NFPA Journal®, March/April 2009
Modular home destroyed by fast-moving fire
MASSACHUSETTS — A family of four escaped from their burning single-family home before the smoke alarms activated. The fire, which started on the outside of their new modular house, spread along the vinyl siding to the roof of the porch and through a soffit to the attic.
The two-story, wood-frame house consisted of four sections, or boxes, placed on a foundation, two on the first floor and two on the second, topped with a wood-truss roof. The placement of the sections created a 22-inch (56-centimeter) void between the first-floor ceiling and the base of the second floor, as well as vertical voids at the midpoint of the house and from side to side. A two-car garage was at one end, and the porch had been added to the front of the house. Seven hardwired smoke alarms were installed, one in the basement, one on the first floor by the stairs, two in the second-floor hallway, and one in each of the three bedrooms. There were no sprinklers.
The fire started when smoking material disposed of in a flower box on the front porch ignited and the flames spread up the siding to the porch ceiling, entering a void through the soffit at the leading edge of the roof. From there, it spread to the attic. A hole behind the siding that workers had left unblocked so that cables could be installed also allowed fire to quickly spread into a void between the home’s two floors.
Once in the attic, the fire burned through the large open areas, heating the adhesive holding the plasterboard to the framing. The adhesive lost strength, allowing the ceilings to collapse, exposing the interior. The flammable adhesive contributed to flame spread.
An occupant who heard the fire looked out the window, saw the flames, and immediately woke the others. They called 911 from a neighbor’s phone at 6:34 a.m. A police officer responding to the call arrived within four minutes and reported that the structure was almost completely engulfed in flames. The truss roof failed minutes after the fire department arrived.
Despite firefighters’ efforts, the blaze destroyed both the house, valued at $300,000, and its contents, valued at $200,000.
College student fails to respond to smoke alarm
PENNSYLVANIA — A 20-year-old college student suffered smoke inhalation injuries during a sofa fire in his fraternity house bedroom.
The three-story, wood-frame house, which was 100 feet (30 meters) long and 40 feet (12 meters) wide, had a hardwired smoke detection system with battery backup and a wet-pipe sprinkler system, both monitored by a central station.
The fire department received the alarm at 3:46 a.m. and responded to find flames visible at a window. Entering the house, they quickly found the room of origin and removed the young man, who is believed to have been too impaired by alcohol to respond to the smoke alarm. Firefighters found and removed another individual, also impaired, in an adjacent room. They then extinguished the fire, which had not yet produced enough heat to activate the room’s sprinkler.
Damage was estimated at $1,200.
Portable heater starts fatal fire
OREGON — A 39-year-old woman died in a fire that began in the bedroom of her single-family home when a portable space heater ignited some cardboard boxes.
The one-story, wood-frame house, which was 30 feet (9 meters) long and 24 feet (7 meters) wide, was unsprinklered, and investigators could not locate any evidence of smoke alarms.
A police officer on patrol discovered the fire and called in the alarm at 3:00 a.m.
Investigators, who found the house extremely cluttered, discovered that the woman was using a number of portable space heaters to heat the home. One of them had tipped over, igniting the boxes, and the fire spread to other combustible items nearby.
The fire destroyed the house, valued at $40,000, and its contents, valued at $10,000.
Unattended child dies in cooking fire
LOUISIANA — An off-duty police officer investigating a glow in the sky discovered flames shooting from the roof of a two-story apartment building and notified the fire department at 12:06 a.m. As he began walking around the house, the officer found a 7-year-old boy who had jumped from a second-floor window and who told him that his 6-year-old sister was trapped in their second-floor apartment. The police officer took the boy to the front of the building and told arriving firefighters about the missing girl.
In an attempt to rescue the child, responding firefighters took a hose line up the stairs to the second floor, where they found that smoke had banked down to the floor, seriously obscuring visibility. After they searched the first room without success, the roof collapsed into the apartment’s living room, and they retreated to the stairs.
When the smoke cleared after the collapse, the firefighters quickly made their way to the second room down the hall, where they found the girl behind a closed door. She was not breathing, and her heart had stopped. They immediately removed her from the building and turned her over to the medical crew, who took her to the hospital.
The children were alone in the apartment, and investigators determined that one of them had left a pot of grease cooking unattended on the electric stove. At some point, the grease ignited and activated a hardwired smoke alarm in the hallway, which alerted the two children. The boy, who was watching television in the living room, heard the alarm and ran to the kitchen to find the fire on the stove. He then went to a bedroom, climbed out a window, and fell to the ground. The girl went to an opposite room and stayed there until she was overcome by smoke.
