Author(s): Michael J. Karter, Jr.. Published on September 4, 2014.

IN 2013, PUBLIC FIRE DEPARTMENTS in the United States responded to 1,240,000 reported fires, according to estimates based on data NFPA received from fire departments responding to its 2013 National Fire Experience Survey. This represents a significant decrease of 9.8 percent from 2012 and is the fewest number of reported fires since 1977–78, when NFPA began using its current survey methodology.

Three Key Findings from NFPA's 2013 Fire Loss Report

Christina Holcroft, division director of Fire Analysis and Research at NFPA, gives three key findings from NFPA's 2013 Fire loss report.

Of these fires, an estimated 487,500 were structure fires, a slight increase of 1.5 percent from the year before. Between 1977 and 2013, the number of structure fires was at its peak in 1977, when 1,098,000 structure fires occurred. The number of structure fires then decreased steadily, particularly in the 1980s, when 688,000 were reported by the end of 1989, for an overall decrease of 37.3 percent since 1977. From 1989, the number of structure fires again dropped steadily, to 517,500 by the end of 1998, for an overall decrease of 24.7 percent. The number of structure fires stayed in the range of 505,000 to 530,500 from 1999 to 2008, before falling to 480,500 in 2009, and stayed in that range for the 2010 to 2013 period.

Fires by the numbers

  • 1.24 million fires were responded to by public fire departments, a decrease of 9.8 percent from the year before.
  • 487,500 fires occurred in structures, a slight increase of 1.5 percent.
  • 369,500 fires, or 76 percent, of all structure fires, occurred in 1- and 2- family homes and apartments, a slight increase of 1.2 percent.
  • 164,000 fires occurred in highway vehicles, a decrease of 4.9 percent from the year before.
  • 564,500 fires occurred in outside properties, a significant decrease of 19.3 percent.

Of the structure fires in 2013, 387,000, or 79.4 percent, were residential fires, a slight increase of 1.6 percent from the year before. Of the residential structure fires, 271,500 occurred in one- and two-family homes, accounting for 55.7 percent of all structure fires. Another 98,000 occurred in apartments, accounting for 20.1 percent of all structure fires.

There were also 100,500 nonresidential structure fires in 2013, a slight increase of 1 percent from the previous year.

There were 564,500 outside fires in 2013, an 18.4 decrease from the previous year. Between 1977 and 2013, the number of outside fires was at its high in 1977, when 1,658,500 such fires occurred. This number decreased steadily over the next six years, to 1,011,000 in 1983, representing a considerable decrease of 39 percent. The number of outside fires changed little during the rest of the 1980s, except for 1988, when the number jumped to 1,214,000. In 1993, outside fires dropped to 910,500, and stayed near the 1 million level for the next three years. From 1997 to 2002, the number of outside fires stayed in the range of 839,000 to 861,500—except in 1999, when it rose to 931,500—then rose in 2005 and 2006 before declining to 634,000 by the end of 2010. Over the next two years, the number of outside fires increased 9.1 percent, to 692,000 in 2012, before dropping significantly in 2013. 

Of the outside fires that occurred in 2013, an estimated 254,500 were brush, grass, and wildland fires, a significant decrease of 27.3 percent from the year before. An estimated 67,000 fires occurred outside of structures with value involved, a significant decrease of 19.3 percent from 2012.

There were also an estimated 164,000 highway vehicle fires in 2013, a decrease of 4.9 percent from 2012, and 24,000 fires in other vehicles, a decrease of 20 percent from the year before.
 

Fire frequency

  • Every 25 seconds, a fire department responds to a fire somewhere in the United States. A fire occurs in a structure at the rate of one every 65 seconds, and a home fire occurs every 85 seconds. Fires occur in vehicles at the rate of one every 167 seconds, and there's a fire in an outside property every 56 seconds

Civilian fire deaths

The 1,240,000 fires reported by U.S. fire departments last year resulted in an estimated 3,240 civilian deaths, based on data reported to NFPA. This is an increase of 13.5 percent from the year before and the highest it’s been since 2008, when 3,320 civilians died as a result of fires. The nature of the increase is better understood when the results are examined by property type.

An estimated 2,785 civilians died in residential fires in 2013, an increase of 15.8 percent from the year before. Of these deaths, 325 occurred in apartment fires, the fewest since 1977–78, when NFPA began using its current survey methodology. Another 2,430 died in one- and two- family homes, which is 430 more than the year before, a significant increase of 21.5 percent. Most of this increase is due to a rise in fire death rates for communities with populations of less than 25,000, and particularly for the smallest communities with fewer than 2,500 residents. Fire death rates can vary considerably from year to year, however, particularly for smaller communities, and caution is urged when considering the 2013 increase.

