Author(s): Richard Campbell. Published on November 1, 2017.

Firewatch

Fire incidents from across the country

BY RICHARD CAMPBELL

Manufacturing

PENNSYLVANIA

Electrical arc blamed for massive fire that closes facility

Firefighters were dispatched to a manufacturing facility just before 8 a.m. after a passerby noticed smoke at the rear of the plant and called 911.

Over 40 firefighters and eight pieces of equipment responded to the fire. Newspaper accounts reported that the fire consumed the facility’s manufacturing area and caused a partial building collapse. The fire occurred on a weekend when no employees were in the facility.

Investigators determined that the fire began in a processing area when an electrical arc from a stationary fan ignited fiberboard wall covering. Newspaper accounts described the fan as an exhaust fan.

The plant was two stories in height and had a ground-floor area of 10,000 square feet (929 sq. meters). It was constructed with block walls, concrete floor framing, a metal roof frame, and metal and tar paper roof covering, with some heavy timber at the front of the building.

The building was not protected by either automatic detection or sprinkler systems.

The fire caused an estimated $2 million in damage to the structure, which was valued at $4 million, and an additional $1 million in damage to its contents, valued at $2 million.

Residential

VIRGINIA

One dead, two injured in propane heater explosion

One person was killed and two were injured in a house fire that started when a propane radiant heater ignited while it was being assembled inside the home.

Firefighters were dispatched to the scene at 8:48 p.m. following a call to 911. Upon arrival, crews found heavy fire and smoke visible from all sides of a two-story home. Suppression crews entered the structure and began a search and rescue operation for an occupant reported to be trapped on the first floor, but were forced to abandon the effort due to extreme fire and heat conditions.

Crews mounted a lengthy suppression effort before they were able to bring the fire under control. The fire was sufficiently heavy to cause structural damage to a neighboring residence and heat damage to a motor vehicle parked on the street in front of the house.

Two residents who had escaped the fire were found at the scene and transported by ambulance to the hospital, one with severe burns to his arms and legs and one with suspected smoke inhalation injuries. Crews found a deceased occupant inside a bathroom.

Investigators learned from occupants that they were attempting to assemble and ignite a propane radiant heater when it exploded. One of the occupants attempted to drag the tank from the structure, leaving a trail of fire through the house and a massive release of propane, which caused a heavy volume of fire that rapidly consumed all available combustibles.

The fire caused an estimated $76,800 in damage to the house of fire origin and its contents. The structure was considered unsafe for occupancy until renovations and repairs were made. Damage to the neighboring house was estimated at $10,000, while damage to the motor vehicle was estimated at $500.

IOWA

Apartment fire claims life of resident

Firefighters were dispatched to a three-story apartment complex at 4:19 a.m. after a resident who smelled smoke and heard smoke detectors sounding in a neighboring unit called 911.

Upon arrival, incident command learned from police officers at the scene that the fire was believed to be in a lower-level apartment and an occupant was possibly still inside. Crews found a haze of smoke in stairways and in the building’s common area, and smoke was issuing from the top doorway interface of the suspected unit. The top third of the unit’s door was hot to the touch.

Incident command directed dispatch to issue a third page for additional resources for a working structure fire. Arriving crews were directed to don self-contained breathing apparatus and prepare to make entry as soon as all were in place. Two preconnected hose lines were charged as entry and backup teams geared up.

Crews began evacuating residents from the building, and the entry team was positioned at the apartment of fire origin, with a second team adjacent to them with the second charged line. As the entry team breached the door, black smoke discharged into the stairway. The team immediately located an unresponsive male in a sitting position against the wall at the doorway. Crew members from the entry and backup teams dragged the resident into the hallway and transported him out of the building.

Medical personnel performed CPR on the resident on the lawn outside. He was transported to the hospital, while crews returned to suppression operations. The resident was pronounced dead at the hospital after resuscitation efforts proved unsuccessful.

Investigators determined that the fire originated in a microwave unit but were unable to identify a specific cause due to damage. They noted that two breakers in the electrical panel had been tripped.

