Author(s): Ken Tremblay. Published on March 2, 2015.

RESIDENTIAL

Overloaded electrical cord starts fatal fire

FLORIDA—A 61-year-old man, a 63-year-old woman, and an 88-year-old woman who had a mobility impairment died of smoke inhalation after an overheated electrical cord started a fire in their single-family home. The single-story, wood-frame house, which measured 50 feet (15 meters) by 15 feet (5 meters), had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.

Firefighters responding to an 8 p.m. 911 call reporting the fire rescued the three occupants and transported them to the hospital. The man was pronounced dead on arrival, and the two women died of their injuries a short time later.

Neighbors told investigators that the man had told them earlier in the day that power in the home had gone out and that he was going to have to reset the circuit breaker to the window air conditioner in a rear bedroom. Shortly after the man went inside to reset the circuit breaker, the neighbors saw smoke coming from the house.

Investigators determined that the air conditioner’s electrical cord over-heated and ignited the clothing that had been placed over it. Relatives said that the man had told them that he would place clothing over the air conditioner’s electrical cord because the cord would get very hot.

The fire spread from the rear bedroom toward the front of the house, eventually causing an estimated $40,000 in damage.

Sprinkler extinguishes dorm fire caused by fire play

RHODE ISLAND—A young woman ignited a plastic shower curtain in her dormitory bathroom while playing with a cigarette lighter, then threw a cup of water on the fire to extinguish it before leaving the room. However, the fire continued to burn until a quick-response sprinkler extinguished it.

The two-story, wood-frame, townhouse-style dorm contained twelve units, each of which had four bedrooms and a bathroom. Each unit covered an area of approximately 922 square feet (86 square meters) and was protected by an NFPA 13R sprinkler system. Hardwired smoke detectors were located in all the common areas, and battery-operated smoke alarms had been installed in each bedroom. Heat detectors protected the attic. The detection system and sprinkler water flow were monitored by a municipal fire alarm system.

The fire department received the alarm at 4:01 a.m., and firefighters arrived nine minutes later to find that a single sprinkler had already extinguished the blaze in the first-floor bathroom. After checking for fire extension on the floor above the room of origin, firefighters removed four occupants and shut down the sprinkler system’s water flow.

The woman who started the fire told investigators that she was playing with the lighter and ignited the curtain. Possible alcohol or drug impairment was cited as a factor contributing to the incident.

Damage to the dormitory, which was valued at more than $2 million, was estimated at $15,000. One man was treated for smoke inhalation, but he did not require hospitalization.

Sprinkler controls apartment building fire

WASHINGTON—A sprinkler controlled a fire that started on the deck of a second-floor apartment in a wood-frame apartment building until firefighters arrived to extinguish it.

The apartment was one of 60 in the three-story building, which measured 100 feet (30 meters) by 60 feet (18 meters). Each apartment’s living areas were protected by an NFPA 13R sprinkler system, and smoke detectors had been installed in the common areas of the building and in each unit.

The apartment’s occupant detected the fire and called 911 to report it at 5:45 p.m. Responding firefighters entered the second-floor unit to find that a sprinkler had contained the blaze before it could spread.

Investigators determined that the fire started when the occupant’s 19-year-old grandson poured camp stove fuel over the hot coals of a hibachi on his grandmother’s deck in an attempt to light it. As soon as the fuel his the coals, the fire flared up with a “whoosh.” Flames broke through the apartment windows, and heat from the fire activated one of the sprinklers inside the unit.

Damage to the apartment, which was valued at $800,000, and to its contents, valued at $75,000, was estimated at $335,000. The deck had to be replaced, and the unit below the apartment of origin was damaged by water. The fire department report stated that no one was injured.

Hoarding prevents homeowner from escaping fatal fire

MINNESOTA—A 68-year-old man died of smoke inhalation when he was trapped by piles of books, magazines, and other materials stacked from floor to ceiling behind the doors of his one-and-a-half story, single-family home.

A neighbor called 911 at 2:14 a.m. when he was awakened by light coming in the window and spotted the flames. Firefighters arrived seven minutes later and tried to enter the house, but were unable to open the front door due to the accumulated materials inside. They moved around to the side of the house to try to force open another door, but they were again unsuccessful.

