Author(s): Ken Tremblay. Published on January 4, 2016.

Parting thoughts from Firewatch author Kenneth Tremblay

This issue marks my last Firewatch column after 24 years, and with it my thanks to the NFPA Journal editorial staff and the magazine’s many readers.  

Over the years, I have reviewed several thousand fire incident reports from every state and occupancy type. Many of the published incidents support NFPA research findings, such as the prevalence of fires caused by smoking materials, the lack of or inoperable smoke alarms in fires that result in deaths or injuries, and the prevalence of people impaired by alcohol or drugs as contributing factors in those injuries or fatalities. Sadly, many of the incidents I reported on involved deaths or injuries, and exposed other demographic or social factors, including disproportionate rates of deaths and injuries among the very young and very old. Other incidents supported the live-saving benefits of operating smoke alarms and properly maintained and operating sprinklers.  

My hope is that the publication of fire incidents in Firewatch has led to the motivation or affirmation of others who can affect change or obtain compliance.  As a career fire officer, I have benefitted from my knowledge of Firewatch incidents from all over the country, and that knowledge has made a difference in helping me make my community safer.  

Thanks to all of you for your continued support of this important feature of NFPA Journal.

Kenneth Tremblay 


RESIDENTIAL

House fire kills occupant, injures firefighter

PENNSYLVANIA—A power strip was identified as the source of a residential fire that killed the home’s occupant and injured a firefighter attempting to rescue him.

The one-story, wood-frame, single-family home had a pitched roof with asphalt shingles, and covered an area of approximately 1,300 square feet. There were no smoke alarms or sprinklers in the home.

The fire was discovered by a chief fire officer who was on his way home and noticed a glow in the sky. He located the home with smoke and fire coming from a front living room window. Neighbors reported to him that a single occupant was probably still inside, and the officer radioed in an alarm at 9:37 p.m.

The first engine company to arrive used a blitz attack to knock down the heavy fire from the outside before entering to search for the occupant. They located the victim in the living room and were removing him when the ceiling collapsed, injuring one firefighter. The 61-year-old male occupant died of smoke inhalation and suffered thermal burns.

Investigators determined that the area of fire origin was a power strip in the family room. A lamp, fan, and 1,500-watt electric space heater were plugged into the strip. Investigators found that resistive heating had degraded the protective sheathing over time, resulting in an arc that ignited combustible materials. It appeared that the victim was aware of the fire and was in position to escape, but was unable to reach the exit. Firefighters were hindered during extinguishment by nearby hydrants covered with snow and ice.

Heated towels result in fire in assisted living facility

TEXAS—Hot grease-laden towels taken from a dryer were blamed for a fire in an assisted living facility that caused significant structural damage.

The fire could have been avoided if fire sprinklers had been installed, according to the local fire chief. “One sprinkler probably would have contained the fire until the fire department arrived,” the chief said.

The single-story, wood-frame building had a brick veneer and covered an area of approximately 62,147 square feet. The steel-truss roof had a wood deck and asphalt roof surface. Smoke detectors were located throughout the building and connected to a fire alarm panel that was monitored by a central station alarm company. The building had 60 residents ranging in age from 80 to 100. The automatic fire detection system worked as designed to alert residents and staff to the fire.

The fire began in a kitchen storage room, where the pile of towels had ignited and spread to other combustibles. Smoke from the fire triggered the fire alarm, which summoned the fire department at 10 p.m. Firefighters extinguished the fire with a hose line. The fire did not affect the residential area of the building and no injuries were reported.

Investigators found that towels laden with grease had been cleaned and placed in the dryer. The hot towels retained enough heat to self-ignite. Evidence of grease remaining on the towels may have contributed to the ignition sequence.

The property, valued at slightly more than $2.2 million, had structural losses of $800,000 and contents losses of $50,000. The fire chief stated the building is being remodeled with a fire sprinkler system installed throughout.

Unattended cooking kills one, injures another

NORTH DAKOTA—Unattended cooking was blamed for an early-morning fire that killed one occupant and injured a second person who tried to rescue the victim.

