Home Fires That Began with Upholstered Furniture

Report: NFPA's "Home Fires That Began with Upholstered Furniture"
Author: Marty Ahrens
Issued: August 2011

This analysis of the circumstances of home upholstered furniture fire includes a comparison of upholstered furniture fires started by smoking materials vs. fires started by candles, matches or lighters, as well as an examination of smoke alarms in home upholstered furniture fires. Previously published incident descriptions are included in an Appendix.  

Executive Summary

During 2005-2009, upholstered furniture was the item first ignited in an average of 7,040 reported home structure fires per year. These fires caused an estimated annual average of 500 civilian deaths, 890 civilian injuries, and $442 million in direct property damage. Overall, fires beginning with upholstered furniture accounted for 2% of reported home fires but 19% of home fire deaths. These statistics were derived from the detailed information collected by the U.S. Fire Administration’s (USFA’s) National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) and the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA’s) annual fire department experience survey.

Upholstered furniture fires in the home environment have fallen sharply, dropping 84% from a high of 36,900 in 1980, the first year of usable data, to a 30-year low of 5,900 in 2009. Even with a 67% drop in the number of associated deaths from highs of 1,360 in 1980 and 1981 to a low of 450 in 2009, upholstered furniture remains the leading item first ignited in home fire deaths. During 2005-2009, upholstered furniture was the item first ignited in 2% of reported home fires. These incidents caused one of every five (19%) home fire deaths. 

Smoking materials remain the leading heat source in upholstered furniture fires and associated deaths although their share has fallen dramatically over time. In the early 1980s, almost two-thirds (59-64% in 1980-1984) of home upholstered furniture fires were ignited by smoking materials. These fires caused more than three-quarters (77-82%) of the associated death. During 2005-2009, in contrast, smoking materials caused roughly one-quarter (28%) of the upholstered furniture fires and three of every five (58%) associated deaths. In 2008 and 2009, the two most recent years of available data, only half (49-50%) of the home upholstered furniture deaths resulted from fires started by smoking materials.  

More than half (53%) of the victims of upholstered furniture fires started by smoking materials in 2005-2009 were in the area of origin and involved in the ignition. An additional 11% were in the area but not involved.  

Video: Dr. John Hall, division director of Fire Analysis & Research at NFPA, provides a brief rundown of the "Upholstered Furniture Flammability" white paper (see sidebar). Upholstered furniture is the leading item involved in home fire deaths, accounting for 24 percent of all home fire deaths in recent years.