Author(s): Hylton Haynes. Published on September 1, 2017.

Fire Loss in the United States During 2016

More than 1.3 million fires were reported by fire departments in 2016, resulting in an estimated 3,390 civilian deaths—the highest number of fatalities since 2008.

BY HYLTON HAYNES

Every year, NFPA surveys a sample of United States public fire departments in order to project national estimates of the U.S. fire problem.

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By the Numbers
An overview of the 2016 U.S. fire experience

Based upon the data from our 2016 National Fire Experience Survey, we estimate that public fire departments in the U.S. responded to 1,342,000 fires last year, a decrease of 0.3 percent from 2015.

Of these fires, an estimated 475,500 were structure fires, 5.2 percent fewer than the year before and the lowest since NFPA began collecting this data in 1977. The number of structure fires has trended downward over the past 40 years, falling from a peak of 1,098,000 in 1977. From 1998 to 2008, the number of structure fires fluctuated between 505,000 and 530,500 annually before decreasing to 480,500 in 2009. Since then, estimates have ranged between 475,500 and 501,500 structure fires per year.

We categorize structure fires as residential and nonresidential. Residential properties include one- and two-family homes, including manufactured homes, apartments or other multi-family housing, hotels and motels, dormitories, and boarding houses. “Home” encompasses one- or two-family homes, including manufactured housing, and apartments or other multi-family homes. Homes are much less regulated than other residential properties. Non-residential structure properties include public assembly, schools and colleges, health care and correctional institutions, stores and offices, industrial facilities, storage facilities, and other structures such as outbuildings and bridges.

In 2016, there were 371,500 residential structure fires, accounting for 78.1 percent of all structure fires, a decrease of 16,500 fires from 2015. Of these fires, 257,000 occurred in one- and two-family homes, accounting for 54 percent of all structure fires. Another 95,000 fires occurred in apartments, for 20 percent of the structure fire total. The total number of home fires for 2016 was 352,000. There were also 104,000 nonresidential structure fires in 2016, a decrease of 8.4 percent from 2015.

Firefighters battle a blaze at a commercial storage yard in Utah.

Firefighters battle a blaze at a commercial storage yard in Utah. In 2016, 88,000 outside fires involving property of value occurred nationwide. Photograph: Ravell Call/The Deseret News via AP

The 662,500 outside fires or other non-structure, non-vehicle fires accounted for almost half (49.3 percent) of all reported fires. These included 298,500 brush, grass, and forest fires (22.2 percent of total fires); 172,000 outside rubbish fires (12.8 percent of total fires); 88,000 outside fires involving property of value (6.6 percent); and 104,000 (7.7 percent of total fires) other non-structure, non-vehicle fires.

From 2015 to 2016, outside or other fires increased 3.6 percent. Outside and other fires peaked in 1977 at 1,658,500. The number of such fires then decreased steadily, to 1,011,000 in 1983, and remained relatively flat through the 1980s. By 1993, the number of outside fires dropped to 910,500 and remained near the 1 million level for the next three years. In 2013, outside and other fires dropped to a record low of 564,500, the only year these fires have dropped below 600,000. From 2015 to 2016, brush, grass, or forest fires increased 0.5 percent; outside rubbish fires increased 5.5 percent; fires involving property of value increased by 15.8 percent; and other non-structure, non-vehicle fires increased .5 percent.

In addition to residential, nonresidential, and outside fires, there were an estimated 173,000 highway vehicle fires in 2016, a decrease of 0.6 percent from the year before, and 31,000 other vehicle fires, an increase of 1.6 percent.

CIVILIAN FIRE DEATHS

The 1,342,000 fires reported by fire departments in 2016 resulted in an estimated 3,390 civilian deaths, an increase of 3.4 percent over the 2015 civilian death toll and the highest number of deaths since 2007, when 3,430 civilians died in fires. We can better understand the nature of this increase by examining the types of properties where the deaths occurred.

The 352,000 home structure fires (which includes one- and two-family homes and apartments) caused 2,735 civilian deaths, an increase of 6.8 percent from 2015. This includes 2,410 deaths (71 percent of the total number of civilian deaths) in one- and two-family homes and 325 in apartments or other multi-family housing, including condominiums. Deaths in one-or two-family homes increased by 11.8 percent, while apartment deaths actually decreased by 19.8 percent from 2015. Eighty-one percent of civilian fire deaths resulted from home fires.

Home fire deaths were at their peak in 1978, when 6,015 people died in such fires. The number has trended downwards until recent years, with fewer than 5,000 annual deaths since 1982, and less than 4,000 deaths since 1991, with the exception of 1996. Since 2006, home fire deaths have remained below 3,000 per year.

