Firefighters spray water into a rail car filled with burning paper at a warehouse fire in Maine.
(Photo: AP/Wide World)
2008 Large-Loss Fire Incidents
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2009
By Stephen G. Badger
The following is a complete list of large-loss fires, which are listed in descending order of loss amount in each category.
January, 11:55 p.m.
This gas-fed blast furnace was located in a steel plant that covered 2 million square feet (185,186 square meters) and was of unprotected, noncombustible construction. Neither the height of the furnace, nor of the structure in which it was located, was reported, but it was operating at the time, and six people were in the area of the furnace at the time of the explosion.
The type of detection equipment could not be determined. No information was reported on suppression equipment.
The cause of the explosion is under investigation, but it involved molten materials.
Upon arrival, firefighters found that the blast furnace had exploded and was burning. There were also some spot fires in the operations building. The explosion damaged at least six vehicles, several trailers, and outbuildings, and injured a person who was driving past the building in which the furnace was located when it exploded. Investigators believe the age of the furnace was a contributing factor in the explosion. The roof was blown off and debris was blown 50 yards (46 meters) away.
February, 7:18 p.m.
This 97-foot (30-meter) high sugar refinery was of unprotected noncombustible construction and covered 75,000 square feet (6,968 square meters). The plant was in operation at the time of the explosion and fire.
The packing house had a partial-coverage heat and smoke detection system that activated when the first explosion occurred, but it was soon disabled by a second explosion that destroyed most of the electrical equipment. It also had a complete-coverage combination wet- and dry-pipe sprinkler system. It activated but was also disabled by the secondary blast. Due to the damage, it was not possible to determine how many sprinklers opened.
The cause and origin of the primary dust explosion are under investigation. The secondary explosion occurred in the dust handling equipment and simultaneously ignited fires on several floors that spread throughout the packing house building. Also ignited was a palletizing area in the distribution warehouse and two of the three sugar silos.
Arriving firefighters found that the packing house had sustained a massive explosion and a large fire was burning. Numerous workers were dead, injured, or missing. Fire officials did a size-up of the damaged plant, as firefighters began search and rescue operations and worked to contain the fire. Firefighting operations were from the exterior due to the extent of damage, poor visibility, and the possibility of structural collapse. During initial operations, fire officials determined there had been nine separate building or structural collapses. Fourteen workers were killed in the explosions or died during the following month due to their injuries. The victims’ locations at the time of the explosion were not reported.
March, 12:58 p.m.
This was a one-story meat packing plant of unprotected noncombustible construction that covered 150,000 square feet (14,000 square meters). The plant was operating with approximately 24 people inside.
No information was reported on fire protection systems, fire development, or contributing factors.
This fire occurred at a steel mill, but no further information was reported.
November, 1:43 a.m.
This two-story tire manufacturing plant was of unprotected, noncombustible construction and covered 248,131 square feet (23,052 square meters). The plant was closed at the time of the fire, but a security guard was located in another area of the complex.
There was no automatic detection or suppression equipment.
A fire of undetermined cause broke out in a manufacturing area near the quality control department.
There was a delay in detection as the security guard was not near the area of origin, allowing the fire to progress for some time. By the time fire apparatus arrived, the blaze had already vented through the roof and was growing rapidly, spreading into and through a warehouse section where finished tires were stored. One firefighter suffered smoke inhalation.
July, 9:23 a.m.
This a four-story boat manufacturing facility was of unprotected, wood-frame construction and covered 90,000 square feet (8,360 square meters). The plant was operating at the time of the fire.
No information was reported on the facility’s detection equipment. It had an unknown-type sprinkler system, but its coverage was not reported. The sprinklers activated initially, but then reportedly shut down. The reason it shut down was not reported.
Welding and cutting work on a tug boat was being done too close to a wall of the building, causing it to ignite. The fire was first spotted on the interior of the wall, then observed to be on the exterior of the roof and spreading.
Arriving firefighters found the structure fully involved. The fire spread to several other buildings in the boat yard and to three tugs under construction. It also damaged several nearby homes and several vehicles. One civilian was injured.
