NFPA Journal®, July/August 2009
Fire destroys former mill
GEORGIA — A fire destroyed a former textile mill when flames spread to parts of the building in which the sprinkler system had been shut off. The building was primarily used for storage, although there was a 25,000-square-foot (2,323-square-meter) thrift mall on the first floor.
The four-story structure, which covered 750,000 square feet (69,677 square meters), was constructed of heavy timber with large, dimensional lumber, tongue-and-groove floor planking 2 inches (5 centimeters) thick, and a flat roof covered in layers of waterproofing, sealant, and tar. The exterior walls were brick. The building had a wet-pipe sprinkler system supported by an electric fire pump, but only a portion of the system was in service. An occupant notification system with manual pull stations and horn-and-strobe devices had also been installed. Both the sprinkler and alarm systems were monitored by a central station alarm company.
A passerby discovered the fire and called the fire department at 12:20 a.m., about the time the central station company received a waterflow alarm for the building. Firefighters arrived four minutes later, but were unable to slow the spread of the fire, which involved all four floors and eventually led to the collapse of the building’s exterior walls.
Investigators could not determine the fire’s cause or exact origin.
The building, valued at $1.5 million, and its contents, valued at $500,000, were destroyed. No one was injured.
Sprinklers control plant fire
COLORADO — A sprinkler controlled a dryer fire at a one-story plant that manufactured wood pellets used for heating until firefighters managed to extinguish the 30- to 40-foot (9- to 12-meter) flames with large-diameter hose lines.
Arriving fire crews upgraded the response for a structure fire when they saw that the flames from the furnace had ignited insulation on machinery and other combustibles nearby. Once they established a water supply, they used two attack lines and Class A foam to control the blaze.
The fire damaged the furnace and dryer. Dollar estimates were not reported. There were no injuries.
Alternative lighting starts fire
NEW YORK — A man was killed and his wife and another man were severely burned as they tried to light a kerosene lantern that they were using for light. Power to the single-family house had been shut off due to nonpayment. A passing police officer called in the alarm at 6:30 p.m.
The two-story, wood-frame home was 40 feet (12 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide. It had no sprinklers, and investigators could not determine whether there were any smoke alarms.
The house, which was valued at $225,000, and its contents, valued at $30,000, sustained losses of $10,000 and $2,500, respectively.
Electrical fire kills one
KENTUCKY — A 45-year-old man died in his single-family home in a fire that started when a circuit breaker failed to operate in response to overloaded wiring in a wall void. A delay in detection, complicated by a dispatch delay, allowed the fire to progress significantly before firefighters arrived.
The single-story, unsprinklered, wood-frame house was 50 feet (15 meters) long and 20 feet (6 meters) wide. There were smoke alarms in the living room, hallway, and bedroom, but none of them had batteries.
Arriving home after a night out, the man began cooking. The house had had problems with circuit breakers and faulty receptacle outlets, and the victim sometimes used extension cords to connect an electric frying pan and hot plate to working receptacle outlets. At some point, the circuit overloaded, but the overload failed to trip the circuit breaker.
A passerby saw flames coming from the back of the house and called 911 at 6:09 a.m. Because the county in which the fire occurred does not have enhanced 911 capabilities, the call was routed to a state police dispatcher three counties away, and the inexperienced dispatcher had trouble getting the call to the proper department. As a result, there was a nine-minute delay in notifying the fire department.
The passerby tried to enter the house to check for occupants, but when he opened the door, fresh air rushed in, and the fire flashed over. Investigators believe the fire burned for some 30 minutes before the passerby saw it.
Firefighters found the victim’s body in the kitchen between the appliances and the rear wall. He had died of smoke inhalation. Alcohol is believed to have contributed to his death.
The fire destroyed the house and its contents, which officials estimated were worth $46,000.
Sprinklers control fire
NEBRASKA—A single sprinkler controlled a fire in a thirteenth-floor apartment in an assisted-living facility, saving the life of an 84-year-old man who used a wheelchair.
The 14-story, 100-unit residence was constructed of steel with a wood interior. A wet-pipe sprinkler system provided full coverage, as did smoke and heat detectors, all of which were monitored by a central station monitoring service.
The fire started when a malfunctioning heating and air conditioning unit ignited its plastic housing, and the flames spread from the unit to plastic blinds, a clock radio, and a nearby couch. The smoke and heat activated the fire detection and suppression systems, alerting the central station, which notified the fire department at 11:55 a.m.