The apartment building was equipped with hardwired, interconnected smoke detectors in hallways and inside all units. The building was not equipped with an automatic extinguishing system.

The building was constructed with brick walls and wood floor framing and roof deck. The building contained 12 apartment units, but no information was available on its area.

The fire caused an estimated $8,000 in damage to the building, valued at $200,000, and $3,000 in damage to contents, valued at $100,000.

NEW YORK

Laptop battery blamed for fatal house fire

Firefighters were dispatched to a house fire that claimed the life of a resident at 4:15 a.m. following a 911 call by a man making newspaper deliveries in the neighborhood.

Crews reached the scene within six minutes of dispatch, but investigators were uncertain how long the fire had been burning before it was detected. Inside, crews found the resident of the home who had succumbed to smoke inhalation injuries.

Investigators determined that the fire was caused by a laptop battery that had been sitting on a living room couch for a long period of time and had heated to the point that the couch ignited.

The house was equipped with a single smoke alarm in the living room, but it was not operational.

The house was a one-and-a-half-story construction with a ground-floor area of 1,450 square feet (135 square meters). It was a wood construction and had an asphalt shingle roof.

The building and its contents were a total loss.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Cigarette ignites fire that claims life of resident

Investigators blamed a cigarette for igniting a house fire that claimed the life of an elderly female resident.

Firefighters were dispatched to the scene at 10:36 p.m. following a 911 call by a neighbor. Upon arrival, crews found light smoke showing from a two-story dwelling. In the course of performing the initial 360-degree size-up of the fire, crews found the occupant near the rear entrance. Crews immediately removed the victim and began providing advanced life support. The victim was transported by ambulance to the hospital, where she later died from smoke inhalation and burn injuries.

Firefighters extinguished the fire, which was in the smoldering state and confined to a couch.

Investigators indicated that a cigarette ignited combustible furnishings and spread to the couch. They noted that the victim was on home oxygen therapy but could not determine whether she was smoking when the fire started.

Although the house was equipped with smoke alarms, investigators indicated that they were not operational. The house was not equipped with an automatic sprinkler system.

The house was a wood-frame construction with a ground-floor area of 1,213 square feet (113 square meters).

The fire caused an estimated $50,000 in damage to the house, valued at $155,000, and an additional $10,000 in damage to the contents, which were valued at $75,000.

NORTH CAROLINA

Resident dies when kerosene fuel ignites house fire

An elderly woman died in a house fire that began when an occupant tried to refill a kerosene heater while the heater was still operating.

Firefighters were dispatched to the fire at 2:30 a.m. following a phone call from one of the home’s residents. Newspaper accounts indicated that the house was fully engulfed in flames when firefighters reached the scene. Nearly 30 firefighters were reported to have responded to the fire, and the scene was not cleared until 8:30 a.m.

Investigators reported that the fire began when kerosene fuel ignited while an occupant was refueling a hot kerosene heater in low light conditions. Occupants attempted to fight the fire before calling 911, but the victim became trapped inside. Civilians outside the house broke windows prior to the fire department’s arrival, aiding the fire spread.

In news reports of the incident, the deputy fire chief cautioned that residents using kerosene heaters should take heaters outside and wait until they are completely cooled before refueling.

The house was constructed with masonry walls, a wood floor and roof deck, and a built-up roof cover. It occupied a ground-floor area of 1,600 square feet (149 square meters).

The structure and its contents, valued at $83,000, were a total loss.

SOUTH DAKOTA

Furnace vent fire in manufactured home claims life of occupant

A male occupant of a manufactured home died in an early morning fire that began when heat from the furnace ignited paneling around the furnace vent.

Firefighters were dispatched to the fire after a neighbor saw smoke coming from the home and called 911. The first engine was on the scene eight minutes after dispatch. An interior attack team entered the house through the front door and made their way to the rear of the house, where they found the occupant, who was already deceased.