The fire occurred in a single-family, one-story, wood-frame dwelling that covered an area of 888 square feet. Battery-operated smoke alarms were located in each bedroom and also in the hallway outside the bedroom. They operated as designed, but the occupant failed to respond to the alarm. There were no sprinklers.

A roommate of the occupant returned home about two hours after leaving and found smoke coming from the house. He broke a window to his roommate’s bedroom and entered the home, but was met by heavy smoke and exited. He re-entered the home through the front door and located the 21-year-old male victim, dragging him outside, where he began to administer CPR.

The fire department received a 911 call at 2:41 a.m. from the roommate and arrived five minutes later. They took over CPR and transported both males to the hospital. Firefighting crews deployed a hose line into the front door with a back-up line to extinguish the kitchen fire. Other crews established a water supply and provided ventilation as the fire was quickly controlled.

Investigators determined the fire started on the top of an operating stove where a pan of grease was left heating unattended. Oil in the pan and grease build-up around the operating stove eventually ignited and spread to other combustibles. Operating smoke alarms worked as designed, but the sole occupant did not respond to the alarm.

The roommate who was in the home at the time of the fire died of smoke inhalation injuries. His roommate also suffered smoke inhalation injuries but survived.

The home was used as a rental and was valued at $117,300 and had contents of $30,000. Damages were estimated at $60,000 to the structure and $20,000 to the contents.

Cause unknown in townhouse fire that killed female resident

MARYLAND—A 50-year-old female who was the sole occupant of a single-family, townhouse-style home died of smoke inhalation injuries as a result of a fire that broke out in one of the bedrooms.

The single-family home was an end unit of three connected townhomes. Although described as three floors, the split-level design actually incorporated six different levels from the basement to the top floor. The wood-framed building had a brick veneer exterior and a pitched roof covered with asphalt shingles.

Firefighters responded to a reported structure fire at 5:15 a.m. and found fire coming from the top floor of the townhouse. Firefighters were familiar with the address, as the occupant had previously sought EMS assistance due to numerous medical emergencies. They forced entry into the home and advanced a hose line to the top floor. The home’s interior was cluttered with various stored items and contents on all levels, making it difficult for firefighters to navigate. The fire was confined to a bedroom on level five, with the occupant found in a bathroom on level four.

Firefighters found a non-functional, single-station smoke alarm under debris on level three, but were not able to determine if it operated during the fire. The home had no sprinklers.

Investigators found multiple possible sources of ignition in the area of origin, but were unable to determine the exact cause of origin. Estimated losses were $150,000.

Heater ignites combustibles, occupant dies in home fire

OKLAHOMA—A portable heater located too close to combustibles was blamed for a fire that killed the occupant of a manufactured home.

The one-story, wood-frame, single-family manufactured home had a steel frame with a metal roof. The home had no smoke alarms.

Neighbors reported the fire at 6:10 a.m., and arriving firefighters found the fire engulfing the left and rear sides of the structure. It took about 10–15 minutes to control the fire, and a neighbor informed command that a person might still be inside. A thermal imaging camera was used to locate the victim in a bedroom, lying face down near the area of origin.

The 36-year-old occupant was found within the damaged portion of the building after the fire was controlled. An investigation revealed the occupant had been drinking heavily prior to the fire. Investigators also identified a portable heater located 18–24 inches of a bed as the source of ignition.

The home and its contents, valued at $3,000, were a total loss.

Man with mobility disability dies in house fire

MICHIGAN—A house fire killed a man who relied on a wheelchair to move around his home.

The incident occurred in a one-story, wood-frame, single-family dwelling that measured 40 feet by 24 feet. The ranch-style home had a pitched, wood-truss roof covered by asphalt shingles. A single-station, battery-operated smoke alarm was located in the bedroom, and another was located in the living room. Operation of the detectors could not be determined by investigators. There were no sprinklers.

Firefighters responded to a reported structure fire called in by a neighbor at 8 p.m. and found the dwelling heavily involved in fire. The sole occupant was a 66-year-old male who had a mobility disability and required the use of a wheelchair to get around the home. He was found overcome by smoke.