The alarm system woke the sleeping man, who managed to get into his wheelchair. During his attempt to leave the room, however, he became disoriented and could not find his way out. Responding firefighters found him in his bedroom.
The sprinkler system was credited with limiting property damage to an estimated $60,000.
Smoking fire kills one
IOWA — A man on home oxygen died in his single-story manufactured home in a fire that investigators believe might have been caused by the careless disposal of smoking materials. The home, which was constructed of wood framing on metal framing, had no smoke detectors.
A neighbor alerted authorities to the fire at 1:35 p.m., and firefighters arrived nine minutes later. By that time, the fire had already flashed over. Search and rescue crews found the man in a bathroom and removed him from the home, but he had already suffered fatal injuries. Fire spread from the living room to the kitchen and foyer before firefighters brought it under control.
Investigators determined that the fire started in the living room near a recliner where the man often sat during the day. They found evidence of smoking materials and believe the victim fell asleep while smoking. When he woke to find his chair on fire, he appears to have made his way to the kitchen at the opposite end of the home. Firefighters found the kitchen faucet running and believe he may have been trying to extinguish the fire.
The house, valued at $40,000, and its contents, valued at $10,000, were nearly destroyed. The victim’s age was not reported.
Damaged cord starts fatal fire
NORTH CAROLINA — A 68-year-old woman who used a wheelchair was fatally injured in a fire that began when an electrical cord running under a carpet and a loveseat from her freezer to a receptacle outlet ignited the carpet.
The one-story, single-family, wood-frame house was 40 feet (12 meters) long and 24 feet (7 meters) wide. Although the fire department said that it had installed a smoke alarm for the woman just a month before the fire, the alarm could not be located during the subsequent investigation. The house had no sprinklers.
A neighbor called 911 to report the fire at 9:46 p.m., but confusion as to the exact address caused some delay. When firefighters arrived at the scene, they found smoke and flames coming from one of the doors and noted that the interior was heavily involved. Firefighters had to extinguish the fire before they could reach the victim, who was taken to the hospital where she succumbed to smoke inhalation.
Investigators determined that the electrical cord had been damaged over time, finally creating enough heat to ignite the carpet and other combustibles in the living room.
The fire did an estimated $15,000 damage to the building, valued at $30,000, and $7,000 to its contents, valued at $22,000.
Heat from outlet starts fire
FLORIDA — A 52-year-old man died of smoke inhalation in a fire that began in or near an electrical receptacle outlet in his second-floor apartment in what was basically a single-family home.
The two-story, wood-frame apartment building, which covered 2,863 square feet (266 square meters), had concrete block walls and an asphalt shingle roof. The first-floor unit had smoke alarms, but investigators could not determine if there were any alarms in the second-floor unit. The building had no sprinklers.
The fire was discovered by the occupant of the first-floor apartment, who heard a noise coming from upstairs and went to investigate. When she opened the door to the second-floor apartment, she immediately noticed flames along the bottom of the wall and saw smoke filling the kitchen opposite the door. She called 911, and responding firefighters extinguished the fire and discovered the body of the victim.
Investigators believe that the fire started near the receptacle outlet into which a wall-mounted air conditioner was plugged. The fire ignited the wall’s wood framing, filling the apartment with smoke.
Damage to the building, valued at $163,000, was estimated at $32,000. Damage to its contents, valued at $30,000, was estimated at $10,000.
Kitchen fire kills man
INDIANA — A 74-year-old man died of smoke inhalation when a pan of grease he had left heating unattended on the stove ignited. The fire spread through the first-floor apartment’s kitchen, across the ceiling, and into the dining room before firefighters brought it under control.
The unsprinklered, wood-frame apartment building, which covered 5,000 square feet (465 square meters), had a roof covered with asphalt shingles. Firefighters found a smoke alarm on a night stand in the victim’s bedroom, but it was below the smoke line. The fire was detected by a second-floor occupant who called 911.
After the blaze was extinguished, investigators found three cast-iron skillets on the apartment’s electric stove; one with grease in it had been placed on a burner whose control knob was in the ‘on’ position. After the grease in it ignited, flames spread into a vent hood and to other areas of the kitchen. The fire then spread across the ceiling to other rooms in the apartment.
The building, which was valued at $500,000, and its contents, valued at $200,000, sustained property damage estimated at $50,000 and $10,000, respectively.
