NFPA Journal®, November/December 2007
By Stephen G. Badger
In 2006, fire departments in the United States responded to an estimated 1,642,500 fires, which an estimated loss of $11.3 billion.1 Many of these fires were small, with little or no property damage reported; however, 45 resulted in losses of $5 million or more each.2
Collectively, these large-loss fires resulted in $551 million in direct property loss, and were responsible for the deaths of six fire fighters and 11 civilians, as well as injuries to 35 fire fighters and 13 civilians. Despite the fact that these fires accounted for just .003 percent of the total fires estimated to have occurred in 2006, they accounted for 4.9 percent of the total estimated dollar loss.
Each year, NFPA reports on large fires and explosion losses in the United States, defined as events resulting in property damage (to structure and contents) of at least $5 million. In 2006, there was an increase of six fires from 2005, and an increase of $201 million, or 57.4 percent, in property losses from the $350 million in 2005. It should be stated that the 2005 total was the lowest since 1987, when the $5 million threshold was set.
Before adjusting for inflation, the number of large-loss fires in 2006 was the second lowest since 1997 (see Table 1 , Figure 1 and Figure 2 ).3 When adjusted for inflation to 1997 dollars, the number of fires that occurred in 2006 that could be categorized as large-loss (i.e. loss of $5 million in 1997 dollars) drops to 28, with a total adjusted loss of $367 million. This is also the second lowest number of large-loss fires since 1997. The adjusted loss is the second lowest in the 10-year period and 66 percent below the 10-year average adjusted loss total.
In mid-March, the Texas Panhandle was experiencing extreme fire danger and was experiencing a drought. Factors for fire included no rain for five months, low fuel moisture, low humidity, and winds of more than 60 miles (96 kilometers) per hour. Several fires broke out on a Sunday afternoon, when the winds caused electrical wires to touch and short out or the wind brought the wires in contact with ground cover. These fires were known as the East Amarillo Complex and caused an estimated loss of $95 million.
During this outbreak of fires, the smoke reduced visibility on an interstate. One car slowed or stopped in the smoke, causing a chain reaction crash that involved nine vehicles. There were four fatalities in two of the cars. After this crash, a 90-mile (144-kilometer) stretch of the interstate was closed for nine hours due to the smoke conditions.
Within an approximately 45-mile (72-kilometer) radius, four other incidents took the lives of eight people, including one fire fighter.
The fire fighter died when the apparatus he was operating overturned and went down a ravine. Two other fire fighters were injured in this crash. The fire fighters were fighting one of the larger fires in the complex.
Then a car with four occupants went off the roadway due to the blinding smoke conditions. When the vehicle became disabled, the four attempted to flee but the fire overtook them. The fires also overran two structures in which three occupants were preparing to evacuate.
At times, the winds spread these fires at a rate of 5 miles (8 kilometers) per hour and the fire burned everything in its path.
When the fires were extinguished seven days later, the death toll was at 12 and much of the property was destroyed. At least 89 buildings were burned, including nine homes and 80 outbuildings. Also destroyed were 1,040 electric poles, 2,000 miles (3,218 kilometers) of fence, and windmills used for water supply. Also, 4,296 head of cattle were lost.
This wildland fire complex was just one of the 15 fires that caused losses of $10 million or more in property damage last year (see Table 2 ). Of the 15 fires, 11 were in structures, three were wildland fires, and one involved a vehicle. Collectively, these 15 fires caused a loss of $360 million or 65.3 percent of the total losses in large-loss fires and 3.2 percent of the total fire losses in 2006
The number of large-loss fires and explosions and the losses in these fires fluctuate widely, and show no consistent trend from year to year. The large-loss study only reports on those fires with a confirmed estimated loss.
Thirty-eight of the large-loss fires occurred in structures, resulting in combined losses of $396 million. Ten fires occurred in manufacturing properties, resulting in losses of $113 million. Six fires each occurred in storage properties and stores, resulting in losses of $61 million and $51 million, respectively. Five fires occurred in residential properties (two in single-family homes and three in apartment buildings) with resulting losses of $44 million.
Four fires occurred in special properties, resulting in losses of $30 million. All of the special properties were structures under construction.
There were three fires each in education properties and public assembly properties, resulting in losses of $51 million and $21 million respectively. One fire in an educational property spread to 59 other structures. And lastly there was one fire in an industrial property that resulted in a loss of $25 million.
There were also four large-loss fires in wildlands, totaling $125 million in property losses, and three in vehicles (an airplane, a yacht, and a truck), with a total loss of $30 million.
Operating status was reported for 31 of the 38 structure fires. Twenty-two of the properties were at full operation at the time of the fire, one was partially operating, one had workers on the scene, but not in the tunnel where the fire occurred, and seven were closed with no one on the property. The status of operations at the other seven structures was unknown or not reported.
The fire cause was reported for 19 of the structure fires, all four of the wildland fires and two of the vehicle fires. Seven of the structure fires and one of the wildland fires were intentionally set, with a total loss of $125 million, or 22.7 percent of the total fire losses in large-loss fires, and were responsible for the deaths of five fire fighters.