In a report, the fire department noted the dispatch center received a call on a non-emergency line approximately 70 minutes before the fire was reported to 911. The dispatcher was only able to hear the sounds of beeping and commotion and the call was abruptly terminated. The fire department believes that the noise heard by the dispatcher was the sound of smoke alarms in the victim’s home, which were later found to be operational. Because the call was made to the non-emergency line, the dispatcher was unable to track the phone number to an address, and on-duty police officers were notified of the situation.

Investigators indicated that the ceiling around the furnace flue was sagging, causing the clearance to be too close to wood paneling, which was ignited near the vent. News reports indicated that fire damage was limited to a 15-foot (5-meter) radius around the home’s natural gas furnace.

The home was of wood construction with a rubber roof. It had a ground-floor area of 700 square feet (65 square meters).

No information was available on the property loss associated with the fire.

COLORADO

Sprinkler extinguishes candle fire in university apartment building

Firefighters were dispatched at 5:45 p.m. to a university apartment complex following the activation of a fire alarm. Upon arrival, the first crews to reach the scene noted smoke and fire showing in a unit on the second floor, and the call was upgraded to a structure fire, adding additional resources to the response.

Crews gained access to the fire room, where a single sprinkler had activated and extinguished the fire.

Investigators determined that the cause of the fire was a burning candle left unattended while the occupant was outside the apartment. They believe that wind through an open window blew drapery over the flame, igniting a fire involving drapery, blinds, and papers on a desk.

The building was protected by combination smoke and heat detectors and a dry pipe sprinkler system.

The apartment building was a three-story structure containing 16 residential units and had a ground-floor area of 12,000 square feet (1,115 square meters).

The fire caused an estimated $6,000 in damage to the structure and $1,000 to its contents.

TENNESSEE

Elderly woman dies in house fire started by candle

A house fire that claimed the life of an elderly female occupant was determined to have begun when a candle ignited unspecified combustible materials.

The fire department was dispatched to the scene when a police officer patrolling in the neighborhood spotted smoke from the house at 9 a.m. Upon arrival, firefighters found smoke at the rear of the house, a single-story, wood-frame structure. As crews began rescue and extinguishment operations, they located the victim in a bedroom, already deceased.

Crews extinguished heavy fire in the bedroom area. Newspaper reports indicated that firefighters had the fire under control within 10 minutes of arrival.

Investigators determined that a lit candle on a dresser in the victim’s bedroom made contact with something combustible, leading to the ignition of combustibles at the base of the dresser.

The house was not equipped with working smoke alarms or a sprinkler system.

The fire caused an estimated $22,750 in damage to the house and $10,000 in damage to its contents.

VIRGINIA

Fatal fire burns in void space before detection

Investigators believe that a fatal apartment fire burned for approximately an hour and a half in a void space before it was detected by a neighboring occupant, who called 911.

Firefighters were dispatched to the scene at approximately 5 a.m., where they found an active fire in a four-unit apartment building. Crews began search and fire suppression operations. News reports indicated that they were joined by six other local fire departments.

Investigators determined that the fire was caused when insulation on a 240-volt branch conductor overheated due to an electrical arc and ignited a wooden truss assembly. Fire then spread within a void between the first-floor ceiling and the floor of the second floor until it broke through into the second floor.

An evaluation of the area where the arc occurred showed nicks consistent with a staple cut or other physical damage to the conductor. The investigators believed based on char that the fire had burned for approximately 90 minutes before it was detected.

The apartment building was equipped with interconnected and stand-alone smoke alarms. The alarms were rendered inoperable in the unit of fire origin, but sounded in the other units.

The apartment building was a two-story structure with a ground-floor area of 1,080 square feet (100 square meters) and was a wood construction with asphalt shingling.

The fire caused an estimated $35,000 in damage to the structure (valued at $126,000) and $6,000 in damage to its contents (valued at $10,000).

Vehicle Repair Shop

UTAH

One worker dies, one injured when space heater ignites spilled fuel

Firefighters were dispatched to a motor vehicle repair shop after spilled fuel was ignited by a space heater, burning a mechanic who was standing in the fuel.