House fire kills woman
LOUISIANA — A 33-year-old woman who used a wheelchair died as the result of a fire investigators believe was caused by improper electrical wiring. Her single-story, wood-frame house, which was 41 feet (12 meters) long and 25 feet (8 meters) wide, had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
A neighbor discovered the fire and called 911 to report it at roughly 3:25 a.m. He then pushed in a window air conditioner and rescued a nine-year-old girl. Another window was blocked by a headboard. Firefighters arrived four minutes later and found the woman during their suppression operations. They transported her and the child to the hospital, where she died of smoke inhalation. The fire was declared under control about 90 minutes later.
Investigators determined that improper wiring in a receptacle outlet in the living room overheated and ignited nearby combustibles. The fire then spread throughout the house.
Damage to the home, valued at $55,000, was estimated at $35,000. Its contents, which were valued at $15,000, were destroyed.
House fire kills four
SOUTH DAKOTA — Three children and their 61-year-old grandmother died in their beds when an early-morning fire swept through their single-family house.
The one-and-a-half-story, wood-frame house, which was 106 feet (32 meters) long and 47 feet (14 meters) wide, had no smoke alarms and was not sprinklered.
Firefighters responding to a 3:09 a.m. call saw flames coming from the home when they were about a half mile (0.8 kilometers) away and called for additional resources. When crews arrived, the house was almost fully involved, and firefighters, facing a lack of water supply and some access issues, initiated defensive attack. A tanker shuttle was started to the nearest hydrant a half mile (0.8 kilometers) away, and hose lines were positioned around the house until the flames were knocked down.
Firefighters found the bodies of a nine-year-old girl, a four-year-old boy, and a 23-month-old girl on their beds in the basement. They also found the body of the children’s grandmother on her bed upstairs. A 17-year-old who was sleeping in the basement escaped up the stairs with another child when he awoke to find the room filled with smoke, but heat and smoke prevented further rescue attempts.
Investigators stated the fire started in the basement but could not determine the cause.
The fire destroyed the house, valued at $300,000, and its contents, valued at $50,000.
Power strip starts fatal fire
IOWA — An 86-year-old man and a 58-year-old woman died of smoke inhalation in a fire that started in an overloaded power strip in their home.
The one-story, wood-frame house, which was 45 feet (14 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide, had a smoke alarm, but it hadn’t been installed. Firefighters found it operating on the floor under the dining room table. There were no sprinklers.
A passerby noticed the fire and alerted the fire department at 6:15 a.m. Soon after firefighters arrived, they found one victim by the front door and the other by the rear door. Both were declared dead at the scene.
In the room of origin, investigators found a power strip into which two transformers and several electrical cords were plugged. Blankets and other materials piled on the power strip prevented the heat it produced from dissipating. Eventually, the power strip produced enough heat to ignite the combustibles.
Damage to the house, valued at $150,000, was estimated at $100,000. Its contents, which were valued at $75,000, were destroyed.
Sprinkler extinguishes fire
TEXAS — A sprinkler extinguished a fire started by a candle that had been left burning unattended for most of the day in a gift shop in a historic downtown section.
The two-story, wood-frame building, which was 300 feet (91 meters) long and 100 feet (30 meters) wide, had a brick exterior and a flat, wooden roof covered with a built-up roof surface. It had a wet-pipe sprinkler system, but there was no fire detection equipment.
An occupant of an adjacent store smelled smoke and called the fire department at 5 p.m. Responding firefighters forced their way into the gift shop, which was closed at the time, and discovered a sprinkler operating over burned cardboard boxes full of combustible goods on the floor of a grade-level storage room.
Investigators discovered that a candle in a glass jar, which had been lit 22 hours before the fire and placed on a glass shelf above the boxes, had fallen into one of the boxes when the glass jar or the shelf failed. Once the box ignited, the sprinkler activated and extinguished the blaze.
The building, valued at $2.5 million, sustained $1,000 in property damage. Its contents, valued at $50,000, sustained an estimated loss of $5,000.
Sprinklers control fire in store
ILLINOIS — A fire that began in a retail display containing cigarette lighters, lighter fluid, and other combustibles intensified when the plastic containers of lighter fluid ruptured and created four thermal plumes that activated five sprinklers, giving occupants time to evacuate as smoke filled the store.
The single-story, steel-frame store, which was 100 feet (30 meters) long and 140 feet (43 meters) wide, had concrete block walls covered with a brick veneer; a flat, built-up roof; and a 20-foot (6-meter) ceiling. The building had a wet-pipe sprinkler system and a fire detection system.
Store employees called 911 to report the fire at 5:30 p.m., and the fire department received suppression and detection system notifications shortly afterward. Arriving firefighters found the building, which had already been evacuated, heavily charged with smoke and advanced a 1 3/4-inch hose line into the structure. Once inside, they found that sprinklers had already extinguished the blaze.