Investigators determined the fire started in the kitchen but were unable to identify the source of ignition. The home, valued at $115,000 with contents of $15,000, was a total loss.

Two killed, two injured in outdoor fireplace blaze

OREGON—A fire that erupted when gasoline was poured onto smoldering firewood in an outdoor fireplace killed two and injured two more.

A group of adults was sitting around an outdoor, free-standing terra cotta tile chimney fireplace at the rear of a single-family dwelling. One person poured gasoline onto smoldering firewood within the fireplace, causing a sudden ignition of gasoline vapors. The vapors traveled back to the container of gasoline, causing it to fail and further spreading the fire. The person pouring the gasoline was engulfed in flames, and three others suffered burn injuries.

The fire occurred in a rear yard and did not spread to the dwelling. A neighbor witnessed the incident and called 911 at 8 p.m. Flames were quickly extinguished by those involved, and the fire department provided emergency medical services.

The first victim, a 56-year-old male, died of thermal burns the following day. A 52-year-old female died three months later from her burn injuries. Two other people suffered non-fatal burn injuries, including a 33-year-old female and a 54-year-old male. The man suffered burns to his hands trying to extinguish the fire on the other victims.

Rescued occupant succumbs to fire-related injuries

ARIZONA—A 74-year old female was rescued by firefighters from her burning home but later died of fire-related injuries.

The fire occurred in a single-family home covering 1,200 square feet. Building construction was not reported, nor was any information regarding the presence of smoke alarms. The home was occupied by the single occupant at the time of the fire.

Firefighters received a general report of a structure fire and investigated until they observed heavy smoke. They searched for the victim and fought the fire offensively while protecting exposures. The woman was soon found and removed from the home, and medical treatment was begun.

Fire and smoke were coming from the rear of the home and threatening nearby homes. In addition to a hose line to the interior of the home, a second, larger hose line was stretched to the rear of the property to protect exposures. Engine companies were able to control and extinguish a fire in the kitchen area of the home, as another engine crew discovered and removed the victim.

Heavy smoke coming from the attic area continued to push through openings as ladder crews opened the roof to find the fire extended into the concealed space. Fire continued to spread until hose lines could be used to extinguish the flames.

The cause of the fire was not determined. The dwelling suffered combined losses of $100,000.

Pinched extension cord ignites fatal fire in home

MICHIGAN—An extension cord was blamed for a fire that killed one occupant of a home.

The two-story, wood-frame home measured 41 feet by 39 feet and had a pitched, wooden roof covered with asphalt shingles. A battery-operated smoke alarm was located in a hallway outside the upper-level bedrooms. There were no sprinklers.

A sleeping occupant was wakened by the operation of a smoke alarm and found smoke coming from around her son’s locked bedroom door. She called 911 at 11:51 p.m., and dispatchers advised her to exit the home as they updated responding firefighters of a trapped occupant in the home.

Firefighters arrived 10 minutes after the alarm and advanced a hose line through the front door and up a half flight of stairs to the bedroom door. Forcing the door, firefighters immediately encountered the victim, who was quickly removed to the outside of the home. The fire was confined to the bedroom and was extinguished in about nine minutes. The bedroom sustained heavy smoke damage and thermal heat damage to plastic and paper materials near the area of origin. Fire spread was limited by the closed bedroom door.

The victim had been out during the evening and had arrived home 80 minutes earlier. Family members said he retired to his room and always slept with the bedroom closed and locked. Despite attempts to revive the victim at the scene, he was pronounced dead, the result of smoke inhalation and thermal injuries. The medical examiner’s report stated that the victim was intoxicated and also had non-prescription drugs in his system, which may have contributed to his death.

An extension cord used to provide electrical power to a DVD player was found to be the source of the fire. A bookshelf was positioned on top of the extension cord, causing it to overheat and ignite the surrounding combustibles.

The home, valued at $85,000 with contents of $40,000, had structural losses of $20,000 and contents losses of $5,000.