A ladder crew finally used a saw to cut the door off so they could get inside to search for the victim, who they found lying on the floor under large amounts of debris.

Investigators determined that the fire started on the exterior of the house near a side entrance, but they were unable to determine the actual cause of the fire.

The wood-frame house, valued at $109,000, sustained an estimated $35,000 in damage.

Oven fire kills occupant of manufactured home

NORTH CAROLINA—A 28-year-old man died of cardiac arrest during a fire that started when he left food cooking unattended in the oven in his manufactured home.

The home, which was 60 feet (18 meters) long by 14 feet (4 meter) wide, had a smoke alarm in the hallway, but firefighters did not hear it operating when they arrived.

A 911 call from a neighbor at 1:11 a.m. summoned fire crews, who extinguished the blaze. The most severe damage was concentrated in the kitchen.

Investigators believe that the victim had put food in the oven and inadvertently turned on the self-cleaning cycle, causing the food to ignite. Flames spread from the oven through a ceiling-mounted exhaust vent into the ceiling.

The fire destroyed the home, which was valued at $7,500, and its contents, valued at $12,500.

Woman dies in unattended cooking fire

MINNESOTA—A 50-year-old woman died of smoke inhalation in a fire that started in the kitchen of her one-story duplex, which had neither smoke alarms nor sprinklers.

Firefighters received a 911 call reporting the fire at 10:18 p.m. and arrived three minutes later to find smoke coming from the front door. They advanced a hose line into the house, confining the fire to the kitchen, and quickly found the victim. Medics performed CPR on her but were unable to revive her, and she was pronounced dead at the scene. They also found the body of the woman’s dog.

Investigators determined that the fire started when the woman left a pan of food cooking unattended on the gas stove. When reconstructing her activities, they deduced that she moved the pan to the counter, where it smoldered, and that fire burned upwards to the cupboards, creating heavy smoke. One of the knobs on the stovetop was found in the “on” position.

The victim’s boyfriend discovered the fire when he came home at about 10 p.m. and found the apartment filled with smoke. He found the woman lying between the kitchen and bathroom. He tried to pull her out of the unit, but he was overwhelmed by the smoke. Unable to save her, he called 911 to report the fire.

Damage to the duplex and its contents was estimated at $150,000.

Man dies when cigarette ignites mattress, starting house fire

MINNESOTA—A smoldering fire killed a 30-year-old man, whom investigators think fell asleep while smoking in the basement of his single-family home.

The one-story, wood-frame house had three bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room, and a kitchen. A fourth bedroom, a family room, and a mechanical storage space were located in the basement, which had only one window and no direct access to the outside. Smoke alarms had been installed in two bedrooms on the first floor and at the base of the basement stairs. There were no sprinklers.

A neighbor heard the basement smoke alarm operating, but did not call the fire department because he failed to recognize the sound. The fire was eventually reported by a letter carrier, who discovered the fire when he smelled smoke and noticed that the inside of a front window was covered with soot. He called the fire department at 9:45 a.m.

Responding firefighters saw no smoke or flames when they arrived, so they walked to the back of the house where they found a basement window covered with soot. The door to the patio was open, so they went into the house with a charged hose line and discovered that a smoldering fire had filled it with heavy, black smoke.

Fire crews found the victim at the bottom of the basement stairs and left the body in place for investigators when they realized that rigor mortis was setting in.

Investigators suspect that the fire started some five hours before firefighters arrived, after the victim returned home from a night out. Investigators determined that the mattress was ignited by heat from a cigarette. Alcohol intoxication was a contributing factor.

The house and its contents sustained $95,000 in damage.

Appliance failure starts fatal fire

KENTUCKY—A 66-year old woman died of heat and smoke inhalation in a fire that started when an electrical failure ignited a stereo cabinet in her unsprinklered manufactured home.

The interior of the two-bedroom, single-story home, which was 70 feet (21 meters) long and 14 feet (4 meters) wide, was covered with wood paneling. The home had no smoke alarms.

A neighbor saw smoke coming from the home and called 911 at 7:07 a.m. Responding fire crews found the fire near the center of the home between the kitchen and living room, where a stereo system had been plugged into a wall receptacle outlet. The fire had consumed most of the stereo cabinet, then spread to kitchen cabinets and a recliner before firefighters extinguished it. Firefighters found the victim in a bedroom.