February, 5:28 p.m.
This one-story paper product manufacturing plant was of unprotected noncombustible construction. The ground floor area was 12,800 square feet (1,189 square meters). The plant was operating at the time of the fire.
The plant had smoke alarms, which operated, but the system coverage was not reported. A sprinkler system of unreported type also operated, alerting the occupants and sounding an automatic alarm at the fire department. Its effectiveness in controlling the fire was not reported.
A fire of undetermined cause broke out in a process area. No additional information was reported.
The loss was estimated at $5 million to the structure and $22 million to the contents.
February, 5:30 p.m.
This one-story furniture manufacturing plant was of unprotected, noncombustible construction and covered 600,000 square feet (55,741 square meters). It was operating at the time of the fire. The plant had no automatic detection or suppression equipment.
A fire of unknown cause broke out in the warehouse section of this plant. At the time of the fire, the area was experiencing winds of 25 miles (40 kilometers) per hour.
Arriving firefighters closed many loading dock doors to help control the ventilation. A roof collapse forced the firefighters to evacuate. Firefighters were successful in keeping the fire from spreading into an office area.
January, 2:57 p.m.
This one-story, multi-use manufacturing plant was of unprotected ordinary construction and covered 60,000 square feet (5,574 square meters). The plant, which included a textile waste remanufacturing company, was operating at the time of the fire.
There was no automatic detection equipment. The plant had a wet-pipe sprinkler system, but its coverage was not reported. The system operated, but the flow was not sufficient to be effective due to the large fire load.
The cause of this fire, which broke out in the process area, is listed as undetermined.
A brief interior attack was begun until extensive fire spread caused conditions to worsen and firefighters were withdrawn to a defensive attack.
May, 5 p.m.
This four-story brewery of unprotected, ordinary construction covered 13,050 square feet (1,212 square meters). The plant was operating at the time of the fire.
Heat detectors were present, but the coverage and performance of the system was not reported. The brewery had no automatic suppression system.
This fire, caused by welding operations, broke out in a second-story packaging area. No additional information was reported.
A brief interior attack was initiated until extensive fire spread caused conditions to deteriorate and firefighters were withdrawn to a defensive attack.
July, 1:13 p.m.
This one-and-a-half-story seafood cannery of unprotected, noncombustible construction covered 51,315 square feet (4,767 square meters). The cannery was operating at the time.
It had no automatic detection or suppression equipment.
A fire of undetermined cause broke out in a service area, but no additional information was reported.
The loss was estimated at $10 million for the structure and $1 million for the contents.
May, 2 p.m.
This was a carpet manufacturing plant. No further information was reported.
August, 2:29 a.m.
This was a two-story aluminum product manufacturing plant that was of unprotected noncombustible construction and covered 800,000 square feet (74,322 square meters). The plant was closed at the time of the fire.
There was no automatic detection equipment, and a partial-coverage wet-pipe sprinkler system did not protect the area of the building where the fire originated. One sprinkler did operate when fire spread to the protected area.
The fire, which started when lightning struck the roof of the plant, burned for an unknown period of time before it was discovered by a passerby.
The loss was estimated at $5 million to the plant and $5 million to the contents.
January, 10:58 a.m.
This 3,020-room hotel and casino complex was 32 stories high, covered 114,773 square feet (10,663 square meters), and was of protected noncombustible construction. The complex was in use at the time the fire, with 2,400 rooms occupied.
The structure had complete-coverage smoke detection equipment that activated, and an evacuation was begun when the fire was confirmed. The complex also had a complete-coverage wet-pipe sprinkler system. Eighteen of the system’s sprinklers activated when the fire caused windows in guests rooms on the 32nd story to fail, confining the interior fire to those rooms. The structure also had a full standpipe system and a diesel-powered fire pump.
The fire began when workmen performing cutting or welding on the exterior of the building ignited a layer of expanded polystyrene foam adhered to gypsum sheathing on the structure’s architectural trim.
Upon arrival, firefighters found an exterior fire on the top of the hotel’s tower. Evacuation of the hotel continued as firefighters set up unified commands and attacked the blaze using standpipes on the roof.