Overall, home fire deaths over the period 1977 to 2016 declined from 5,865 to 2,735, a drop of 53.4 percent. The number of home fires also dropped steadily over the same period for an overall decrease of 51.3 percent. However, the death rate per 1,000 home fires fluctuated considerably during that period, from 8.1 in 1977 to a high of 9.7 in 1996 and a low of 6.5 in 2006. The death rate per 1,000 home fires was 7.8 in 2016, for an overall decrease during that period of 4.9 percent. This suggests that, while the number of reported home fires and home fire deaths both declined during the period, the fire death rate risk has remained relatively unchanged. That is, given a fire serious enough to report to the fire department, the risk of dying in that fire has not decreased significantly over the past 40 years.

In 2016, there were also 65 civilian fire deaths in other residential occupancies, such as hotels, motels, dormitories, and boarding houses, for an increase of 44.4 percent compared to 2015. In addition, 150 civilians died in nonresidential structure fires, an increase of 87.5 percent from the year before. This increase is due in large part to a fire in a warehouse in Oakland, California, known as the Ghost Ship, where 36 civilians died. Although classified as a warehouse, this property was being used as a dwelling that defies easy occupancy classification.

Of the 2,950 civilian deaths in structure fires, 310 (10.5 percent) died in fires that were intentionally set.

With 2,735 home fire deaths accounting for 80.7 percent of all civilian fire deaths, fire-safety initiatives targeted at the home remain the key to any reductions in the overall fire death toll. There are five major strategies for reducing the death toll in home fires. First, more widespread public fire safety education is needed on how to prevent fires and how to avoid serious injury or death if a fire occurs. Information on the common causes of fatal home fires should be used in the design of fire safety education messages. Second, people need to install and maintain smoke alarms and develop and practice escape plans. Third, wider use of residential sprinklers must be aggressively pursued. Fourth, additional ways must be sought to make home products safer from fire. The regulations requiring more child-resistant lighters are a good example, as are fire-safe cigarettes. Finally, the special fire safety needs of high-risk groups such as African-American children, older adults, the poor, and people with disabilities need to be addressed. As indicated above, there has been significant success in reducing the number of reported home fires, but once a serious fire starts, deaths are almost as likely to occur in a home fire as they were 40 years ago.

In the highway vehicle fires category, the number of civilian deaths fell from an estimated 445 in 2015 to an estimated 280 in 2016. These numbers exclude deaths due to trauma if the fire was not a factor in the death. Between 1980 and 2009, the number of highway vehicle deaths decreased by 60 percent. Since a low of an estimated 260 deaths in 2009, the number of deaths from highway vehicle fires increased 71.2 percent by 2015. The median number of vehicle deaths over the last decade is 300. The number of deaths in 2016 represents a 6.7 percent decrease compared to this median estimate.

CIVILIAN FIRE INJURIES

In addition to the 3,390 civilians who died in fires in 2016, there were an estimated 14,660 civilian fire injuries. This is a decrease of 6.6 percent from 2015 and is the lowest since 1977. Since civilian fire injuries are not always reported to the fire service, estimates of civilian fire injuries may be lower than actual levels. For example, many injuries occur at small fires to which fire departments do not respond, and even when fire departments do respond, they may be unaware of injured persons they did not transport to medical facilities themselves.

Of the 14,660 civilians injured in 2016, we estimate that 12,775 civilians were injured in structure fires, and of those, that 10,750 were injured in home structure fires, a decrease of 2.9 percent from the previous year. Of these injuries, 7,375 occurred in one- and two-family homes and manufactured homes, and 3,375 occurred in apartments. An additional 1,650 civilians were injured in nonresidential structure fires in 2016, an increase of 15.8 percent from the year before. Additionally, 1,075 civilians were injured in highway vehicle fires, a 30.6 percent decrease from 2015. Other vehicle fires (including airplanes, trains, ships, construction vehicles, and farm vehicles) represent a decrease of 53.8 percent from 2015.

Between 1977 and 2016, the number of civilian injuries ranged from a peak of 31,325 in 1979 to a low of 14,660 in 2016, a decrease of 53.2 percent. Since 1997, civilian injuries have remained below 35,000 per year, below 19,000 since 2002, and below 16,000 since 2013.

PROPERTY LOSS

NFPA estimates that the 1,342,000 fires to which the fire service responded in 2016 caused $10.6 billion in property damage, a decrease of 25.7 percent compared to 2015. It is worth noting that a major wildfire in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in 2016 caused $911 million in direct property damage. The direct property loss from this wildfire was unprecedented for the eastern U.S., and something local authorities need to pay attention to into the future.

Fires in structures not related to wildfires resulted in $7.9 billion in property damage, a decrease of 23.2 percent from 2015. Each structure fire resulted in an average property loss of $16,610, a decrease of 19 percent from the previous year. From 1977 to 2016, excluding the events of September 11, 2001, the average loss per structure fire was $3,757 in 1977 and $16,610 in 2016, for an overall increase of 342 percent. When property loss is adjusted for inflation in 2016 dollars, however, the increase in the average structure fire loss between 1977 and 2016 is 12.1 percent.

Firefighters at the scene at a lumberyard in Pennsylvania.

Firefighters at the scene of a fire at a lumberyard in Pennsylvania. An estimated $10.6 billion in property damage occurred as a result of fires in the U.S. in 2016. Photograph: Sean Simmers/PennLive.com via AP

Of the 2016 property loss in structures, $5.7 billion occurred in home structures, a decrease of 18.8 percent from 2015. An estimated $4.9 billion of this loss occurred in one- and two-family homes, a decrease of 14.8 percent. An estimated loss of $711 million occurred in apartments or other multifamily housing including condominiums. While apartment property loss decrease by 38.8 percent, from the previous year, the number of fires in apartments remained unchanged from 2015.

Other property damage results for 2016 include $436 million in store and office properties, a decrease of 31.3 percent; $419 million in industrial and manufacturing properties, a 54.7 percent decrease; $933 million in highway vehicles, a 24.6 percent decrease; and $423 million in other vehicles, a 26.9 percent decrease. There was a 200 percent increase in other structure properties, to $195 million, partly due to three major fires in Arizona—one in Phoenix and two in the town of Gilbert, part of the Phoenix metropolitan area. The Phoenix fire and one of the Gilbert fires occurred on construction sites that were structures other than buildings under construction; the second Gilbert fire involved a building structure under construction.

It should be kept in mind that property loss totals can change significantly from year to year due to the impact of occasional large-loss fires. NFPA provides an annual analysis of such fires in the November/December issue of the NFPA Journal.

INTENTIONALLY SET FIRES

NFPA estimates 20,000 structure fires were intentionally set in 2016, a decrease of 13 percent from the year before. These fires resulted in an estimated 310 civilian deaths, an increase of 51.2 percent from the previous year. These fires resulted in $473 million in property loss, an increase of 2.8 percent compared to 2015.

In 2016, there were also an estimated 9,500 intentionally set vehicle fires, a drop of 5 percent compared to the year before. These fires resulted in $40 million in property loss, a decrease of 45.9 percent from 2015.

Emergency Personnel at the scene of a fatal apartment building fire in Maryland.

Emergency personnel at the scene of a fatal apartment building fire in Maryland. In 2016, 74 percent of all reported structure fires occurred in homes. Photograph: AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File

Estimates of intentionally set fires do not include allocation of fires whose causes were unknown or unreported.

DESCRIPTION OF THE NFPA SURVEY & ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

NFPA annually surveys a sample of U.S. public fire departments, stratified by the size of the communities they protect, to project national estimates of the fire problem. All public fire departments that have fire response and reporting responsibilities and protect communities of 5,000 or more are included in the sample. For departments that protect populations less than 5,000, a sample is selected and stratified by the size of the community protected. A total of 2,769 fire departments responded to the 2016 fire experience survey.

Our national projections are made by weighting the sample results according to the proportion of the total U.S. population accounted for by communities of each size. Point estimates are presented in this article, and there is a range associated with each estimate.

The data and information included in the full U.S. Fire Loss report are only part of the fire loss picture. A more detailed and complete report on the overall patterns and trends of 2016, available from NFPA’s Research, Data and Analytics Division, includes patterns by region and size of community, as well as a more complete description of survey methodology. The full report, including additional information like the number of fire department responses by type of call, is available online.

These results are based only on fires attended by public fire departments. No adjustments were made for unreported fires and losses, such as might occur when an occupant extinguishes the fire. Nor were adjustments made for fires attended solely by private fire brigades such as those at industrial and military installation fires, or for fires extinguished by fixed suppression systems to which no fire department responded.

NFPA is grateful to the many fire departments that responded to the 2016 National Fire Experience Survey for their continuing efforts to provide the data necessary to make national projections. The author would also like to thank the members of NFPA staff who worked on this year’s survey, including Steve Belski, Frank Deely, and Jay Petrillo for editing the survey forms and making follow-up calls to fire departments, and Helen Columbo for processing the survey forms.

HYLTON HAYNES, MS, MBA, is a senior research analyst in the Research, Data and Analytics Division at NFPA. Top Photograph: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images