Investigators determined that the 125-volt receptacle outlet provided the heat for ignition.

Damage to the home, which was valued at $5,000, and its contents, valued at $2,000, was estimated at approximately $2,500.

Man dies in home fire

WASHINGTON—A 66-year-old man with a mobility impairment, who also had been diagnosed with advanced cancer and had suffered a heart attack about two weeks earlier, died of burns as he tried to escape from a fire that started in the living room of his single-family home.

The wood-frame, single-story house, which was 35 feet (11 meters) long and 21 feet (6 meters) wide, had battery-operated smoke alarms between the living room and bedroom. There were no sprinklers.

The fire was discovered by a neighbor, who saw smoke coming from the front door and called 911 at 8 a.m. Arriving fire firefighters found the victim lying on the threshold of the front door, with fire coming from the door and an adjacent window, which had failed.

Investigators were unable to determine the cause of the fire, although they discovered that it had started in the living room where two oxygen cylinders and an oxygen concentrator were stored. They had been delivered the day before the fire and contributed to the intensity of the flames. The victim was a heavy smoker who had earlier joked with a neighbor that he wasn’t supposed to smoke with home oxygen in use.

The fire destroyed the house and contents, valued at $105,000.

Electric fan fails, starts apartment fire

WISCONSIN—The occupant of an apartment was using four box fans and two heaters to dry his clothes on wooden racks when one of the fans apparently experienced an electrical failure and overheated, igniting the clothing, one of the racks, and other combustibles in his living room.

The exterior of the 25-unit, single-story apartment building, which was 75 feet (23 meters) long and 100 feet (30 meters) wide, was covered with brick, and the roof was covered with asphalt shingles. Local battery-operated smoke alarms were installed in each unit, and there were hardwired smoke detectors with manual pull stations in the hallway near the exits. There were no sprinklers.

A passerby saw smoke coming from the building and called 911 at 1:08 p.m. Meanwhile, the smoke alarms alerted building’s occupants, who activated the building’s fire alarm using a manual pull station.

Firefighters arrived ten minutes after receiving the alarm and found smoke coming from the rear of the building through the open patio door of the apartment of origin. They extinguished the fire and used positive pressure fans to ventilate the building.

Investigators determined that the apartment’s occupant had put the heaters on plastic milk crates and was using the box fans to circulate the heated air in an effort to dry his clothes. An electrical failure in one of the fans caused it to overheat and start a fire that caused the milk crates to collapse, dropping the heaters they were holding to the floor.

Loss estimates were not reported, but fire damage was limited to the apartment of origin. There was no report of injuries.

One dead, two injured in house fire

ARIZONA—A 36-year-old woman died and two men suffered smoke inhalation when a fire broke out in the manufactured home in which they were living. One of the men had a mobility disability, and the other acted as his caretaker.

The single-story, wood-frame home, which covered approximately 1,250 square feet (116 square meters), had a smoke alarm in the hallway. There were no sprinklers.

The smoke alarm woke the man with the disability, who slept in the living room, and he called to his caretaker for help. The caretaker left his room and ran into the woman in the hallway outside a bedroom. He told her to get out of the house before he went to evacuate his patient, whom he carried outside. Once he and his patient were safely outside, the caretaker called 911 at 11:23 p.m.

He did not see whether the woman had left the house.

Responding firefighters arrived to find most of the home involved in flames. After knocking down the fire, they entered the home in search of the woman, whom they found dead of smoke inhalation in a bedroom closet.

Investigators concluded that the fire started in the bedroom in which the woman was sleeping. They suspect that alcohol intoxication was a contributing factor in her death.

The fire destroyed the home, which was valued at $121,400, and its contents, valued at $84,980.

Voids allow fire to spread, destroying apartment building

WISCONSIN—A large apartment building was destroyed by a fire of undetermined origin that started in the basement and spread upward through vertical penetrations that had been created when air conditioning was installed to the attic.

The two-story, wood-frame building, which had a brick veneer and a flat mansard roof, contained 74 units, each of which had local, battery-operated smoke alarms. The building also had a fire alarm system with manual fire alarm boxes, but it was compromised during the fire by a damaged electrical circuit.