Power strips blamed for fatal residential fire

MISSOURI—An arc fire caused by overburdened power strips was identified as the cause of a residential fire that killed a male occupant.

The single-family, wood-frame, single-story dwelling covered an area of approximately 800 square feet. There was no evidence of smoke alarms in the structure, and sprinklers were not installed.

Firefighters responded to a reported house fire and found smoke coming from the house and an occupant possibly trapped inside. The front door was open, and crews entering the home discovered one occupant in the first-floor living room who was not breathing and had no pulse. Flames were evident in the room, which sustained the heaviest damage, with decreasing smoke damage away from the point of origin.

Investigators focused on the home’s living room. After digging through layers of debris, two multi-plug receptacle power strips were found with several electrical cords plugged into them. Evidence of arcing was found in the cords, and was determined to be the cause of origin for the fire, which spread to combustible contents.

Estimates of property and contents losses were $40,000.

Woman dies in house fire that spread from shed

INDIANA—An early-morning fire that began in a shed traveled to a single-family home and claimed the life of a 71-year-old woman.

The wood-framed detached shed was connected to the home by a wooden deck. The wood-frame, single-story home had a brick veneer and a composition roof surface. It covered an area of approximately 1,200 square feet. The home had a smoke alarm located outside the bedroom, but it was not determined if the alarm operated. There were no sprinklers.

The fire began in the rear shed and spread to a wooden deck, entering the single-family dwelling through a patio door and roof soffit. The two occupants, an older couple, were asleep when they discovered the fire at 3:36 a.m. The man called 911.

The fire department responded to the report of a structure fire with occupants still in the building. Command did a walk around the building and noted fire had spread from the shed to the deck and up the sidewall of the home, entering the concealed attic/roof space via vinyl soffits. The interior of the home had a high heat condition and the front door had been left open by the husband and police.

The husband, who had managed to escape the fire, tried several times to reach his wife inside the home and had to be pulled from the home by the police. Firefighters found the victim in the hall of the master bedroom and moved her to the front of the building where EMS was waiting, but the woman died of smoke inhalation injuries.

Investigators identified the area of origin beneath a workbench in the shed where an electric portable heater was plugged into an outlet and was operating. They could not determine if the fire was the result of a failure of the heater, electrical connections, or combustibles too close to the heater.

The home was valued at $125,000 with contents of $100,000 and had $100,000 in structural losses and $75,000 in contents losses. Three firefighters suffered minor injuries during the blaze.

Man dies in smoldering house fire

MAINE—A residential fire of indeterminate origin claimed the life of the home’s occupant.

The single-story, wood-frame home had a wooden roof covered by asphalt shingles. The 650-square-foot home did not have any smoke alarms or sprinklers.

A neighbor reported smoke coming from the house and alerted the fire department at 12:12 p.m. Emergency crews arriving at the property six minutes later found the dwelling filled with smoke and evidence of a smoldering fire. The house was ventilated, but almost immediately flashed over when fresh air entered the home. Heavy fire engulfed the entire interior of the home as command ordered an exterior defensive attack until the fire could be knocked down. Firefighters entered and found a deceased 55-year-old male on the bed in the bedroom.

The cause of the fire could not be determined, but is believed to have started in the first floor bedroom.

The home, valued at $200,000, and its contents, valued at $20,000, were a total loss.

Smoking materials blamed for fatal home fire

KANSAS—A man died in a home fire when he apparently fell asleep on a couch while smoking.

The two-story, split-level ranch-style house was constructed of wood framing. A melted smoke alarm was found on the hallway of the second floor outside the bedrooms with a battery tested at 7 volts. Occupants stated they had purchased a new smoke alarm, but that the man who died had disabled it because it was frequently going off. There were no sprinklers.

The fire was discovered by a neighbor who observed smoke and called 911 at 9:01 a.m. Firefighters arrived six minutes later to find smoke coming from the dwelling and heavy smoke from floor to ceiling in the interior. The engine crew was met at the front door with heavy fire rolling out of the top of the door. They entered and began to extinguish the fire in the entryway and living room, where the 55-year-old male occupant was sleeping on a couch. The man was removed from the house, but died the following day of burns and smoke inhalation.