Sixteen of the fires broke out between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. Four of these were known to be intentionally set, two were the result of mechanical failures, two resulted from short circuits, and one involved an unattended candle. The cause was unknown for the other seven fires.
Detection and suppression systems
Information on detection equipment was reported for 24 of the 38 structure fires. Fourteen occurred in properties that had no automatic detection equipment present. Some form of detection equipment was present in 10 properties. Five of the 10 properties had smoke detection equipment while three had combination smoke and heat detection. The type of system in the other two structures was not reported. This means that only 42 percent of the properties with automatic detection equipment reported had some sort of automatic protection. The coverage of the system was reported in seven of the 10 properties. Five properties had complete coverage. Two were smoke detectors, two were combination heat and smoke detection and the type of the last one was not reported. Two had partial or local coverage smoke detection present.
The operation of these systems was reported in eight fires. In seven of the fires, the systems operated or were sounding when the fire department arrived. One of these tripped the fire department master box on the building. One system did not operate because it was out of service for an unreported reason before the fire. The operation of the other two systems was unknown or not reported.
Information on automatic suppression equipment was reported for 29 of the 38 structure fires. Of these 29 structures, 10 (34 percent), were equipped with some sort of suppression equipment. Nineteen properties, (66 percent), were not equipped with suppression equipment. Four of the 10 protected properties had complete coverage systems. Three of these were protected by wet-pipe sprinkler systems and one by a dry-pipe system. Two structures had partial coverage wet-pipe sprinkler systems. The coverage of four systems was unknown or not reported. These included two wet-pipe and two unknown type sprinkler systems.
Suppression equipment operated in seven of the 10 protected properties. Two systems extinguished the fire; one system controlled the fire. Three systems operated, but two of the three were overpowered by fires that spread from unprotected areas or from outside; and the third operated but was ineffective for an unreported reason. One system partially operated; the system in the area of origin had been damaged by a collapse during a hurricane, the riser was shut down and branch lines capped, but a system in another area of the building did activate. Two systems failed to operate -- one had been shut down prior to the fire and the other had a fire pump motor that failed to operate. No information was reported on the other system.
Of the 38 structure fires, 24 had information reported on both detection and suppression equipment. Seven properties, or 29 percent, had no automatic protection at all. Nine had just detection equipment, seven had just suppression equipment, and one had both detection and suppression equipment.
What we can learn
In 2006, the number of large-loss fires increased by six, or 15 percent, and the property loss rose by $201 million, or 57 percent. In seven of the past 10 years, from 1997 to 2006, there has been at least one fire with a loss of more than $100 million. NFPA has no record of any confirmed loss of that size in 2006.
Each year the large-loss fire study reports on the proportion of fires accounting for major losses that occurred in properties with and without protection by automatic detection or suppression equipment, partial protection or system rendered ineffective by action or omissions made before fire began. Explosions or structural collapses also sometimes damage systems to the point of being inoperative or ineffective. Table 4 identifies these.
Adherence to the fire protection principles reflected in NFPA's codes and standards is essential if we are to reduce the occurrence of large-loss fires and explosions in the United States.
There were a range of ignition causes and factors reported among the large-loss fires in 2006, including incendiary, abandoned or discarded smoking materials, mechanical or part failures, short circuits, combustibles too close to heat, and an unattended candle. Proper design, maintenance, and operation of fire protection systems and features can keep a fire from becoming a large-loss fire. Proper construction, storage methods, and housecleaning will make fires less likely and help control or limit the fire spread, if fire occurs.
Where We Get Our Data
The NFPA identifies potential large-loss incidents by reviewing national and local news media, including fire service publications. A clipping service reads all U.S. daily newspapers and notifies the NFPA's Fire Analysis and Research Division of major large-loss fires. The NFPA's annual survey of the U.S. fire experience is an additional data source, although not the principal one. Once an incident has been identified, we request information on the fire from the fire department or the agency having jurisdiction. We also contact federal agencies that have participated in investigations, the state fire marshal's offices, and military sources.
The diversity and redundancy of these data sources enables the NFPA to collect the most complete data available on large-loss fires.
NFPA thanks the U.S. fire service for its contributions of data, without which this report would not be possible. In many cases, the fire departments were unable to contribute complete details to the NFPA because legal action is pending or ongoing, or they are unable to determine many pieces of information we need to make our study as complete as possible. The author wishes to thank Norma Candeloro for providing the support this study requires.
In this Section:
|Large Loss for 2006
In 2006, fire departments in the United States responded to an estimated 1,642,500 fires, which an estimated loss of $11.3 billion.
|Protecting Life and Property
Significant changes in 2008 editions of NFPA 1141 and NFPA 1144
|U.S. Fire Fighter Injuries - 2006
83,400 fire fighter injuries occurred in the line of duty in 2006, an increase of 4.1 percent from the year before.
|2006 Firefighter Injury Incidents
A company officer with 11 years experience suffered a fractured skull after he fell during a training session.