Investigators were unable to determine how the fire started, but they discovered the point of ignition near the flammable and combustible items in the display case.
The building, valued at $4 million, and its contents, valued at $3 million, sustained damage estimated at $15,000 and $100,000, respectively. There were no injuries.
Vehicle fire destroys hangar
MINNESOTA — After trying unsuccessfully to extinguish with some articles of clothing a fire in a truck parked in an airplane hangar, a man finally called the fire department at 11:45 p.m. The one-story, steel-frame hangar, which was 400 feet (122 meters) long and 40 feet (12 meters) wide, had neither fire suppression nor detection equipment.
After firefighters extinguished the blaze, investigators discovered that the vehicle had backfired just before the fire started. However, information on how or what ignited first was not recorded in the fire department report.
The fire destroyed the hangar, valued at $100,000. Damage to its contents, the value of which was not reported, is estimated at $400,000.
Fire damages dock, boats
ARKANSAS — A fire started by an explosion on a boat spread to adjacent boats and the covered dock to which they were moored, sending flames up to the dock’s steel-and-metal roof.
The fire was reported around 2 a.m., but a communication failure at the emergency communications center prevented the dispatcher from using pagers and radios during the fire. This, in turn, led to delays in notifying volunteer firefighters, fire companies, and law enforcement officials. Fire commanders had to use cell phones to muster firefighters and call for resources. Only the tactical radio channel could be used.
When the incident commander arrived, he found every boat at the 206-foot (63-meter) long, 76-foot (23-meter) wide dock ablaze, except two sailboats at the far end. Fire boat crews played water streams on these two boats, boarded them, and cut the dock lines, allowing them to float to safety in the lake.
Firefighters, who finally brought the fire under control with deck guns and large-diameter hose lines, used containment booms to limit pollution.
Sprinkler controls fire in school
CONNECTICUT—Firefighters responding to an automatic fire alarm at an unoccupied high school found a single sprinkler holding a fire in the elevator machine room in check.
The three-story, steel-frame building, which covered nearly 100,000 square feet (9,290 square meters) per floor, had concrete block walls and a metal-deck roof covered with a built-up surface. A wet-pipe sprinkler system and a fire detection system were monitored by a central station alarm company.
Firefighters didn’t see anything as they walked through the first floor, but when they entered the basement, they discovered smoke filling the corridor leading to the custodian’s office. They laid a hose line and entered the office, where they found the elevator machine room door propped open and a single sprinkler holding in check a fire that was consuming cable insulation, wiring, and hydraulic fluid. The blaze was quickly extinguished.
Investigators discovered that a motor and pulley assembly in the elevator had seized, generating enough energy to ignite the cable insulation and the contents of the machine room. Becuase the door to the room was propped open, smoke flowed into the custodian’s office and through a ventilation shaft to the rest of the building.
Property damage to the building was estimated at $75,000 and to its contents at $81,000. Fortunately, the school was closed for the weekend.
Torch ignites fatal fire
CALIFORNIA — One person died and five others were injured when an oxygen and acetylene cutting torch used to open a metal drum containing an unidentified hydrocarbon ignited the hydrocarbon vapors, causing a flash fire. The incident occurred in a one-story, tube-framed farm workshop covered in plywood.
The building and its contents, valued at $2,500, sustained $1,500 in damage. The victim died at the hospital of his injuries.
Fire in trailer kills one
VIRGINIA — A 21-year-old man died in an early-morning fire in a 53-foot (16-meter) metal trailer that had been parked with several others against the loading dock of a large retailer at a mall. The retailer used the trailers, the interiors of which were covered in plywood, to store metal display racks.
Mall security discovered the fire at 3:05 a.m. and alerted the fire department. Arriving firefighters found flames venting from the roof of the trailer of origin and spreading to another trailer and the loading dock.
As crews placed hose lines between the burning trailers and the exposed loading dock, other firefighters entered the trailers and store. When the flames reached the loading dock overhang and began to spread into the mall, the store’s sprinklers activated, confining the blaze to the loading dock.
Crews found the body of the victim in the trailer of origin. Investigators determined that he had been smoking in the trailer when he fell asleep and that the cigarette ignited the trailer’s contents. He died of smoke and carbon monoxide inhalation. Alcohol intoxication was cited as contributing to his death.
The building and its contents, which were valued at more than $12 million, sustained approximately $800,000 worth of damage.