Firefighters responded to the scene at 11:30 a.m. after residents called 911 when they saw smoke. When fire crews arrived, they found the seat of the fire in a basement near a room in which pool chemicals were stored.

Despite firefighters’ best efforts to control it, the fire spread through the vertical voids to the attic, destroying the building, which was valued at $4.1 million, and its contents, valued at $1.1 million.

The extent of the damage prevented investigators from determining the cause of the blaze. None of the building’s occupants was hurt, although four firefighters suffered various injuries during extinguishment operations.

AIRPORT

Sprinkler controls fire in airport baggage conveyor

FLORIDA—A single wet-pipe sprinkler controlled a fire in the baggage handling system of a Florida airport, sending an alarm to the fire department as the area filled the with smoke.

Airport employees noticed the smoke and called the fire department at 4:37 p.m. When responding firefighters arrived six minutes later, they found that the sprinkler had brought the fire under control. They quickly extinguished the blaze and overhauled the scene, allowing baggage operations to resume shortly afterward.

Investigators discovered that the fire started at the junction of two conveyors, one of which traveled from the second floor to the first and one that moved horizontally. After inspecting the system’s belts, pulleys, and motors without finding anything wrong with them, they concluded that a bag had become lodged at the junction of the two conveyors, causing friction that eventually ignited both the bag and the conveyor belts.

The fire department’s report did not mention damage estimates.

EDUCATIONAL

Delayed notification adds to damage in school

NEW YORK—A sprinkler in a school that was closed for summer vacation controlled an electrical fire in an aging exhaust fan until firefighters arrived to extinguish it.

The three-story school, which covered an area of 80,000 square feet (7,432 square meters), had concrete block walls, a wooden floor, and wooden roof framing. A wet-pipe sprinkler system provided full coverage, and heat detectors had been installed throughout the building. Neither the detection system nor the suppression system was monitored.

The central station alarm company received a burglar alarm from the school shortly before 2 a.m. and notified building maintenance. By the time someone arrived at the school, discovered the smoke, and called 911 at 2:12 a.m., 20 minutes had passed.

Firefighters arrived five minutes after the call and found the seat of the fire in a boy’s bathroom in the school’s basement, which was full of water from the sprinkler. Investigators determined that a ceiling-mounted electric fan had failed and produced enough heat to ignite the building’s wooden structural framing.

The building, which was valued at $12 million, sustained damage estimated at $900,000. Its contents, which were valued at $750,000, sustained $100,000 in damage.

MANUFACTURING

One man killed, another injured in explosion at oil field

UTAH—A 28-year-old oil field employee was killed when a large metal tank that held water that had been separated from crude oil exploded and landed on top of him. Another employee sustained significant injuries in the explosion.

The incident occurred at a one-acre oil field, which contained a battery of equipment, five metal storage tanks, a heating and separation unit, an electric generator, and a storage shed. The well pump drive engine and the generators were powered by natural gas that was piped to the site, as were the heaters used to heat the crude oil for ease in pumping. Additional monitoring equipment was powered by photovoltaic solar panels.

One of the steel tanks used to store the separated water had an ongoing maintenance issue and the three men were replacing it when it developed a small leak. After the victim, who was a welder, tried unsuccessfully to “wet” weld the hole, the manager of the oil field decided to purge the tank to permit the men to repair the tank properly. The third employee was draining the tank when the explosion occurred, lifting the tank off the ground and dropping it on its side. The victim was found in a pool of crude oil under the tank, fatally burned.

Investigators spoke with the two witnesses and learned that the victim was using a wire wheel hand grinder to prepare the tank site for welding. They concluded that sparks from the grinder or spot welder ignited residual flammable gas in the tank, causing the catastrophic explosion and fire.

The fire department report noted that property damage was $10,000.

Sprinklers partially control fire in manufacturing facility

OHIO—A portion of a sprinkler system protecting a wood pallet manufacturing company failed to operate as designed, causing a section of the facility’s roof to collapse.

The single-story, wood-frame building, which measured 350 feet (107 meters) by 160 feet (49 meters), was protected by a dry-pipe sprinkler system with four risers, only two of which operated during the fire. The system’s water flow was monitored by a central station alarm company.