The fire destroyed the unsprinklered, wood-frame house, valued at $200,000, and its contents, valued at $100,000. The little girl died.
Unattended cooking fire kills woman
WISCONSIN — A 40-year-old woman was fatally injured when food left cooking unattended on a stove ignited and the fire spread to other combustibles in her single-family house.
The one-story, wood-frame house had smoke alarms outside the kitchen and in the hallway near the bedrooms, but they were inoperable because their batteries had been placed improperly. The house was not sprinklered.
The woman, who had a broken leg, had put potatoes and oil in a pan on the electric stove and gone into another room to talk on the phone. Apparently, she forgot about the food, and the oil and potatoes ignited, starting a fire that spread to other combustibles, including the kitchen cabinets. When she discovered the fire, she tried unsuccessfully to put it out herself. A relative of the victim who had come to visit found the remains of the blaze, which had self-extinguished by that time, and called 911.
Firefighters found most of the fire damage confined to the kitchen, although heat had damaged some nearby rooms and smoke had spread throughout the house. The victim’s exact location was not reported.
The house, valued at $94,000, sustained structural damage of $45,000. Its contents, valued at $20,000, sustained $12,000 worth of damage. The woman died of smoke inhalation.
Cigarette starts fatal fire
SOUTH CAROLINA — A 58-year-old man and a 52-year-old woman died in their single-story, two-family home in a fire that investigators believe began when a cigarette ignited the sofa. A smoke alarm in the living room, the room of origin, had no battery.
A neighbor called 911 to report the fire at 6:15 a.m. When responding firefighters entered the wood-frame house, they found the man behind the front door. As they went further into the house, they discovered the woman by the back door, which was unlocked but not open. Both were suffering from smoke inhalation.
After crews extinguished the fire, which had spread from the living room to the attic and vented through the roof, investigators noted a 3- to 4-gallon (11- to 15-liter) metal can filled with cigarette butts and trash in front of the sofa.
Damage to the house came to $130,000. The victims, both of whom died, were asleep at the time of the fire.
Burglar bars block escape
TEXAS — A 76-year-old woman died of smoke inhalation in her single-family home when a fire started by an unattended candle left burning in the living room overnight blocked her path to the door. Burglar bars on her bedroom window also blocked her escape.
The single-story, wood-frame house had battery-operated smoke alarms in the kitchen and bedroom, but investigators could not determine whether they operated during the fire. The utility company had cut off the home’s electricity due to nonpayment, and the occupants were using candles for light.
A passerby saw the house on fire and called 911 at 5:18 p.m. Neighbors also alerted one of the woman’s sons, who lived in a small building at the rear of the house, and he helped his mentally challenged brother out a rear window. However, he was unable to save his mother, whose body was found in a bathtub.
Investigators determined that the unattended candle ignited nearby combustibles, and the fire spread undetected, blocking access to the door from the hallway.
The house, which was valued at $34,000, sustained damage estimated at $20,000. Its contents, valued at $7,000, were destroyed.
Child playing with matches starts fire
NEW HAMPSHIRE — A 6-year-old boy with a history of fire play used a lighter to start a fire on the second-floor porch of his multi-family home. The enclosed porch served as a laundry and storage room where occupants of the three-story, wood-frame building went to smoke.
The boy told investigators that he had gone to the porch to retrieve a pair of socks from the dryer and found a cigarette lighter, which he used to ignite a piece of paper. He said he tried to blow the fire out, but it kept smoking, so he put the paper in a box, which also caught fire. Despite his efforts to put it out, the fire grew.
When he told his mother about the fire, she tried to extinguish it with a portable fire extinguisher. That didn’t work, so she tried to douse the blaze with a pan of water. When that, too, failed, she and her son left the building. By that time, the house’s hardwired smoke alarms were sounding, alerting the building’s other residents, who evacuated without incident.
Firefighters responding to an 8:45 a.m. 911 call reporting the fire arrived five minutes later to find heavy fire coming from the porch. As some crews advanced hose lines into the building to control the flames, others established a water supply, laddered the building, and performed primary searches. They also rescued three pet rats and a cat from a first-floor apartment. At least one cat died in the fire, and another was missing.
Damage to the structure was estimated at $200,000; damage to its contents was estimated at $100,000. There were no injuries.
Heater blamed for fire
TEXAS — A large distribution plant in which parts used to build trailers were stored for shipping was heavily damaged by a fire that began when a kerosene heater automatically turned on and ignited nearby combustibles. The plant was closed for the night, so the fire burned for some time before the fire was discovered. A passerby called the fire department to report the blaze at 8:30 p.m., and by the time fire crews arrived, the building was heavily involved in flames.
