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"Fires at Outside Storage Tanks" report (PDF, 655 KB) 

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Report: NFPA's "Fires at Outside Storage Tanks" (PDF, 655 KB)
Author: Richard Campbell
Issued: August 2014

This report examines fires at outside storage tanks reported to local fire departments. Only fires reported to U.S. municipal fire departments are included in this report, and it accordingly excludes fires reported only to Federal or state agencies or industrial fire brigades. 

Executive Summary

During the five-year period from 2007-2011, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated annual average of 301 fires at outside storage tanks. These fires causes an annual average of 1 civilian injury and $3 million in direct property damage. Nearly four of five of these fires (79%) took place in outside or other locations at these sites, and 49% were outside fires involving property of value. Nearly one-fifth of the fires (17%) were structure fires, but these fires caused 34% of direct property damage.

Fires at outside storage tanks have decreased markedly over the past three decades. In 2011, there were an estimated 275 reported fires in these facilities, a 76% decrease from 1,142 estimated fires in 1980. Even since 2000, when there an estimated 608 fires, fires have fallen by 55%. Civilian injuries have also fallen sharply since 1980. In the five years from 1980 to 1984, there were an estimated 28 injuries per year caused by fires at outside storage tanks, compared to an average of one injury per year between 2007 and 2011. In addition, there was an annual average of less than one civilian fatality per year from 2007 to 2011, compared to an average of 3.8 civilian fatalities per year between 1980 and 1984. Reductions in direct property damage have been less dramatic, falling from an estimated $7 million in direct property damage in 1980 to $4 million in 2011, a 46% decrease.

The peak period for fires at outside storage tanks were from May through August, which accounted for nearly half (46%) of the total. Fewer than three in 10 fires (29%) occurred in the five months from October through February. The fewest fires took place on Sundays (11%), but there was no clear in the remaining days of the week. Nearly half (49%) of fires took place between the hours of 12 p.m. and 8 p.m. The overnight hours between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. accounted for just 15% of the fires in these facilities.

Among the fires at outside and other locations, lightning provided the heat source in one-third of the fires (34%), with a spark, ember or flame from operating equipment providing the heat source in nine percent of the fires. Storms were identified as a factor contributing to one-third (33%) of the fires, and cutting or welding too close to a combustible was cited as a contributing factor in 12% of outside and other fires. Mechanical failure or malfunction was a factor contributing to seven percent of the fires in outdoor or other locations. The most common area of origin was a storage room, area, tank or bin, with 43% of the total for these fires. The leading cause of ignition for structure fires was torch, burner or soldering iron, with 29% of the total, while 17% of these fires were intentional and 16% were caused by lightning. One-tenth (10%) of the structure fires at outside storage tanks were caused by smoking materials.