmised that the son had taken shelter in the garage and started the car to keep warm. The fire started in the engine compartment and spread to the interior of the car, where the victim was overcome by smoke. Investigators indicated that prescription drugs may have contributed to his death.

The garage, which was valued at $10,000, and its contents, valued at $9,000, were destroyed.

Elderly disabled man dies in home fire

MASSACHUSETTS—An 85-year-old man with a mobility disability died in his single-family home when he was overcome by smoke.

The single-story, wood-frame house, which was 50 feet (15 meters) long and 20 feet (6 meters) wide, had no sprinklers or smoke alarms, although investigators did find a new smoke alarm still in its packaging on a kitchen counter.

A passerby discovered the fire and called 911 at 11:46 a.m. He then went around to the rear of the house, where he saw the victim lying unconscious on the floor inside. He managed to enter the burning house and drag the man outside.

Firefighters arrived minutes later to find smoke and flames coming from the front door and living room window. While one crew tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate the victim, another extinguished the fire, which had started in the living room.

Investigators were unable to determine the cause of the fire.

The house, which was valued at $150,000, sustained damage estimated at $80,000. Its contents, which were valued at $50,000, sustained $25,000 in damage.

Overheated extension cord blamed for deadly fire

TEXAS—A 73-year-old woman died and her husband and son were injured in their two-family duplex when an overheated electrical extension cord powering a space heater ignited and the resulting fire spread to nearby combustibles.

The exterior walls of the wood-frame, single-story house were made of brick, and the roof was covered with asphalt shingles. The structure consisted of two separate homes with a common gable roof. Each unit had an attached garage. Neither unit had smoke alarms or sprinklers.

Firefighters responded to a 911 call reporting the fire and a possible trapped occupant at 7:57 a.m. When they arrived several minutes later, they saw the fire through the front windows and used hose lines to knock it down so they could search the interior for the victim.

They found her body in the living room, where she had succumbed to smoke inhalation and burns.

Investigators determined that the fire started in the living room between the fireplace and the front door when the small-gauge electrical cord of a space heater, which had been spliced, overheated and ignited the carpet and upholstered furniture. The victim’s husband told them that he and his wife had several portable electric heaters scattered throughout the house for heat and that he would “always shut them off and she would always turn them back on.”

He said that he was unaware of the fire until his wife woke him and he escaped through a bedroom window while his wife returned to the interior of the house. After the couple’s adult son, who lived in the house next store, was alerted to the fire, he kicked open the front door, but was knocked back by heavy fire. Another person broke a window, further ventilating the fire, which then spread into the kitchen and dining areas, as well as the hallway and bedrooms.

The victim’s husband and son suffered from smoke inhalation and were treated by firefighters at the scene.

The damage estimates for the unit of origin and the common attic space were estimated at $40,000. The damage to the home’s contents was estimated at $20,000.

MANUFACTURING

Explosion in manufacturing plant kills one employee

TENNESSEE—A combustible mixture of chemicals exploded at a manufacturing company that produces military flares, killing a 41-year old employee and damaging the single-story building.

The steel-frame building, which was 20 feet (6 meters) wide and 20 feet (6 meters) long, had concrete walls and a metal roof covered by wood and metal. It was protected by a monitored deluge sprinkler system actuated by spark detection.

The explosion occurred at approximately 10:20 a.m. when a spark ignited a composition mix that was being scraped off a mixing blade. The flames activated the sprinklers, which flooded the room with water and extinguished the fire, but not before it severely burned the employee, who died of his injuries at a local hospital.

Damage to the building and its contents was estimated at $75,000 to $100,000. The suppression system and firewalls prevented the fire from spreading to an adjacent structure.

MERCANTILE

Sprinklers control fire started by short circuit

FLORIDA—Sprinklers controlled a fire that started in a floor buffing machine that was being charged in a store room at a large department store, limiting property damage.

The single-story, steel-frame department store, which was 397 feet (121 meters) long and 368 feet (112 meters) wide, had concrete block walls and a metal roof covered by a built-up surface. A wet-pipe sprinkler system monitored by a central station alarm company had been installed, as had a fire detection system that included smoke detectors.

The store’s employees called 911 at 9:26 a.m. when they noticed smoke coming from the storage room, where a smoke detector was operating. When firefighters arrived three minutes later, they found that two of the sprinklers had confined the blaze to the store room. They also found that the structure’s fire doors had prevented the smoke from spreading throughout the department store.

Investigators determined that the fire started when a short circuit in the electrical wiring ignited the battery charger to which the floor buffer was connected. The flames then spread to the buffer and from there to the stock in the rack storage above the buffer.

The building, which was valued at nearly $9 million, sustained an estimated $150,000 in damage. Its contents, which were valued at $15 million, sustained $285,000 in damage. There were no injuries.

Laundry pile spontaneously ignites; sprinkler controls fire

ILLINOIS—A pile of towels on a table in a business establishment’s laundry room spontaneously ignited, causing a sprinkler overhead to activate and extinguish the fire.

The one-story store, which was 100 feet (30 meters) long and 40 feet (12 meters) wide, had a wet-pipe sprinkler system and a fire alarm system, both of which were monitored by a central station alarm company.

The alarm company alerted the fire department at 1:45 a.m., and firefighters responded within six minutes to find light smoke coming from the store. They forced open the door and found that a single sprinkler had already put out the blaze, which had spread no further than the pile of towels on the table.

The building, which was worth more than $1 million, sustained just $1,000 in damage. Its contents, which were valued at $20,000, sustained damage estimated at just $100. There were no injuries.

KEN TREMBLAY for NFPA Journal.