Author(s): Stephen Badger. Published on September 1, 2015.

IN JANUARY 2014, IN RURAL WESTERN Kentucky, firefighters responding to a structure fire at 2:01 a.m. arrived to find a 1,000-square-foot (93-square-meter) one-story single-family home totally involved in fire, with a man and one of his daughters, both burned, standing outside. A family of 11 was in the home when the fire broke out. The mother and eight of her children, ranging in age from four to 15, were still in the house. None of them escaped.

After extinguishing the fire, firefighters removed the nine victims, five of whom were found in a master bedroom closet located on an enclosed porch that was used as part of the bedroom. Four other victims were found in another bedroom, which was the room of origin. Firefighters believe combustibles were ignited by an electric baseboard heater located 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters) from a bed. The fire moved across the room to the master bedroom, then into the ceiling and throughout the home, blocking both means of egress from the home. The father and daughter were in a third bedroom near a door and were able to escape. No smoke alarms were found in the home.

The devastating Kentucky fire was one of an estimated 1,298,000 fires that firefighters in the United States responded to in 2014. An estimated 386,500 of those fires occurred in residential structures, 107,500 in nonresidential structures, and 804,000 outside of structures or involving vehicles. These fires accounted for an estimated 3,275 deaths, 2,795 of which occurred in residential structures, 65 in nonresidential structures, and 415 in vehicle or outside fires.

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​In March, a gas explosion and fire involving two mixed-occupancy buildings in New York killed eight people and injured 61. Photograph: Anthony Behar/Sipa USA

Twenty-four of these fires were categorized as catastrophic multiple-death fires, defined here as fires or explosions in homes or apartments that result in five or more fire-related deaths, or fires or explosions in all other structures and outside of structures, such as wildfires and vehicle fires, that claim three or more lives.
These 24 fires killed 128 people. This accounted for 0.002 percent of the total estimated fires and 3.9 percent of the total fire deaths in the U.S. in 2014. By comparison, 20 catastrophic multiple-death fires occurred in 2013, resulting in the deaths of 122 people, including 28 children under age six.

Of the 24 fires that occurred in 2014, 15 were in homes, resulting in 88 deaths, with 11 victims under age six. Five were in non-home structures, resulting in 20 deaths, and four were non-structure fires resulting in 20 deaths. None of the victims in the nine non-home fires were children under the age of six.

Catastrophic home fires

There were 15 catastrophic multiple-death fires in homes in 2014 compared to 12 the year before, for an increase of 25 percent. Of these, 10 occurred in single-family homes, of which two were manufactured homes, and one occurred in a duplex. Four fires were in apartment buildings; one in a 16-unit building, two in nine-unit buildings, and one was in a building for which the number of units was not reported. These fires killed 88 people, 21 (or 31 percent) more than in 2013. Of the 88 victims, 11 were children under the age of six, which was 17 (or 61 percent) fewer than the year before.

Thirteen of the 15 home fires broke out between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., killing 75 people, including all of the children under age six.

The largest loss-of-life home fire was the Kentucky blaze that killed nine people: a mother and eight of her children, two of whom were under the age of six.
The second-most-deadly home fire killed eight people in March in New York. At 9:30 a.m., a natural gas leak from a broken pipe was ignited by an unknown source in the basement of a five-story apartment building with businesses on the first level. The building, of ordinary construction, covered 2,000 square feet (186 square meters). The resulting explosion caused the collapse of that building and an adjacent building of similar size and construction. The victims, as well as many injured people, were found in the pile of debris and within the remaining parts of the structure. No information was reported on smoke detection or suppression equipment. The original notification to authorities was a call for a smell of gas in an adjacent building. The explosion occurred 30 minutes later, before the gas company arrived.

