Flames outline the timbers of a golf course clubhouse that was destroyed by a blaze in Idaho.
(Photo: AP/Wide World)
Large-Loss Fires in 2008
The number of fires dropped from 2007, but last year’s total was still the second-highest over the past decade.
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2009
By Stephen G. Badger
For the fifth time in the past 10 years, the largest loss associated with fires and explosions occurred in wildlands, and for the second year in a row, it happened in Southern California. In mid-November, several wildfires broke out within a three-day period, eventually becoming known as the Tea Fire, the Sayre Fire, and the Freeway Fire complexes. These fires, which resulted in an estimated $800 million in property damage, are treated collectively in this study as a single incident, since they occurred in an area that was experiencing a period of drought, with high temperatures, low humidity, and high winds.
The Tea Fire broke out at 5:50 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, after a group of young adults had a campfire the night before. The group told investigators that the fire was out when they left. High winds during the next day brought the embers back to life, eventually developing into a 1,940-acre (785-hectare) wildfire that destroyed more than 200 residential structures and damaged many more. The Sayre Fire broke out on Friday and burned through a manufactured home park, destroying 480 of the 600 homes. It ultimately burned 11,262 acres (4,558 hectares) and destroyed 489 residential structures, 10 commercial properties, and 104 outbuildings, and damaged many more. The cause was not determined. The Freeway Fire broke out on Saturday, burned through 30,305 acres (12,264 hectares), destroyed 187 residential and 2 commercial properties, as well as 11 outbuildings, and damaged 127 residential properties, 2 commercial properties, and 32 outbuildings. The cause of this fire was also listed as undetermined.
Chaparral, oak, eucalyptus groves, sagebrush, and grass, as well as more than 1,000 structures, were the major fuels contributing to the fires.
During these fires, unified commands were set up. Firefighters from all over the country, 3,700 in all, battled not only these fires, but Santa Ana winds of above hurricane force (above 75 miles, or 120 kilometers, per hour), with very high temperatures. The fires were mostly under control or contained by November 22. Residents evacuated more than 60,000 homes during the fires. More than 30 injuries were reported; at least 19 of the victims were firefighters.
NFPA reports each year on large-loss fire and explosion losses in the United States, now defined as any event that results in property damage of at least $10 million. In 2008, fire departments responded to an estimated 1,451,500 fires. These fires caused an estimated loss of $15.5 billion. Many of the fires were small or resulted in little or no reported property damage. However, 35 fires resulted in losses of $10 million or more each. With direct property losses totaling over $2.34 billion, these 35 fires killed 15 civilians and injured 60 civilians and 32 firefighters. Although these fires accounted for only 0.002 percent of the estimated number of fires in 2008, they accounted for 15.3 percent of the total estimated dollar loss.
Since 1987, the dollar loss threshold defining large-loss fires for this report has been $5 million.
To reflect the effect of increases in the Consumer Price Index over the past 20-plus years, however, we have raised that threshold. In this report, all the calculations were done using the new threshold of $10 million. This threshold returns us to the intent of this study, which is to provide a better perspective on the costliest losses each year. Interestingly, based on the Consumer Price Index, a fire resulting in a loss of $5 million in 1987 would be equal to a loss of more than $9 million in 2008 dollars.
The number of large-loss fires meeting the new threshold decreased by 10, or 22 percent, from 2007, and the direct property loss in these fires was down by over $1 billion from 2007. In large part, this decrease was due to one wildfire in 2007 that caused almost $2 billion in damages. No comparable loss occurred in 2008.
Before inflation adjustments were made, the number of large-loss fires in 2008 was the second highest in the past 10 years. When adjusted for inflation to 1999 dollars, the number of fires in 2008 that could be categorized as large-loss fires — that is, loss of $10 million in 1999 dollars — drops to 23, with an adjusted loss of $1.7 billion in 1999 dollars.
Including the Southern California wildfires of 2008, 20 fires resulted in more than $20 million each in property damage. These costliest 20 fires, which include 16 structure fires and 4 wildland fires, resulted in a combined property loss of $2.2 billion, which represents 92.4 percent of the total loss in large-loss fires and 14.1 percent of the total fire losses of 2008. Five incidents in 2008 resulted in losses of over $100 million each. The combined loss for these fires was $1.7 billion, or 66.7 percent of the large-loss total and 10.3 percent of the total fire losses in 2008.
There was a general downward trend in the number of large-loss fires from 1999 through 2006, but the total rose sharply in 2007. Though the number of fires dropped in 2008, it was still the second-highest total over the most recent 10-year period.Total loss in large-loss fires is too sensitive to the specific loss in the costliest incidents each year to show any clear trend.
Where fires occurred
Thirty-one of the large-loss fires of 2008 occurred in structures, and they resulted in a total property loss of $1.4 billion. The other four occurred in wildland fires and resulted in a total property loss of $929 million.
Thirteen fires and explosions occurred in manufacturing properties, resulting in a total loss of just over $1 billion. Six residential property fires resulted in a loss of $170.5 million. Of these six fires, three occurred in apartment buildings, two in lodging properties, and one in a resort/spa.