They also directed streams of water on the fire from windows on another wing. Fires in the guest rooms on the 32nd story were extinguished with hand lines after the sprinkler system contained these fires.
Thirteen guests were injured.
District of Columbia
March, 11:47 p.m.
This was a four-story, 100-unit apartment building of unprotected ordinary construction. The ground floor area was not reported. The building was occupied at the time of the fire, but the number of occupants was not reported.
The building had smoke alarms, but no information was reported on them. There was no automatic suppression system.
The fire began in the basement of the structure. The cause was listed as undetermined.
Firefighters fought this fire from inside the apartment building until conditions deteriorated, causing several firefighting teams to become lost, forcing them to call for assistance. The fire spread to and destroyed a three-story church of heavy timber construction.
One firefighter and three civilians were injured.
April, 1:26 a.m.
This 120-unit, unprotected, wood-frame apartment complex consisted of 20 three-story buildings in two clusters of 10 that covered 33,750 square feet (3,135 square meters). The complex was occupied by approximately 150 residents.
The complex had a complete-coverage smoke alarm system, with detectors in the living rooms and bedrooms of each unit. The system activated and alerted the occupants of the building. There were also manual pull stations in the exit access corridors. There was no automatic suppression equipment.
A discarded cigarette ignited combustibles in or around a bucket on the rear deck of a first-story apartment. The fire spread to the decking and siding materials and spread upward and throughout the complex.
This fire broke out during an extended dry spell when the fire danger reports were classified as extreme. Alarge quantity of combustible foliage next to the structure allowed for further propagation of the fire throughout the complex.
Firefighters from a dozen fire departments responded.
December, 9:51 p.m.
This four-story, 49-unit resort spa of unprotected ordinary construction covered 16,000 square feet (1,486 square meters). It was filled to capacity.
The spa had detection equipment, but the type and coverage were not reported. The system operated and alerted the occupants. It also had a wet-pipe sprinkler system of unreported coverage that activated, with 20 sprinklers flowing. The system was not fully effective, however, as it was not in the area of ignition. When the fire finally spread into the area of coverage, it was effective.
A fire of unknown cause began in a thatched palm awning on the second-story and quickly spread up and across the building’s exterior, igniting second-story guest rooms as well as the soffit on the elevator tower. It also spread into an attic and down to the first-level dining area and bar.
The fire in the attic hampered firefighters, as the attic contained were hidden compartments resulting from multiple renovations. On other floors, firefighters found multiple levels of ceilings. The fire was deep-seated in heavy timber with wire mesh and stucco.
The loss was estimated at $10 million to the structure and $2 million to its contents.
April, 10:01 a.m.
This three-story, 42-unit apartment building for older adults was of unprotected wood-frame construction. Its ground floor area was not reported. It was occupied at the time of the fire.
The building had a complete-coverage system of smoke alarms, but the system did not operate. The reason for this was not reported. It also had a complete-coverage wet-pipe sprinkler system, but the system did not operate as the fire started in a concealed space, and heat in the voids and concealed spaces caused the piping to rupture.
Radiant heat from a boiler located on the third story ignited the flooring and wooden structural members between the second and third stories. The fire traveled in hidden combustible voids in floor and wall spaces.
Firefighters made numerous rescues over ladders. Two civilians and one firefighter were injured. Losses were estimated at $7.5 million to the structure and $3 million to the contents.
November, 12:26 p.m.
This one- and two-story, 114-unit motel of unprotected wood-frame construction was open and operating at the time of the fire. The ground floor area was not reported.
The motel had a complete-coverage smoke detection system that operated and alerted occupants and the fire department. It also had a complete-coverage wet-pipe sprinkler system. The system was not in the area of origin and was overwhelmed when fire spread into the area it covered.
The only information reported on fire development was that it began with an electrical malfunction in an attic.
The fire started in a void above a wooden tongue-and- groove ceiling and spread to an attic above the pool, then burned unchecked above the fitness area into guest rooms on the second story and into the motel lobby. The ceiling and roof collapsed during the fire.