The third deadliest occurred in July in Massachusetts and killed seven people. The fire broke out at 3:59 a.m. in a three-story, 6,300-square-foot (585-square-meter), nine-unit apartment building of unprotected wood-frame construction with businesses on the ground level. The fire, caused by an electrical malfunction in a wire chase between the second and third floors, burned undetected for several minutes and then spread throughout the building, hidden in additional void spaces. The victims were located in two different apartments on the second floor. Heat and smoke detection equipment was located in the common areas above the ground floor of the building, but it was not reported if any devices sounded.

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A residential fire in Pennsylvania in October killed six members of a family, four of whom were children. Photograph: AP/Wide World

Four fires killed six people each. All of these fires broke out in single-family homes, including a manufactured home. Among the 24 victims were two children under age six. One home had no detection equipment, and no information was reported on the other three structures.

The other eight home fires killed five people each. Five of the fires were in single-family homes, two were in apartment buildings, and one was in a duplex. Among the 40 victims were seven children under age six. The two apartment buildings and the two-family duplex had detection equipment, but it was not reported if any operated. Three of the homes had no smoke alarms and no information was reported for the other two fires.

Catastrophic non-home structure fires

Five of the 24 catastrophic multiple-death fires that occurred in 2014 were in non-home structures and resulted in 20 of the 128 fatalities. The number of fires was down one, or 17 percent, and the number of deaths was down 11, or 36 percent, from 2013.

All the properties were operating and two of these five fires broke out between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m, killing seven people.

In November in Maine, a fire in a three-story rooming house with up to eight boarders began on a porch due to careless use of smoking materials. The fire entered the structure and spread upward to the attic. Smoke alarms were present and operated, alerting the occupants, but the spreading fire blocked egress from the second and third floors. Firefighters reported a lack of fire stops within the roof, allowing the fire to burn horizontally from end to end. Six occupants were killed.

Two non-home structure fires killed four people each. The first occurred in October in Kansas. At 9:50 a.m., a twin-engine aircraft crashed into the flight safety building at an airport. The single-story building covered 60,000 square feet (5,574 square meters) and was constructed of cinder block with brick veneer. The building was occupied at the time. Shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed into the wall and roof of the building. The collision caused the fuel cells to release almost 3,000 gallons (11,356 liters) of aviation fuel that caught fire and ran down into the building, igniting the structure fire. The pilot, the lone occupant of the airplane, was found in part of the aircraft still on the roof, and the three additional victims were located inside a flight simulator in the building. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is still investigating the cause of the crash.

The other four-fatality fire occurred in March in New Jersey, when a fire broke out at 5:42 a.m. in a two-story motel of unprotected wood-frame construction. No additional information was reported.

Two fires killed three people each. The first occurred in December in Texas. A fire broke out in a 50-story office building of fire-resistive construction at 10:18 a.m. when an undetermined type of gas exploded in the basement. Three workers were in a tank using welding/cutting equipment when the explosion occurred, trapping them.

No details were reported on the second fire, which occurred at an oil drilling site in December in Oklahoma.

Catastrophic non-structure fires

Vehicle crashes are included in this study if a fire in the vehicle caused the crash, or if the local coroner or medical examiner confirmed for NFPA that the victims died of thermal injuries or inhalation of products of combustion rather than impact injuries.

In 2014, four non-structure fires killed 20 people. This is two more non-structure fires than occurred in 2013, and resulted in four fewer deaths.
Among the nonstructural fires, the largest loss of life occurred in a multi-vehicle crash in April in California with a post-crash fire that resulted in 10 deaths. Of the 10 deaths, eight were fire-related and two were due to trauma. A group of 43 high school students and three adult chaperones were on a bus on an interstate highway, returning home from a trip to visit a local university as prospective students. A tractor trailer truck pulling two 28-foot (9-meter) trailers in the southbound lane crossed a 58-foot-wide (19-meter-wide) median into the northbound lane, striking a car and then the bus. The truck and bus went off the highway and a post-crash fire ensued. The truck was consumed by fire and the bus was partially consumed. The drivers of the truck and bus died, along with eight passengers on the bus. The NTSB is investigating the crash.