Four each occurred in wildlands and storage properties, resulting in losses of $929 million and $44 million, respectively.
Three fires each occurred in buildings under construction, including two apartment buildings and one motel, and in public assembly properties, including a film studio back lot, a restaurant, and a country club. Fires in these two categories resulted in property losses of $109.3 million and $63.5 million, respectively.
One fire each occurred in industrial and educational properties—an oil refinery and a university administration building—resulting in losses of $20 million and $14 million, respectively.
Information on operating status was reported for 24 of the 31 structure fires. Twenty-one were operating to some extent. Nineteen were at full operation or occupancy, one was partially operating with some construction workers at the site, and a watchman was present at one. Three properties were closed or were not known to have anyone on site when the fire broke out.
None of the structure fires was incendiary in nature. One wildfire was deliberately set. The resulting loss in that fire was $24 million, or 2.6 percent of the non-structure fire loss.
Ten of the fires, all in structures, broke out between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.
Detection and suppression systems
Information about smoke detection equipment was reported for 17 of the 31 structure fires. Ten of these 17 properties, or 59 percent, had some type of automatic detection equipment. Seven fires occurred in properties that had no automatic detection equipment.
Of the 10 properties that had equipment, four had complete-coverage smoke detection systems. One was partially covered with a heat and smoke detection system. The coverage was not reported on the other five systems, which included one heat detection system, two smoke detection systems, and two whose type was not reported. Seven of the 10 systems operated effectively. One failed to operate, but the reason was not reported. The operation or effectiveness of the other two systems was not reported.
Information on automatic suppression equipment was reported on 21 of the 31 structure fires. Ten structures had no suppression equipment, and 11 had some type of system.
Of the 11 systems, three were complete-coverage wet-pipe systems, three were wet-pipe systems whose coverage was not reported, one was a partial- or local-coverage wet-pipe system, and one was a combination wet- and dry-pipe system with complete coverage. The other three were reported simply as sprinkler systems, with no type reported. One of these had partial or local coverage, and the coverage of the other two was not reported.
Eight of the 11 systems operated. One did not operate, and the operation of two systems could not be determined. In the case of the system that did not operate, the fire originated in concealed spaces and caused the piping to the sprinklers to rupture. In one of the cases where the operation of the system could not be determined, a broken pipe in the system hindered firefighters, but it was not reported what broke the pipe.
Six of the eight systems that operated were not effective in controlling the fire, and the effectiveness of one system that operated was not reported. Only one system was effective in controlling the fire in its coverage area. This was in a hotel where the fire originated on the exterior and burned exterior structural and decorative components. After the fire broke windows and spread into several guest rooms, the sprinkler system activated and confined the interior fire to those rooms.
Three of the systems that operated but were not effective were not in the area of origin. In those incidents, the fires originated on a roof, in an unprotected attic space, and on the exterior wall/roof assembly. Spreading fire overpowered these three systems once it burned into a protected section of the structure. Of the remaining three systems that were not effective, one operated at first but was damaged by a secondary explosion, one was in a space that had a larger fire load than the system could handle, and one operated initially but shut off for an unexplained reason.
Complete information on both detection and suppression equipment was reported for 17 of the 31 large-loss structure fires. Three had only detection equipment, two had only suppression equipment, seven had both detection and suppression, and five properties, or 16 percent of all structures, had no coverage.
What we can learn
As mentioned earlier, the number of fires in 2008 with losses of at least $10 million decreased by almost a quarter from the total in 2007, and the associated property losses decreased by more than $1 billion. That difference in dollar loss can be accounted for largely by one fire in 2007 that resulted in a loss of more than $1 billion. In seven of the past 10 years, there has been at least one fire with a loss of over $100 million. In 2008, there were five such incidents, for a total loss of $1.6 billion.
Adherence to the fire protection principles reflected in NFPA’s codes and standards is essential if we are to reduce the occurrence of large-loss fires and explosions in the United States. Proper design, maintenance, and operation of fire protection systems and features can keep a fire from becoming a large-loss fire. Proper construction, storage, and housecleaning will make fires less likely and help control or limit the fire spread if fire occurs.
Where we get our data
NFPA identifies potential large-loss incidents by reviewing national and local news media, including fire service publications. A clipping service reads all U.S. daily newspapers and notifies the NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division of major large-loss fires. NFPA’s annual survey of the U.S. fire experience is an additional data source, although not the principal one. Once an incident has been identified, we request information on the fire from the fire department or agency having jurisdiction. We also contact federal agencies that have participated in investigations, state fire marshal’s offices, and military sources.
The diversity and redundancy of these data sources enable the NFPA to collect the most complete data available on large-loss fires.
NFPA thanks the U.S. fire service for its contributions of data, without which this report would not be possible. In many cases, the fire departments were unable to contribute complete details to NFPA on these larger-loss incidents because legal action is pending or ongoing, or they are unable to determine many pieces of information we need to make our study as complete as possible. The author wishes to thank Norma Candeloro for providing the support this study requires.
Stephen G. Badger is a fire data assistant in NFPA's Fire Analysis and Research Division and is a retired firefighter from the Quincy, Massachusetts, Fire Department.