Author(s): Stephen Badger. Published on September 1, 2017.

Catastrophic Multiple-Death Fires in 2016

Last year, 21 of these fires resulted in 160 fatalities, topped by a fire in a California warehouse that killed 36.

BY STEPHEN G. BADGER

Every year, NFPA reports on the most severe loss-of-life fires in the United States, referred to here as catastrophic multiple-death fires. These events are defined as fires that cause five or more deaths in a home or three or more deaths in a non-home structure or non-structure fire, such as wildfire or vehicle fires. Vehicle crashes with a post-crash fire are included in this study if a fire in the vehicle caused the crash or the local coroner or medical examiner confirmed to NFPA that the victims died of thermal injuries or inhalation of products of combustion, rather than impact injuries.

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See the complete 2016 catastrophic multiple-death fires by type.

Of the estimated 1,342,000 fires that firefighters in the U.S. responded to in 2016, 21 were considered catastrophic multiple-death fires. These fires killed 160 people, including 13 under the age of six. Of those 21 fires, 11 occurred in homes and accounted for 65 of the deaths, including 12 victims under the age of six. Eight fires occurred in non-home structures and accounted for 65 deaths, including one under the age of six. Additionally, two non-structure fires accounted for 30 deaths.

Of the 21 catastrophic multiple-death fires in 2016, three were considered major loss-of-life fires. The most severe occurred in California in December, when firefighters responded to a warehouse fire at 11:24 p.m. and found a two-story, 5,100-square-foot (474-square-meter) warehouse involved with heavy smoke conditions. The building, of unprotected-ordinary construction, was being used at the time as an artist collective with living and work spaces and a performance area. Firefighters made an initial interior attack, but due to high heat and zero visibility they were driven to a defensive attack from the exterior. Firefighters were able to enter only after the fire had been extinguished and the structure shored up. Over the next several days, the bodies of 36 victims were located. Due to a gag order, no further information has been released by authorities.

This was the largest loss-of-life fire since the 2003 Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island, where 100 people died. There have been 12 structure fires in the past 50 years that killed 36 people or more.

Man looks through the wreckage of a home fire in Tennessee that killed ten people.

In Tennessee, a home fire killed 10 people, including two children under the age of six. Of the estimated 3,390 people who died in fires in the U.S. in 2016, 2,800 occurred in residential structures. Photograph: AP Photo/Karen Pulfer Focht

The two non-structure fires were also considered major loss-of-life fires. The first occurred in Texas when a hot-air balloon came into contact with electrical transmission lines and crashed after catching fire, killing the pilot and 15 passengers. The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating this incident. The last vehicle fire killing more than 16 people occurred in 2006, when an aircraft crash and fire in Kentucky killed 24. There have been 19 vehicle fires with 16 or more deaths in the past 50 years.

The second non-structure, major loss-of-life fire was an arson-caused wildfire in Tennessee that killed 14 people. The fire was started in a national park, and after several days the winds increased and blew the fire into a residential area. There have been only three other wildfires in the past 50 years that killed 14 or more: 14 wildland firefighters died in Colorado in 1994, 19 wildland firefighters died in Arizona in 2013, and 25 people died in a California wildfire in 1991.

Overall in 2016, of the estimated 1,342,000 fires that firefighters responded to, 371,500 occurred in residential structures, 104,000 occurred in nonresidential structures, and 866,500 occurred outside of structures or involved vehicles. These fires accounted for an estimated 3,390 deaths, 2,800 of which occurred in residential structures, 150 in nonresidential structures, and 440 in vehicle or outside fires. The 21 catastrophic multiple-death fires accounted for 0.002 percent of the total estimated fires and 4.7 percent of the total fire deaths in the U.S. in 2016.

The losses in these fires in 2016 are much higher than what was reported for 2015. The 2015 experience was an anomaly, with the lowest number of such fires and associated deaths ever reported—nine such fires resulting in 42 deaths, including four victims under the age of six. Of the nine fires that occurred in 2015, four were in homes and accounted for 23 deaths, including four children under the age of six. Two were in non-home structures, resulting in eight deaths, and three were in wildland and aircraft fires, resulting in 11 deaths.

Catastrophic home fires

There were 11 catastrophic multiple-death fires in homes in 2016, compared to four the year before. Nine fires occurred in single-family homes (including one manufactured home), one occurred in a two-family duplex, and one occurred in a 13-unit apartment building. These fires killed 65 people, 42 more than in 2015. Of the 65 victims, 12 were children under the age of six, which was eight more than the year before.

Eight of the home fires broke out between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. and killed 49 people, including seven under age six.

One of the catastrophic home fires killed 10 people, one fire killed seven, three fires killed six, and six fires killed five. The 10-fatality fire broke out at 1:21 a.m. in a one-story single-family home of unprotected wood-frame construction. The fire was caused by a short circuit in an electrical cord for a window air-conditioning unit in a family room. The fire extended to bags of clothing, then spread throughout the home. There were no working smoke alarms in the home.