The second incident occurred in May in Massachusetts and killed six when an aircraft attempting to take off did not obtain the needed elevation, crossed a grassy area into a tree line, and hit a ravine where it broke apart and caught fire. The cause of death of a seventh person was undetermined at the time the information was released.

In addition, in January, a fire in a camper trailer at a campground in Alabama resulted in three deaths, and a two-vehicle crash in November on a state highway in Louisiana killed three people.

The role of suppression equipment and smoke detection

Suppression equipment was reported as present in only two of the 20 catastrophic multiple-death structures fires last year. One system operated, but it was not reported if it had any effect on the fire. The other system, located in the basement of the structure, was not in the area affected by the fire and did not operate.

Eight structures had no suppression equipment, and no information was reported for the other five. This is unfortunate, because sprinklers are a proven lifesaving technology across many different kinds of properties, including homes. The risk of dying in a reported fire in a home decreases by about 80 percent when sprinklers are present, and sprinklers reduce the average property loss in home fires by 71 percent per fire. More information about home fire sprinklers is available online.

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Investigators inspect a New Jersey motel where a fire in March killed four people and injured eight. Photograph: AP/Wide World

Information about automatic smoke detection equipment was available for nine of the 15 catastrophic home fires that occurred in 2014. Four homes were equipped with smoke alarms, but only one system was known to have operated. Fire department reports indicate that five homes had no smoke alarms, and fires in these homes killed 30 people—more than a third of those killed in home fires—including three children under the age of six. No information on detection equipment was reported for the other six home fires.

Information about detection equipment was reported in one of the five non-home structure fires. That system had full coverage and operated.

Smoke alarms have been proven effective in reducing the risk of death in home fires. The most effective arrangement is interconnected, multiple-station smoke alarms supplied by hardwired AC power with a battery backup. These should be located outside each sleeping area, on each level, and in each bedroom.

Homeowners should routinely test smoke alarms according to manufacturers’ recommendations. NFPA recommends testing home smoke alarms at least monthly.

Batteries should also be replaced according to manufacturers’ recommendations; conventional batteries should be replaced at least yearly. If an alarm “chirps,” a warning that the battery is low, the battery should be replaced right away. All smoke alarms, including hard-wired alarms and alarms that use 10-year batteries, should be replaced when they are 10 years old or sooner if they do not respond properly when tested.

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Firefighters at the scene of a residential fire in Minnesota in February that claimed the lives of five siblings, three of whom were under the age of six. Photograph: Elizabeth Flores/MCT/Newscom

Smoke alarms are only effective if occupants leave the building when they sound. Children should be familiar with the sound of a properly operating smoke alarm and follow a practiced escape plan that emphasizes two exits from any location, as well as a designated meeting place once they have left the structure. Exit drills in the home are part of many schools’ curricula. Practicing the plan helps families determine whether children and others readily waken to the sound of a smoke alarm if it sounds during the night; that kind of detail, along with assistance for family members who require it, can be factored into the escape plan. Practicing escape plans, as well as basic fire prevention principles, might have prevented many of the fires and deaths included in this report.

Where we get our data, and acknowledgments

NFPA obtains its data by reviewing national and local news media, including fire service publications. A news clipping service notifies the NFPA Fire Analysis and Research Division of catastrophic fires.

Once an incident is identified, we request information from the local fire department or the agency having jurisdiction. NFPA’s annual survey of U.S. fire experience and mailings to the state fire marshals are additional data sources, although not principal ones. We also contact federal agencies that have participated in the investigation of such fires.

The diversity and redundancy of these sources enable us to collect the most complete data available on catastrophic fires throughout the U.S. We understand that, in many cases, a fire department cannot release information due to ongoing litigation. In other cases, fire departments have been unable to determine the information we requested.

NFPA wishes to thank the U.S. fire service and the medical examiners for their contributions of data, without which this report would not be possible. The author would like to give a special thanks to Norma Candeloro and to his co-workers for their assistance in the completion of this report.

STEPHEN G. BADGER, a fire data assistant with NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division, is retired from the Quincy, Massachusetts, Fire Department.