The steel-frame, single-story structure, which was 12 feet (4 meters) high, 200 feet (61 meters) long, and 150 feet (45 meters) wide, had a metal roof and metal walls and sat on a concrete slab. It had no fire detection or suppression equipment.
Some time during the day, the heater had been moved to the shipping and receiving area of the warehouse and placed next to wooden pallets containing oil-soaked metal parts. When a cold front moved through the area, the heater automatically started, causing the pallets and their contents to ignite. From there, the fire spread to other combustibles and eventually throughout the building.
The plant, valued at $500,000, was destroyed, as were its contents, valued at $2 million. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries.
Sprinklers control plant fire
MASSACHUSETTS — Three sprinklers operated during an early morning fire at a manufacturing plant, keeping a fire in check until fire crews could extinguish it. The plant was closed for the night.
The single-story, steel-frame plant, which covered 200,000 feet2 (18,580 meters2), had concrete block walls and a flat, built-up roof. It was protected by a fire detection system and a sprinkler system, each of which was monitored by an alarm company. Both worked as designed.
Firefighters responding to the alarm at 4:44 a.m. found no fire or smoke showing outside the building. An officer reported smoke inside the structure, but he could not initially locate the source. As crews stretched a hose line inside, the incident commander called for a second alarm.
Once firefighters extinguished the fire, investigators determined that it began in a laser-processing machine.
The building sustained no damage, but its contents sustained a $1.3 million loss. No injuries were reported.
Furnace ignites dust
ALASKA — Two sprinklers controlled a fire that began when a gas furnace ignited dust under a roaster in a two-story, wood-frame coffee roasting plant that covered approximately 4,000 feet2 (372 meters2).
The fire department received a 911 call from a passerby shortly before the alarm company advised it of the waterflow alarm at 5:28 p.m. Arriving firefighters saw smoke coming from the rear of the building and were told that a woman might be trapped on the second floor. The companies positioned themselves at the rear of the building, established a water supply, and hooked up to the fire department connection to support the sprinklers. As crews prepared to enter the building, the woman made her way out.
Once in the plant, fire crews noted that two sprinklers had operated and controlled the blaze. Investigators later determined that gunny sacks full of coffee had ignited after a propane gas-fired furnace set fire to an accumulation of dust.
The building, which was valued at $615,000, sustained $1,500 in damages. Its contents, valued at $300,000, sustained a $2,000 loss. No one was injured.
Sprinkler system controls fatal nursing home fire
MASSACHUSETTS — A 51-year-old nurse’s aide died of cardiac arrest in an early morning fire at a 169-bed nursing home that began when the contents of a gas-fired commercial clothes dryer ignited, causing the window in the dryer’s door to fail. From there, the fire spread to the ceiling, where it activated three sprinklers and a heat detector.
The sprinklers were part of a wet-pipe sprinkler system, and the detectors were part of a system with smoke and heat detectors. Both systems were connected to a master box. The laundry room was located on the first floor in one wing of the two-story nursing home.
The fire department received the alarm at 12:33 a.m., and firefighters arriving within two minutes encountered smoke in the hallway. Noting that sprinklers had controlled the blaze, they stretched a hose line into the laundry room and quickly extinguished the remaining fire.
While firefighters were overhauling the scene, the nurse’s aide left the building and suffered cardiac arrest. She was cared for by firefighters and staff but later died at a local hospital. No one else was injured or killed during the fire.
Damage to the building and its contents was not reported. Interior fire walls and doors limited the spread of smoke and flames into other parts of the building, although smoke and water damaged the first floor in the area of origin. The residents were allowed back into their rooms once the area was cleaned and the life safety systems restored.
Kitchen-hood system extinguishes restaurant fire
ILLINOIS — A quick-thinking restaurant employee saved his place of business when he manually activated a kitchen-hood fire suppression system to extinguish a grease fire, sound an alarm, and notify the fire department. The system complied with UL300.
The single-story, wood-frame restaurant, which was 86 feet (26 meters) long and 45 feet (13 meters) wide, was built on a concrete slab and had a brick-veneer exterior and a flat metal-deck roof with built-up roof surface. A wet-pipe sprinkler system and an automatic fire detection system were monitored by a central alarm station.
The restaurant staff was draining an electric deep-fat fryer, but forgot to turn off power to the unit, and some residual oil ignited. Fortunately, the employee immediately noticed the fire and pulled the manual release of the hood system. The hood system’s activation caused the fire alarm system to activate, alerting the occupants and the fire department. The heat from the fire was not sufficient to activate any of the structure’s sprinklers.
Damage was limited to clean-up, recharging the system, and business loss. There were no injuries.