Civilian fire deaths

  • 3,240 civilian fire deaths occurred in 2013, an increase of 13.5 percent over the year before.
  • 2,755 civilian fire deaths, or 85 percent of all fire deaths, occurred in the home, an increase of 15.7 percent.
  • 300 civilians died in highway vehicle fires.
  • Nationwide, there was a civilian fire death every 162 minutes, and a civilian death in a home fire every 192 minutes.

Civilian fire injuries

  • 15,925 civilian fire injuries occurred in 2013, a decrease of 3.5 percent from the year before. This estimate is on the low side because many civilian injuries are not reported to the fire service.
  • 12,200 of all civilian injuries occurred in home fires.
  • 925 civilians were injured in highway vehicle fires.
  • Nationwide, there was a civilian fire injury every 33 minutes and a civilian fire injury in a home fire every 43 minutes.

In all, fires in one- and two-family homes, including manufactured homes and apartments, resulted in 2,755 civilian deaths, or an increase of 15.7 percent from the year before. Looking at trends in civilian deaths since 1977–78, several observations are worth noting. First, home fire deaths peaked at 6,015 in 1978. They then fell to 4,820 by the end of 1982, for an overall decrease of 20 percent. From 1982 to 1988, the number of home fire deaths remained level, ranging from 4,650 to 4,950, except in 1984, when 4,075 deaths occurred. Home fire deaths continued to decline from 1989 to 1996, ranging from from 3,420 to 4,340, then dipped again from 1997 onward. The number of annual home fire deaths has ranged from 2,380 to 3,200 since 2001.

Overall, home fire deaths have decreased by 53 percent between 1977 and 2013. The number of home fires also declined steadily during the same period, for an overall decrease of 49 percent.The death rate per 1,000 home fires, however, does not reflect a steady decline, but rather a considerable amount of fluctuation. In fact, the death rate per 1,000 home fires was 8.1 in 1977, compared to 7.5 in 2013, a decrease of just 7 percent. These results suggest that, even though the number of home fires and home fire deaths both declined during the period, the death rate did not.

Other civilian deaths by property type in 2013 include 70 civilians who died in nonresidential structure fires, an increase of 7.7 percent from the year before. An estimated 300 civilians also died in highway vehicle fires last year, which represents no change from the year before. Overall, from 1977 to 2013, the number of highway vehicle deaths, mostly in cars, decreased 60 percent. In addition, 150 of the 2,855 civilians who died in structure fires, or 5.2 percent, died in fires that were intentionally set.

With home fire deaths, including those in one- and two-family homes, still accounting for 2,755 fire deaths, or 85 percent of all civilian deaths, fire safety initiatives targeted at the home remain the key to any reductions in the overall fire death toll. Among the key strategies for reducing fire deaths is the need to provide additional widespread public fire safety education on how to prevent fires and avoid serious injury or death if a fire occurs. Information on the common causes of fatal home fires should continue to be used in the design of fire safety education messages. In addition, more people need to install and maintain smoke detectors and develop and practice escape plans. We must aggressively pursue wider use of residential sprinklers. We must seek additional ways to make home products more fire-safe; the regulations requiring more child-resistant lighters are a good example, as are requirements for cigarettes with reduced ignition strength, generally called fire-safe cigarettes. The wider use of upholstered furniture and mattresses that are more resistant to cigarette ignitions is an example of change that has already accomplished much and will continue to do more. We must also address the special fire safety needs of high-risk groups, such as children, older adults, the poor, and people with disabilities. [sub] Civilian fire injuries

Results based on data reported to NFPA indicate that, in addition to 3,240 civilian fire deaths, there were an estimated 15,925 civilian fire injuries in 2013. This represents a slight decrease of 3.5 percent from the previous year, and is the fewest since 1977–78, when NFPA began using its current survey methodology.

Estimates of civilian fire injuries are on the low side, because many civilian injuries are not reported to the fire service. For example, many injuries occur at small fires to which fire departments do not respond. When departments do respond, they are sometimes unaware of injured persons if they did not transport them to medical facilities.

NFPA estimates that 12,575 civilians were injured in residential properties, a decrease of 4.6 percent from the previous year. Of these injuries, 8,300 occurred in one- and two-family homes, and 3,900 occurred in apartments. Another 1,500 civilians were injured in nonresidential structures in 2013, a decrease of 1.6 percent.

Between 1977 and 2013, the number of civilian injuries ranged from a high of 31,275 in 1983 to a low of 15,925 in 2013, for an overall decrease of 49 percent. There was no consistent pattern up or down until 1995, when injuries fell by roughly 5,000 in 1994–95, to 25,775. From 1996 to 2002, injuries declined another 28 percent, to 18,425, by the end of 2002. Since 2002, civilian injuries have remained between 16,400 to 18,425, until the new low in 2013. 

Property loss

NFPA estimates that the 1,240,000 fires the fire service responded to in 2013 caused $11.5 billion in property damage, a decrease of 7.3 percent from the year before.