When crews arrived on the scene, they found heavy black smoke coming from the building and two men standing out front, one described as severely burned over his entire body and the second as suffering from shortness of breath due to smoke inhalation.

Medical personnel reported that the burn victim was alert and able to answer questions and that he walked to a stretcher while crews began to treat him before transporting him to the hospital. The second worker was also transported to the hospital by ambulance.

Due to the heavy smoke, firefighters from an engine company ventilated the building, horizontally and then vertically, by opening skylights, before initiating fire attack. Crews were able to quickly extinguish the fire.

Investigators learned that the burn victim was replacing a fuel pump on a vehicle when he knocked a container of gasoline, spilling its contents onto the floor. As the victim ran to unplug the space heater, the gasoline vapors flashed and the victim became completely involved with fire. The co-worker grabbed a blanket to help smother the flames while the victim ran outside and rolled on the ground. The burn victim succumbed to his injuries at the hospital.

The building was constructed with block walls, a cement floor, and a metal roof deck covered with membrane. It was not equipped with automatic detection equipment or a sprinkler system.

The fire caused an estimated $10,000 in damage to the building and $12,000 in damage to its contents.

Hotel and Restaurant

PENNSYLVANIA

Cigarette in mulch starts hotel fire

A fire that was started by a discarded cigarette in a mulch area outside a hotel spread to the exterior wall of the structure and into the attic, causing extensive damage but no injuries.

First-arriving crews found smoldering mulch with fire extension into the building. Recognizing that the fire had spread to the attic, crews from a truck company began to open the outside wall and mount an attack while an interior team made its way to the fire floors with an attack line. Crews encountered fire and smoke conditions on the third floor and attic, where sprinklers had activated and were keeping the fire in check.

While crews attacked the fire and opened the ceiling, two teams began to search rooms on the second and third floors to check for occupants. A back-up line was stretched to the fire floors and coordinated efforts brought the fire under control shortly after 10 a.m.

Following extinguishment, trucks were positioned on all sides of the building and crews began to open the roof. Ladders were placed on all sides in case of the need for firefighter escape, and safety officers monitored conditions on all sides. Extensive overhaul was needed as crews opened ceilings and checked for hotspots. The last units cleared the scene approximately four hours after arrival.

The hotel was equipped with smoke and heat detectors in living areas and the attic, and with wet and dry pipe sprinkler systems.

The hotel was a three-story wood construction, with a concrete floor frame and metal roof cover. It occupied a ground-floor area of 10,488 square feet (974 square meters).

The fire caused an estimated $25,000 in damage to the building, valued at $1 million, and $100,000 in damage to its contents, which were valued at $500,000.

CALIFORNIA

Sprinkler system extinguishes trash fire ignited by fireworks fallout

An automatic sprinkler system extinguished a fire that started when smoldering fireworks fallout ignited inside a waste bin that had been placed in a hotel storage closet.

The incident occurred at a large hotel and restaurant complex, where a fireworks display was held in conjunction with the opening of a holiday lighting festival.

After the fireworks ended, a janitor cleaned up fallout and stored it in a waste container in a third-floor storage closet. Some of the fallout was still hot and ignited combustible materials in the container. The fire activated an automatic extinguishing system, which extinguished the fire and sounded an alarm. The fire department was already on the scene as a precautionary measure during the fireworks.

The complex was protected by a wet pipe sprinkler system throughout the entire facility. Investigators indicated that the sprinklers extinguished the fire before it spread to other parts of the closet.

The complex was a five-story structure occupying a ground-floor area of 90,000 square feet (8,361 square meters).

Damage was estimated at $250,000, largely due to water damage. Damage to the structure and contents was valued at $130 million.

Outdoor Gas Line

CALIFORNIA

Gas line explosion kills worker

Firefighters were dispatched to the scene of a massive explosion and fire after a piece of heavy equipment broke a 36-inch (1-meter) gas line at approximately 3:30 p.m. The incident, which occurred while three pieces of heavy equipment were excavating a field, took the life of one of the equipment operators. The incident also caused injuries to two residents of a nearby home.