Fire investigators found discarded cigarette butts, lighters, and burn holes in blankets and upholstered furniture throughout the home, especially in the first-floor living room where the fire started. Investigators indicated that consumption of prescribed medication was suspected of making the victim drowsy and unable to respond quickly to the emergency.

The home was valued at $200,000 with contents of $50,000. Structural losses were $70,000 and contents losses were $35,000.

Elderly man dies in home fire

KENTUCKTY—An older man died in a house fire that caused a partial collapse of the structure.

The one-story, wood-frame, single-family dwelling measured 41 feet by 16 feet. Investigators were not able to determine if smoke alarms were installed. Evidence near the occupant suggested he was awoken by the fire and attempted to put on shoes. There were no sprinklers.

A neighbor observed the house on fire and called 911 at 2:30 a.m. The home was occupied by a 79-year-old male who lived by himself. The fast-moving fire quickly engulfed the home, and when the fire department arrived eight minutes after the alarm, the front quarter of the home had collapsed into itself. Firefighters had to fight the fire defensively and found the body of the occupant after extinguishment. The victim died of smoke inhalation and thermal burn injuries.

Investigators found that the fire started in the basement near the utilities, which included an electrical panel as well as water service coming into the home. The entire basement was used for storage. Investigators found the electrical panel to have significant arcing inside, and damage was also noted on the water pipe coming into the home. The gas line entered the house at this location, but it is not suspected to have contributed to the fire.

The building, with an estimated value of $40,000, and the contents, valued at $30,000, were a total loss.

ASSEMBLY

Fire causes $3 million in damage to mixed occupancy building

ILLINOIS—A fire heavily damaged a two-story building that housed a restaurant on the first floor and apartments above.

The building measured 50 feet by 100 feet, but the construction type was not reported. Smoke alarms were present and operated, but no information was available on the type and location of of alarms.

Occupants called 911 to report alarms sounding in the building and a smell of smoke at 3:46 a.m. Firefighters arrived and evacuated upper-floor occupants and searched for the area of fire origin. Smoke pushing from floorboards and door frames of a first-floor restaurant led fire companies to the basement, where they found high heat conditions and increasing smoke density. After receiving a report that the floor on the first floor was spongy, command evacuated all firefighters from the building for a defensive fire attack. Fire was observed coming from the first floor and out the front windows of the restaurant.

Additional resources were called and a combination of three elevated master streams and several hose lines were used to extinguish the fire. One firefighter suffered minor injuries.

The building and contents, valued at $5 million, suffered losses estimated at $3 million.

Stove’s proximity to combustibles starts restaurant fire

OREGON—Heat from a stove started a fire in a restaurant, but fire sprinklers were credited with controlling the fire until it was extinguished by firefighters.

The single-story, wood-frame building had a flat, built-up roof surface and covered an area of approximately 3,675 square feet. The structure was protected by a wet-pipe sprinkler system and a water flow alarm monitored by a fire alarm system.

Firefighters responded to a water flow and commercial fire alarm at the restaurant at 3:14 a.m. and arrived five minutes later. The property was closed for the night and unoccupied. Firefighters arrived to find smoke emitting from the roof and the interior charged with smoke. Command requested additional resources and began to size up the building until enough crews were on site to make an interior fire attack.

Upon entry, firefighters searched for the origin of the fire and found a single sprinkler operating in the kitchen. They opened the wall space behind a gas-fired stove and found the nearly extinguished fire in the wall cavity. There were no injuries.

Investigators determined the stove did not have the proper clearances to a combustible wall. Heat from the stove ignited the structural framing members.

The building was valued at $1 million dollars, with contents valued at $400,000. Damage was limited to $25,000 in structural losses and $5,000 in contents losses.

MANUFACTURING

Static discharge ignites flammable chemical solvents

VIRGINIA—A flash fire started by static discharge occurred in a chemical manufacturing plant, resulting in minor injuries to an employee.