November, 5:45 p.m.
This incident evolved from a series of three separate wildfire complexes in Southern California within three days of each other. These were the Tea Fire, the Sayre Fire, and the Freeway Fire.
The cause of the first fire was determined to have been a group of approximately 10 college students holding a bonfire party. Those involved reported to authorities that the fire was out when they left. Authorities believe the fire smoldered until heavy winds reignited it the next afternoon. The cause of the other two fires is listed as under investigation. The fires burned separately and did not come together. A total of 43,500 acres (17,603 hectares) burned.
High Santa Ana winds, low humidity, high temperatures, and dry brush all contributed to these fires, which burned through fuels of chaparral, oak, eucalyptus groves, sagebrush, and grass, as well as more than 1,000 structures. As the fires burned, more than 3,700 firefighters from around the country responded. Most of the blazes were under control within 10 days.
A total of 1,046 structures were destroyed, including 889 residential properties, 2 commercial properties, and 155 outbuildings. Another 329 structures were damaged, including 281 residential properties, 2 commercial properties, and 46 outbuildings. In one manufactured home park, 480 of the 600 homes were destroyed. Injuries were minimal, with slightly more than 30 reported. At least 19 of the victims were firefighters. During the fires, 65,000 homes were evacuated at one time or another.
August, 3:17 p.m.
This wildfire in an urban/wildland interface was started by materials abandoned or discarded in light vegetation.
The fire burned vegetation within a city limit before it spread to a U.S. Air Force base, where it destroyed 190 single-family homes and 40 duplexes that were scheduled to be demolished.
Firefighters were hampered by non-functional hydrants in the housing area.
This fire burned 68 acres (28 hectares).
June, 2:54 p.m.
This wildfire, which occurred in an urban/wildland interface, started when an illegal campfire was left unattended and a hot ember ignited nearby brush.
The fire burned 520 acres (210 hectares) of brush and grass, and destroyed 14 structures.
At the time of the fire, the area was under an extreme fire danger warning, with drought conditions, relative humidity at 14 percent, and fuel moisture at 3 percent.
June, 12:14 p.m.
This incendiary wildfire occurred in an urban/wildland interface. No additional details were provided.
The fire burned 23,162 acres (9,373 hectares), as well as 93 residential properties, 167 outbuildings, and 104 vehicles.
At the time of the fire, the temperature was 83oF (28oC), winds were blowing at 25 miles (40 kilometers) per hour, and the fire danger was extreme.
February, 8:30 a.m.
This one-story boat storage building of unprotected noncombustible construction covered 28,800 square feet (2,676 square meters). The facility was operating at the time of the fire, with work being done on one of the stored boats.
The building had a detection system. The type and coverage of the system was not reported, but it did activate. There was also a wet-pipe sprinkler, but no information about it was reported.
The fire was of undetermined cause and origin. On arrival, firefighters found heavy smoke coming from a large metal storage structure containing boats.
No other details were provided.
December, 12:30 p.m.
This one-story storage building of unprotected ordinary construction covered 233,000 square feet (21,646 square meters) and stored rolled and baled shredded paper. The warehouse was open and operating.
No information was reported on the structure’s detection equipment. There was a partial-coverage sprinkler system in the storage area. A pipe in the system was broken, but how or when the pipe broke, or whether the system activated, were not reported.
During overhead welding operations in the shipping and loading dock, hot slag fell on and behind stored and baled shredded paper. The fire spread, followed the roof line, and entered the main warehouse.
This fire ignited and burned rapidly despite a fire watch, fire blankets, and early detection. Employees used several extinguishers in an attempt to control the fire, but they were unsuccessful.
Firefighters attempted an interior attack on the fire several times, but they were hampered by water-soaked paper products that expanded and split apart, falling to the ground. Fire suppression operations were performed from the exterior.
Fire departments from more than 42 cities and towns responded before this fire was contained and extinguished several days later.
January, 4:45 p.m.
This a four-story warehouse covered 22,500 square feet (2,090 square meters).
No information was reported about the structure’s fire protection systems, about the fire’s development, or about contributing factors.