Crews described flames and extreme heat from the broken pipeline upon arrival, with a broken pipe sticking into the air and an overturned plow in the middle of the flames. The explosion had scattered debris from a concrete canal and the field, setting fire to a residence and to power poles running along an adjacent road.

At the scene, crews began evacuating people from the area while looking for anyone needing medical attention. The drivers of two undamaged bulldozers were found to be safe, while the driver of the damaged vehicle was missing. After representatives from electric and gas companies arrived and secured power lines and shut off the gas line, crews mobilized to extinguish the fire, which consumed a house, two cars, farm equipment, and a shop.

The body of the missing operator was located by a helicopter that was dispatched to the scene. The victim was turned over to a coroner.

Investigators determined that the gas line had been severed by the deep blade of the bulldozer that was damaged.

Two civilians injured in the incident were identified in a newspaper account as residents of the nearby home, who suffered second- and third-degree burns.

The explosion and fire caused an estimated $550,000 in damage to property and contents.

Mercantile/Laundry

NORTH CAROLINA

Commercial laundry fire blamed on electrical fault

Firefighters responding to reports of an afternoon structure fire arrived to find a working fire in a commercial laundromat, with heavy smoke showing on one side of the building.

As a search and rescue team was being organized, incident command was informed by a laundromat employee that all occupants had evacuated the building. Crews from an engine company who entered the building with an attack line to begin extinguishment reported that the fire was well-established. A newly arriving ladder company was directed to perform ventilation operations on the roof, while a second engine company crew pulled an additional hose line into the structure to assist with fire attack.

Amid deteriorating conditions and the presence of lightweight steel truss construction, incident command ordered all crews out of the building and conducted a personnel accountability report. Crews then conducted a defensive operation, utilizing an elevated stream to bring the fire under control. Crews opened one side of the building in several locations to assist with ventilation.

Investigators determined that the fire originated in a shop area where a conveyor system transported clothing wrapped in plastic. The investigators found that electrical wires supplying power to fluorescent lighting in the shop had been woven through metal chains connected to the ceiling and suspended under the conveyor. Contact with the metal chains caused the outer sheath of some of the wiring to degrade, resulting in an electrical arc when the wire came in contact with the metal chains. The arc and subsequent overheating ignited the plastic wrap and spread to clothing.

The facility was a single-story commercial building with framed offices and an overhead mezzanine. It was an exposed steel construction, with metal siding built on a slab foundation and brick veneer on portions of the exterior. The building occupied a ground-floor area of 19,500 square feet (1,812 square meters).

The facility was equipped with an alarm system that activated and alerted the building occupants. Employees also activated alarms at a manual pull station.

The fire caused an estimated $1.5 million in damage to the structure and $5.5 million in damage to its contents.

Hotel and Restaurant

NEW MEXICO

Sprinkler system extinguishes restaurant fire

Firefighters responding to a restaurant’s automatic alarm found that a fire in the kitchen area had already been extinguished by the facility’s sprinkler system.

Crews were dispatched to the fire at noon after the automatic sprinkler system activated and notified a central station alarm. Upon entering the restaurant, fire crews reported that one sprinkler head had opened and was operating above a grill in the kitchen.

Investigators determined that the fire started when a polyester jacket was ignited by radiant heat from a food warmer on which it had been placed.

No information was available on dollar losses caused by the fire.

FIREWATCH is a compilation of fire incidents involving a variety of occupancies and fire types. The intent of Firewatch is to illustrate the range of fire scenarios encountered by the fire service, present the challenges contained in those incidents, recount how the fire service addressed those challenges, and record the effectiveness of fire protection systems, where such systems exist. The incidents are identified by NFPA’s Research Group from fire reports submitted to NFPA by responding fire departments. Some of the fire incidents that appear in Firewatch are augmented with details provided by media accounts. Top Photograph: Justin Engle/The Daily Item