The seven-fatality explosion and fire occurred at 3:50 a.m. in a three-story, 13-unit garden-style apartment building of unprotected-ordinary construction. There were smoke alarms present but they were destroyed in the explosion and did not operate. A natural gas leak in the basement allowed it to fill with gas, and an unknown source ignited the mixture. A second similar building was also destroyed. It was not reported in which building the deaths occurred.

All three six-fatality fires broke out in single-family homes, one of which was a manufactured home. Only one home had a smoke alarm, but it was missing its battery and did not sound.

Five of the five-fatality fires broke out in single-family homes, and one occurred in a two-family duplex. It was known that four of these homes had smoke alarms. In three of these fires, the alarms did not operate because two were disconnected and the batteries of the other had been removed. The operation of one alarm was not reported. No information was reported on detection equipment in the other homes.

The cause of ignition of the home fires was reported in eight incidents. Two fires were caused by improper disposal of smoking materials and two to electrical failure or short circuit. Two fires were due to embers escaping, one from a fireplace and one from a fire pit located on a wooden deck. One fire was due to combustibles too close to a heat source and one to deficient installation of a wood-burning heater.

The area of origin was known in eight of the 11 home fires. Three broke out in a living room or lounge area, two each broke out in storage areas and on porches or balconies. The last one broke out in an attached garage and spread into the home.

Catastrophic non-home structure fires, and non-structure fires

Eight of the 21 catastrophic multiple-death fires in 2016 were in non-home structures and resulted in 65 deaths, including one child under age six. There were two such fires in 2015, accounting for eight deaths. The increase in the number of deaths in this category over 2015 was largely due to the California warehouse fire that killed 36—this fire alone accounted for 55.4 percent of those killed in non-home structure fires. Other fires in non-home structures occurred in two rooming houses, two adult board-and-care facilities, one boarding house, one motel, and one vacant office building. In addition to the fire that killed 36, one fire killed six, one killed five, three fires killed four each, and two fires killed three each.

Arson investigators in California examine the ruins of a vacant office building where a fire killed five people.

Arson investigators in California examine the ruins of a vacant office building, where a fire killed five people. Authorities believed the fire was intentionally set. Of the estimated 1,342,000 fires that U.S. firefighters responded to in 2016, 104,000 occurred in nonresidential structures. Photograph: AP/WIDE WORLD

The fire that killed six people broke out at 4:54 a.m. in a dwelling being used as a boarding house. The fire began in a den, but the cause is listed as undetermined at this time. Neither smoke alarms nor an automatic suppression system were present. The fire that killed five had no information reported other than it was a vacant office building.

Seven of the eight non-home fires broke out between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., killing 60 of the 65 victims, including one under age six. Seven of the eight properties were fully operating and one was closed for the night.

The cause of the fire was determined in two incidents, both rooming houses. One was deliberately set and the other was caused by improper disposal of smoking materials.

The area of origin was reported as known in three of the eight non-home structure fires. Two broke out in living rooms or lounges and one broke out in a bedroom. Man stands in the remains of a home that was destroyed by wildfire in November.

In Tennessee, people inspect the remains of a home destroyed by a wildfire in November. The fire, which was deliberately set, began in a national park and spread to surrounding towns and developments, forcing thousands to flee and killing 14 people. Photograph: AP/WIDE WORLD

In 2016, two non-structure fires—the hot-air balloon and wildland fires mentioned above—killed 30 people, or almost 19 percent of those killed in multiple-death fires.

The role of suppression equipment and smoke detection

Information about automatic smoke detection equipment was available for nine of the 11 catastrophic home structure fires. Six homes were equipped with smoke alarms. Five of these systems did not operate: two systems were disconnected, two were missing batteries, and one was destroyed in an explosion. In one fire the operation was not reported. None of the homes had automatic suppression equipment.

Information on detection equipment was reported for four of the eight non-home structure fires. One had no equipment. Two had smoke alarms that operated, but no information was reported as to why the victims did not escape. A smoke alarm was found in the debris of the 36-fatality warehouse fire, but it is not known if it operated. Four of the properties were known to have no automatic suppression equipment. No information was reported for the other four non-home structures.

It is unfortunate that none of the structures had suppression equipment because sprinklers are proven to save lives 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 at NFPA’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative, online at firesprinklerinitiative.org.

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 manufacturer’s 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.

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 night, and that, along with assistance for family members who require it, can be factored into the 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 reads all daily U.S. newspapers and notifies the NFPA Fire Analysis and Research Division of catastrophic fires. Once an incident has been 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 United States. 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 also thanks Helen Columbo and the staff of NFPA’s Research Division.

STEPHEN G. BADGER, a fire data assistant with NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division, is retired from the Quincy, Massachusetts, Fire Department. Top Photograph: Dan Henry/The Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP