NFPA Reports: U.S. Fire Loss for 2007
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2008
By Michael J. Karter, Jr.
In 2007, public fire departments responded to 1,557,500 fires in the United States, according to estimates based on data the NFPA received from fire departments responding to its 2007 National Fire Experience Survey. This represents a decrease of 5.2 percent from the year before, and is the lowest total since 2004, when fire departments responded to 1,550,500 fires.
OVERVIEW OF 2007 U.S. FIRE EXPERIENCE
Number of Fires
• 1,557,500 fires were attended by public fire departments, a decrease of 5.2 percent from the year before. • 530,500 fires occurred in structures, an increase of 1.2 percent.
• 414,000 fires or 78 percent of all structure fires occurred in residential properties.
• 258,000 fires occurred in vehicles, a decrease of 7.2 percent from the year before.
• 769,000 fires occurred in outside properties, a decrease of 8.5 percent.
What do these fire frequencies above mean? Every 20 seconds, a fire department responds to a fire somewhere in the nation. A fire occurs in a structure at the rate of one every 59 seconds, and, in particular, a residential fire occurs every 76 seconds. Fires occur in vehicles at the rate of 1 every 122 seconds, and there’s a fire in an outside property every 41 seconds.
Civilian Fire Deaths
• 3,430 civilian fire deaths occurred in 2007, an increase of 5.7 percent. • About 84 percent of all fire deaths occurred in the home.
• 2,865 civilian fire deaths occurred in the home, an increase of 11.0 percent.
• 365 civilians died in highway vehicle fires.
• 105 civilians died in nonresidential structure fires.
• Nationwide, there was a civilian fire death every 153 minutes.
Civilian Fire Injuries
• 17,675 civilian fire injuries occurred in 2007, an increase of 7.8 percent. This estimate for civilian injuries is on the low side, due to under-reporting of civilian injuries to the fire service. • 14,000 of all civilian injuries occurred in residential properties, while 1,350 occurred in nonresidential structure fires.
• Nationwide, there was a civilian fire injury every 30 minutes.
• An estimated $14,639,000,000 in property damage occurred as a result of fire in 2007, a highly significant increase of 29.5 percent from last year. This total figure includes the California Fire Storm of 2007 with an estimated property damage of $1,800,000,000. Excluding the California Fire Storm, total property loss still increased a significant 13.5 percent.
• $10,638,000,000 of property damage occurred in structure fires, excluding structures associated with the California Fire Storm.
• $7,546,000,000 of property loss occurred in residential properties.
Intentionally Set Fires
• An estimated 32,500 intentionally set structure fires occurred in 2007, an increase of 4.8 percent.
• Intentionally set fires in structures resulted in 295 civilian deaths, a decrease of 3.3 percent.
• Intentionally set structure fires also resulted in $733,000,000 in property loss, a decrease of 2.9 percent. • 20,500 intentionally set vehicle fires occurred, which is no change from a year ago, and caused $145,000,000 in property damage, an increase of 8.2 percent from the year before.
There was an estimated 530,500 structure fires reported to fire departments in 2007, a slight increase of 1.2 percent. For the 1977–2007 period, 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 quite steadily, particularly in the 1980s to 688,000 by the end of 1989 for an overall decrease of 37.3 percent from 1977. Since 1989, the number of structure fires again decreased quite steadily by 24.7 percent to 517,500 by the end of 1998. They stayed in the 505,000 to 530,500 range from 1999 to 2007.
Of the structure fires, 414,000 were residential fires, accounting for 78.0 percent of all structure fires, and a very slight increase of 0.4 percent from the year before. Of the residential structure fires, 300,500 occurred in one- and two-family dwellings, accounting for 56.6 percent of all structure fires. Another 98,500 occurred in apartments, accounting for 18.6 percent of all structure fires and an increase of 7.7 percent from the year before.
For nonresidential structure fires, many property types changed little in 2007, though notable changes occurred in several property types: there was an increase of 7.5 percent in stores and office properties to 21,500; an increase of 7.4 percent in public assembly properties to 14,500; an increase of 6.5 percent in special properties to 24,500; and a decrease of 6.7 percent in institutional properties to 7,000.
For the 1977–2007 period, the number of outside fires was at its high in 1977 when 1,658,500 outside fires occurred. The number of outside fires decreased steadily over the next six years to 1,011,000 in 1983 for a considerable decrease of 39.0 percent from 1977. Outside fires changed little for the rest of the 1980s, except in 1988 when 1,214,000 occurred. The number of outside fires dropped to 910,500 in 1993 and stayed near the 1,000,000 level the next three years. Since 1997, the number of outside fires stayed in the 839,000 to 861,500 range except in 1999, when it jumped to 931,500, and during the 2003–2005 and 2007 period, when it was in the 727,500 to 801,000 range.
In 2007, there were 769,000 outside fires, a decrease of 8.5 percent, the lowest since 2004. In particular, brush fires decreased 14.5 percent to 355,000.
Civilian fire deaths
The 1,557,500 fires reported by fire departments in the United States in 2007 resulted in an estimated 3,430 civilian deaths based on data reported to the NFPA. This is an increase of 5.7 percent from the year before. The nature of the increase is better understood when results are examined by property type.
An estimated 2,895 civilians died in residential fires in 2007, an increase of 10.5 percent. Of these deaths, 515 occurred in apartment fires, an increase of 21.2 percent, which is similar to the 2004 figure. Another 2,350 civilians died in one- and two-family dwelling fires, an increase of 9.1 percent.
In all, fires in the home, which is defined as one-and two-family dwellings including manufactured homes and apartments, resulted in 2,865 civilian deaths, an increase of 11.0 percent from the year before, the third lowest since 1977. Looking at trends in civilian deaths since 1977-19781, several observations are worth noting . Home fire deaths were at their peak in 1978 when 6,015 fire deaths occurred. Home fire deaths then decreased steadily during the 1979–1982 period except in 1981, and decreased a substantial 20 percent during that period to 4,820 by the end of 1982. From 1982 to 1988, the number of home fire deaths stayed quite level in the 4,655 to 4,955 range, except in 1984 when 4,075 fire deaths occurred. From 1989 to 1996, home fire deaths continued to decline and stayed in the 3,425 to 4,335 range. From 1997 onward, home fire deaths have generally continued to decline, with the number of deaths staying in the 2,580 to 3,110 range since 2001.
With home fires still accounting for 2,865 fire deaths or 84 percent of all civilian deaths, fire-safety initiatives targeted at the home remain the key to any reductions in the overall fire death toll. Five major strategies can help. First, more widespread public fire-safety education that teaches how to prevent fires and how to avoid serious injury or death if fire occurs is needed.
Information on the common causes of fatal home fires should continue to be included in fire-safety education messages. Second, more people must use and maintain smoke detectors 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 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. Fifth, the special fire-safety needs of high-risk groups, such as the young, older adults, and the poor, need to be addressed. 2, 3
A total of 105 civilians also died in nonresidential structure fires in 2007, an increase of 23.5 percent.
Of the 3,000 civilians that died in structure fires, 295 or 9.8 percent, died in fires that were deliberately set.
Turning to transportation, 365 civilians died in highway vehicle fires, a decrease of 18.0 percent, the lowest it has been since NFPA started using its current survey methodology in 1977–1978.
Civilian fire injuries
Results based on data reported to NFPA indicate that, in addition to 3,430 civilian fire deaths, there were 17,675 civilian fire injuries in 2007. This represents an increase of 7.8 percent from the year before, and is similar to 2004–2005 levels.
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 that fire departments do not respond to, and at those they do, they may be unaware of injured persons that they did not transport to medical facilities.
NFPA estimates that 14,000 civilians were injured in residential properties, an increase of 8.3 percent. Of these injuries, 9,650 occurred in one- and two-family dwellings and 3,950 occurred in apartments. There were also 1,350 civilians injured in nonresidential structures in 2007.
For the 1977–2007 period, the number of civilian injuries ranged from a high of 31,275 in 1983 to a low of 16,400 in 2006 for an overall decrease of 48 percent. There was no consistent pattern up or down until 1995, when injuries fell by roughly 5,000 in 1994–1995 to 25,775. The number changed little in 1996, dropped 8 percent to 23,750 in 1997, changed little in 1998, dropped 5 percent in 1999, increased slightly in 2000, dropped 26 percent in 2001–2006 to 16,400 by the end of 2006, and increased to 17,675 in 2007.
NFPA estimates that the 1,557,500 fires the fire service responded to in 2007 caused $14,639,000,000. This is a significant increase of 29.5 percent from the year before. This total figure includes the California Fire Storm in 2007, which resulted in an estimated total property loss of $1,800,000,000. Loss information by specific property type for this fire was not available and is not included for results by property type in this report. Excluding the California Fire Storm, total property loss still increased a significant 13.5 percent from the year before.
Fires in structures resulted in $10,638,000,000 in damage, an increase of 10.4 percent. The average loss per structure fire was $20,053, an increase of 9.2 percent.
Over the 1977–2007 period, and excluding the events of 9/11, the average loss per structure fire ranged from a low of $3,757 to a high of $20,053 in 2007, for an overall increase of 433 percent. When property loss is adjusted for inflation, the increase in the average structure fire loss between 1977 and 2007 is 56 percent.
Of the property loss in structure fires, $7,546,000,000 occurred in residential properties, an increase of 8.0 percent. An estimated $6,225,000,000 occurred in one- and two-family dwellings, an increase of 4.9 percent. An estimated $1,164,000,000 also occurred in apartments.
Other property damage figures worth noting for 2007 include $362,000,000 in special structures, an increase of 156.7 percent; $779,000,000 in industrial properties, an increase of 36.0 percent; $498,000,000 in public assembly properties, an increase of 12.2
percent; and $707,000,000 in fires outside structures with value involved, an increase of 170.0 percent. This last amount includes three wildfires.
It should be kept in mind that property loss totals can change dramatically from year to year because of the impact of occasional large-loss fires. NFPA provides an analysis of these large-loss fires every year in the November/December issue of NFPA Journal.
Intentionally set fires
Based on data reported by fire departments in the survey, NFPA estimates there were 32,500 intentionally set structure fires in 2007, an increase of 4.8 percent from the year before (see Table 5). Note that the NFPA survey is based on the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) 5.0 system. This new system has a category for intentionally set fires that is equivalent to the old “incendiary” category. There is no new equivalent to the old “suspicious” category, which has been eliminated.
These intentionally set structure fires resulted in an estimated 295 civilian deaths, a decrease of 3.3 percent. These set structure fires also resulted in $733,000,000 in property loss, a decrease of 2.9 percent.
There were also an estimated 20,500 intentionally set vehicle fires in 2007, no change from the year before. These set vehicle fires resulted in $145,000,000, in property loss, an increase of 8.2 percent.
The data and information included in this report are only part of the fire loss picture.
Description of NFPA survey
NFPA annually 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 the fire department protects. 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 with a large share of the total population protected. For departments that protect populations of less than 50,000, the sample selected was stratified by size of community protected.
A total of 2,742 fire departments responded to the 2007 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, a sampling or standard error was also calculated. 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 the percentage noted in parentheses for each overall fire loss estimate: number of fires (1.5 percent), number of civilian deaths (9.9 percent), number of civilian injuries (5.0 percent), and property loss (2.0 percent).
The results presented in this report 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., No adjustments were made for fires attended solely by private fire brigades, such as those at industry and military installations, or for fires extinguished by fixed suppression systems with no fire department response, either.
Note that NFPA changed its survey methodology in 1977-1978, and meaningful comparisons cannot be made with fire statistics estimated before 1977.
John R. Hall, Jr., Characteristics of Home Fire Victims Including Age and Sex, Quincy, National Fire Protection Association, Fire Analysis and Research Division, July 2005.
Rita F. Fahy and Alison L. Miller, “How Being Poor Affects Fire Risk,” Fire Journal, Vol. 83, No. 1 (January 1989), p. 28.
The NFPA gratefully thanks the many fire departments that responded to the 2007 National Fire Experience Survey for their continuing efforts for providing us in a timely manner the data so necessary to make national projections.
The survey project manager and author of the report gratefully thanks the many members of NFPA staff who worked on this year’s survey including Frank Deely, John Baldi, and John Conlon for editing the survey forms and their follow-up calls to fire departments; and Norma Candeloro for handling the processing of survey forms and typing this report.
Michael J. Karter, JR. is a senior statistician with NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division.