Fires in structures resulted in $9.5 billion in property damage, a decrease of 2.6 percent., and the average loss per structure fire was $19,541, 4 percent lower than the year before.

From 1977 to 2013, excluding the events of September 11, 2001, the average loss per structure fire was $3,757 in 1977 and $19,541 in 2013, for an overall increase of 420 percent. When property loss is adjusted for inflation, however, the increase in the average structure fire loss between 1977 and 2013 is 35 percent.

Of the property loss in structures in 2013, $7.0 billion occurred in residential properties, a decrease of 3.2 percent from the year before. An estimated $5.6 billion occurred in one- and two-family homes, a decrease of 3.3 percent from 2012, and an estimated $1.7 billion occurred in apartments.

Other property damage figures worth noting for 2013 include $369 million in public assembly properties, a significant increase of 31.3 percent over the year before; $140 million in special properties, an increase of 10.2 percent; $520 million in fires outside of structures with value involved, a significant decrease of 28.5 percent; and $332 million in other vehicles, a significant decrease of 55.4 percent. This decrease is largely a function of the high amount of other-vehicle property damage in 2012, including the $400 million of damage sustained by the submarine USS Miami, which experienced an arson fire while in dry dock for repairs.

It is important to note that property loss totals can change dramatically from year to year because of the impact of occasional large-loss fires. NFPA provides an annual analysis of these large-loss fires in the November/December issue of NFPA Journal.

Property damage

  • $11.5 billion in property damage is estimated to have occurred as a result of fire in 2013, a decrease of 7.3 percent from the year before.
  • $9.5 billion of property damage occurred in structure fires.
  • $6.8 billion of property loss occurred in home fires.
  • $1.1 billion of property loss occurred in highway vehicle fires.

Intentionally set fires

  • 22,500 fires are estimated to have been intentionally set in 2013, a decrease of 13.5 percent from the previous year. These fires do not include any allocation of fires with unknown cause.
  • 150 civilian deaths resulted from intentionally set fires in structures, a decrease of 16.7 percent.
  • $577 million in property loss resulted from intentionally set structure fires, a slight decrease of 0.7 percent.
  • 10,500 intentionally set vehicle fires occurred in 2013, a decrease of 12.5 percent from the year before. Those fires resulted in $86 million in property damage, a significant decrease of 82.1 percent from 2012. This decrease is mostly due to the $400 million intentionally set fire on the USS Miami, a submarine in dry dock for repairs to damage that occurred in 2012.

Intentionally set fires

Based on data reported by fire departments, NFPA estimates that 22,500 structure fires were intentionally set in 2013, a decrease of 13.5 percent from the year before. These estimates do not include any allocation of fires with cause unknown or unreported.

These intentionally set structure fires resulted in an estimated 150 civilian deaths, a decrease of 16.7 percent from the year before. They also resulted in $577 million in property loss, a slight decrease of 0.7 percent from 2012.

There were also an estimated 10,500 intentionally set vehicle fires last year, a decrease of 12.5 percent from 2012. These fires resulted in $86 million in property loss, a significant decrease of 82.1 percent from the year before. This comparative drop is also largely due to the significant damage caused by the intentionally set fire on the USS Miami in 2012.

Acknowledgements

NFPA thanks the many fire departments that responded to the 2013 National Fire Experience Survey for their continuing efforts to provide us in a timely manner with the data so necessary to make national projections. The survey project manager and author of the report particularly thanks the many NFPA staff members who worked on this year's survey, including Frank Deely, John Baldi, and John Conlon for editing the survey forms and making follow-up calls to fire departments and Norma Candeloro for processing the survey forms and typing this report. 

Michael J. Karter is a statistician with NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division.

Description of NFPA Survey

Every year, NFPA surveys a sample of fire departments in the United States to make national projections of the fire problem. The sample is stratified by the size of the community protected by the fire department. All U.S. fire departments that protect communities of 50,000 or more are included in the sample because they constitute a small number of departments protecting a large share of the total population. For departments that protect communities with populations under 50,000, a sample was selected stratified by size of community protected. A total of 2,637 fire departments responded to the 2013 fire experience survey. The national projections are made by weighting sample results according to the proportion of total U.S. population accounted for by communities of each size.

For each estimate, we also calculated a sampling or standard error. The sampling error is a measure of the error caused by the fact that the estimates are based on a sampling of fire losses rather than a complete census of the fire problem. Because the survey is based on a random sample, we can be very confident that the actual value falls within 2 percent for the number of fires, 11.4 percent for the number of civilian deaths, 5.7 percent for the number of civilian injuries, and 3.2 percent for property loss.

The results presented in this article are based on fires attended by public fire departments. No adjustments were made for unreported fires and losses, such as fires extinguished by the occupant. Nor were adjustments made for fires attended solely by private fire brigades, such as those at industrial and military installations, or for fires extinguished by fixed suppression systems to which no fire department responded.