April, 2:45 a.m.
This four-story warehouse covered 45,000 square feet (4,181 square meters).
No information was reported on fire protection systems, fire development, or contributing factors.
August, 4:53 p.m.
This four-story apartment building was under construction, with sections still in the framing stage. The ground floor area was not reported. There were construction workers on locationat the time of the fire and occupants present in nearby buildings.
Automatic detection or suppression equipment had not yet been installed.
The fire broke out after an errant spark from welding operations went unnoticed and ignited wood structural members. On arrival, the first firefighters found that the building was fully involved in fire and that flying embers had started spot fires on several other buildings.
The fire destroyed or damaged a total of four buildings, including two occupied apartment buildings. A total of 153 pieces of fire apparatus and 1,013 firefighters responded.
April, 1:21 a.m.
This one- and two-story apartment complex for older adults was of unprotected wood-frame construction and covered 130,000 square feet (12,077 square meters). At the time, it was under construction but near completion. No one was at the site at the time.
Neither detection nor suppression equipment had been installed yet.
The cause of this fire was listed as undetermined, but it started in the area of a workshop.
A passing police officer spotted the fire and reported it.
September, 10:40 p.m.
This four-story hotel of unprotected wood-frame construction was under construction. Its ground floor area and operating status were not reported.
No information was reported on its fire protection systems.
Upon arrival, firefighters found the four-story structure fully involved in fire. Embers had started several smaller fires in adjacent properties.
A defensive attack was begun, and the bulk of the fire was knocked down in 30 minutes. One firefighter was injured.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
PUBLIC ASSEMBLY PROPERTIES
June, 4:50 a.m.
This was a large film studio and back lot for movies and television shows. The structures were of various heights and construction, with the majority of unprotected wood-frame construction. The area covered was not reported.
No information was reported on fire protection systems or fire development.
More than 400 firefighters responded to this fire. They were faced with several challenges, including a lack of water pressure and water supply, as well as explosions involving compressed gas containers, propane tanks, tires, and gas tanks of private vehicles. Firefighters were forced to draft water from lakes on the property.
September, 12:20 a.m.
This two-story restaurant was of unprotected ordinary construction. The ground floor area was not reported. The restaurant was closed due to a hurricane but three people, including two adults and a child, had taken refuge in the structure.
No information was reported on fire protection systems or fire development.
The hurricane’s winds hampered firefighting operations. The three occupants suffered burns over 70 percent of their bodies, but they survived.
December, 3:35 p.m.
This one-story country club of unprotected wood-frame construction covered 30,000 square feet (2,787 square meters). The clubhouse was operating at the time.
The type of detection equipment could not be determined. The clubhouse had no suppression equipment.
The cause and origin of the fire were listed as undetermined.
Upon arrival, firefighters found the clubhouse fully involved in fire. The loss was listed as $9 million to the structure and $1.5 million to the contents.
BASIC INDUSTRY, UTILITY PROPERTIES
December, 10:43 p.m.
This fire involved a refractory tower in an oil refinery. No information was reported on the tower’s height, ground floor area, construction, operating status, or fire protection systems.
The fire, the cause of which was undetermined, broke out in the tower’s crude oil piping.
Two refinery fire brigades and a local fire department responded. At the time of the fire, the weather was bitterly cold, with winds of 30 to 50 miles (48 to 80 kilometers) per hour, gusts up to 85 miles (137 kilometers) per hour, and a wind chill of –15 to –45oF (–26 to –43oC).
May, 7:44 p.m.
This five-story university administration building was of heavy-timber construction. The building also contained classrooms, faculty offices, and dorm rooms. The ground-floor area was not reported. The building was occupied at the time of the fire.
Information on the structure’s automatic detection equipment was not reported. It had no automatic suppression equipment.
An electrical malfunction ignited wood structural members between the top-floor ceiling and roof, and the fire spread rapidly through the attic and top floors. After a primary search of all floors, firefighters were ordered out of the structure to begin a defensive attack.
The loss was estimated at $12 million to the structure and $2 million to its contents.