The single-story, steel-frame manufacturing building had masonry block walls and a metal deck roof. The building measured 300 feet by 200 feet and was operating at the time of the fire. The building also included a fire detection system, fire walls, fire dampers, and windows, which all operated as designed and minimized loss.

The fire began in a mixing room when an employee moved, and began to fill, a 55-gallon drum of mixed solvents. A flash fire occurred as the employee filled the container. The fire burned around the drum and equipment nearby. An automatic foam sprinkler system activated to extinguish the fire. Employees used dry-chemical portable fire extinguishers to put out the few small fires remaining.

The wet-pipe, foam sprinkler system provided full coverage and water flow, and the fire detection system was monitored by a central station alarm company.

Investigators found that the dolly used to move the drum was fitted with rubber wheels and did not properly ground the drum, causing the build-up of static electricity. As product was being poured into the drum, the vapors were ignited by a static discharge. The victim, a male in his 30s, received first-degree burns. He was evaluated and treated on scene and did not require hospitalization.

The building and contents were valued at $5 million and suffered estimated combined losses of $15,000.

MERCANTILE

Candle blamed for fire in store

ARIZONA—An early-morning fire at a retail business was largely extinguished by the store’s sprinkler system before firefighters arrived to complete extinguishment and conduct salvage operations.

The fire department was at the scene of the fire, located in a central occupancy at a strip mall, within five minutes of receiving the alarm at 3:02 a.m. They discovered that a single sprinkler head closest to the area of fire origin had almost entirely extinguished the fire, preventing it from spreading to other combustibles.

Investigators determined that a candle was the most likely source of the fire and that it had ignited items on display along one of the walls.

Firefighters removed two charred cardboard boxes from the burn area and placed them outside on the sidewalk, then searched for other possible ignition sources. Crews cleared the scene by 4:07 a.m.

“These people will be able to occupy their business Monday morning,” the fire chief told a local news report. “If there was a fire without a sprinkler, they would be out of business.”

Fire damage was confined to the area of fire origin. Damage to the store’s contents, valued at $200,000, was estimated at $30,000, while the property, with an estimated value of $2 million, experienced just $500 in property damage.

SPECIAL PROPERTY

Space heater fire kills mother and toddler daughters in RV

OREGON—Bedding that was placed over an operating space heater was blamed for a fire that killed three people in a recreational vehicle.

The fire occurred in a parked fifth-wheel travel trailer, which measured 35 feet long and 8 feet wide. The steel-frame had lightweight wood walls and floors, with the exterior walls and roof covered by aluminum. There were no smoke alarms.

A male occupant left the travel trailer to go next door to his parents’ Class A motor home to take a shower, leaving his wife and two children. Approximately 15 to 20 minutes later, he returned to the travel trailer to find fire engulfing the interior of the vehicle. The fire department was called at 6:30 a.m. and arrived to find that the fire had spread from the trailer to the mobile home and also to trees and brush nearby.

The mother and two girls, ages 14 months and two years, died of smoke inhalation and thermal burns.

Investigators determined the fire started in the bedroom area of the trailer and spread to other combustibles. The estimated value of the vehicles was $5,000 with $1,000 in contents. The trailer was a total loss.

STORAGE

Man dies using paint thinner to stoke woodstove fire

TEXAS—A 22-year old male pouring paint thinner into a wood-burning stove to kindle a fire suffered fatal thermal burn injuries when vapors ignited and flashed back into a five gallon can.

The fire occurred in a 30-by-30-foot, single-story storage building constructed of steel with metal walls and roof. There were no smoke alarms or sprinklers.

A portion of the building was used as a shop, and a cast-iron wood-burning stove was operating and providing heat. When the man poured the paint thinner into the stove and fire flashed up and into the can, the bottom of the can failed and allowed additional flammable liquid to spill and ignite.

The building was valued at $5,000 with contents of $7,000, and had losses of $2,000 for the structure and $3,500 for contents.

KEN TREMBLAY for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Mike Nester/The Express-Times