A neighbor discovered the fire and called the fire department at 12:11 a.m., about the same time that the central station alarm company received the water flow alarm. When firefighters arrived 15 minutes later, they noted light smoke and flames at the windows on one side of the building. The battalion chief, who was aware of the building’s contents, arrived shortly afterward and ordered a defensive operation using elevated streams, hose lines, and support of the sprinkler system.
The fire burned intensely near the rear of the building, causing a portion of the roof to collapse, and eventually involved about 40 percent of the structure. Firefighters were finally able to bring the fire under control some six hours later.

Investigators could not determine why the two risers failed to operate or what started the fire, but they found the point of origin near the section of the partially collapsed wall.

The building, which was valued at $124,500, sustained $20,000 in damage. Its contents, which were valued at $100,000, sustained damage estimated at $15,000. One firefighter suffered an overexertion injury during suppression operations.

The business reopened four days after the fire.

One killed, two injured in flash fire

ARIZONA—A 52-year-old employee suffered fatal burns from a flash fire in a manufacturing plant that produced synthetic wood decking from reclaimed plastic and wood fiber waste. Two other plant employees, ages 48 and 33, suffered burn injuries.

The two-story, steel-frame building, which measured 511 feet (156 meters) by 200 feet (61 meters), was protected by a wet-pipe sprinkler system that was monitored by a central station alarm company. There was no fire detection equipment.

Two plant employees were in the building’s penthouse using a drill to change slide gates above a mixing operation when they saw a small flame through a bolt hole. When they tried to extinguish it with water from a nearby water hose, flames erupted from the mixing unit below and engulfed the two men in a flash fire. They did not realize that the fatally injured employee was also in the penthouse as they fled the fire.

The mixing operation was shut down, and a sprinkler extinguished the fire with minor damage. Investigators believe that water spray from the hose forced the fire from the mixer and ignited dust particles. The flash fire then caused spot fires throughout the penthouse. The cause of the initial fire was listed as undetermined.

The plant, which was valued at $2 million, and its contents, also valued at $2 million, sustained damage estimated at $5,000.

STORAGE

Sprinklers slow warehouse fires involving hazardous materials

UTAH—Sprinklers installed in a warehouse in which hazardous materials were stored activated when the materials ignited, sending a water flow alarm to the fire department at 9:37 a.m. and slowing the spread of fire until responding firefighters extinguished the blaze.

The hazardous materials response team identified the material as an organic peroxide liquid that was supposed to be stored at temperatures 50oF to -4oF (10oC to -20oC) below what is referred to as the “self-accelerating decomposition temperature.” Investigators determined that the temperature control for the material was inadequate.

When the product reached its self-accelerating decomposition temperature, the plastic storage containers ruptured, and the product came into contact with organic materials, which then ignited.

The fire department investigation report did not include an estimate of fire damage to the building or its contents. However, the report did note that the blaze compromised the structure’s cooling system and its fire protection system.

UTILITY

Explosion and fire cause large loss at electric generation plant

MINNESOTA—An electric co-generation plant sustained significant damage after friction caused by metal-to-metal contact in some broken machinery ignited wood chips and sawdust on a conveying system. The chips and sawdust continued to smolder until they came into contact with dust from oat hulls, causing a dust explosion.

The materials were being transported to a storage silo, which was 60 feet (18 meters) high and 36 feet (11 meters) wide. The silo was located next to a ten-story building in which renewable energy was produced through biomass co-generation using oat hulls and wood chips produced during the malting process.

During the production process, wood chips and other materials moved through a disc screener, which had a worn gear head that was known to scrape against the side of the equipment. To prevent the metal-on-metal contact, the plant’s employees had temporarily placed cribbing under the disc screener, which had been scheduled for repairs the next month. Employees checked the cribbing daily to ensure it was still in place.

On the day of the explosion, however, the disc screener came loose and came in contact with the metal equipment, igniting the wood chips and sawdust. The burning material traveled by conveyor into the storage silo, causing a massive dust explosion.

The plant staff called 911 to report the fire and explosion at 12:40 p.m. By the time firefighters extinguished the fire several hours later, the plant and its contents, which together were valued at $20 million, had sustained $6 million in damage.

No one was injured, but residents within a one-mile radius of the plant were advised to shelter in place.

KEN TREMBLAY for NFPA Journal.