NFPA Journal®, November/December 2009
Intentionally set fire kills two
LOUISIANA — A 20-year-old man and an 8-month-old baby boy died of smoke inhalation when they were trapped by an intentionally set fire in their unsprinklered manufactured home. Three other occupants escaped.
The single-story, wood-frame home, which was 16 feet (5 meters) wide and 80 feet (24 meters) long, had a smoke alarm that failed to operate.
Investigators determined that someone intentionally ignited clothing and a mattress in a middle bedroom and that the fire spread out of the room into the hallway. Three of the occupants managed to escape and called 911 from a cell phone, but the man and the baby were in the master bathroom with the door closed. By the time he discovered the fire, it had blocked the door to the hallway; furniture partially blocked a bathroom window. Firefighters found the man lying in the doorway between the bedroom and bathroom and the baby lying up against the tub.
The home, which was valued at $25,000, and its contents, valued at $8,000, were destroyed.
Open doors allow fire spread
MICHIGAN — A 68-year-old man died and two women, one 89 years old and the other 59, were injured in a fire that began in a first-floor unit of a three-story apartment building. Doors left open in the apartment of origin and others allowed the fire and smoke to spread through the hallway in that wing of the first floor.
The wood-frame building, which was 150 feet (46 meters) long and 50 feet (15 meters) wide, had a flat wood-truss roof with a built-up covering over the wooden deck. The recently upgraded fire alarm system included smoke and heat detection with automatic door releases on the hallway fire doors. The system was monitored by a central station alarm company and operated as designed. The hallway fire doors closed when the system operated. There were no sprinklers.
One of the injured women, who was confined to a hospital bed and had caretakers in attendance, started the fire when she tried to light a cigarette with a wooden match after her caretaker fell asleep in a chair near the bed. When she struck the match, the head broke off and ignited the bedding. Smoke from the fire tripped a smoke detector, waking the caretaker, who tried to extinguish the blaze with water from the kitchen.
When the fire continued to grow, the caretaker got the woman out of the apartment, leaving the door open. The apartment doors did not have self-closing devices.
The central station alarm company contacted the fire department, and firefighters responded at 10 p.m. to find flames coming from windows on the first floor and spreading to the second and third floors. The first crew knocked down the fire outside and entered the building to evacuate the building’s 85 other residents, most of whom were elderly. Police helped with the evacuation.
After the fire was extinguished and the residents were taken to a temporary refuge next door, firefighters discovered the 68-year-old, physically handicapped victim in a wheelchair in his first-floor apartment. He had been overcome by smoke that entered the unit through the front door, which opened onto the same hallway as the apartment of fire origin.
Investigators discovered that the fire burned the bed’s foam mattress, egg-crate-style foam mattress pad, sheet, down comforter, and quilted afghan. Parts of the foam mattress and pad melted and pooled below the bed, igniting the carpeting. Investigators also noted that fire had spread upward through the outside walls because of a breach in floor joist firestopping.
The fire heavily damaged one side of the building on the first floor and moderately damaged other first floor areas and the upper floors. Estimates of dollar loss were not reported.
The victim died of smoke inhalation. The caretaker also sustained smoke inhalation injuries, as did the occupant of the unit of origin, who was also burned. A 47-year-old firefighter suffered smoke inhalation injuries when he took off his SCBA facepiece to provide air for residents he was rescuing.
Smoking, medical oxygen result in fire death
KANSAS — A 64-year-old man died in a fire that began when he dropped a cigarette on the sofa in the living room of his apartment. The man was using oxygen at the time, and the fire intensified as it spread along the tubing.
The one-bedroom apartment was located in a single-story, unsprinklered, wood-frame duplex with a wooden truss roof covered by asphalt shingles. It had a smoke alarm, but its operation was not reported.
The victim’s next door neighbors called 911 at 8:24 p.m. when they returned home to find his windows blackened by smoke. By the time firefighters arrived, the fire was coming from the roof.
Crews entered the apartment and discovered the victim, who had a history of smoking and drinking heavily, in the living room. As they pulled him from the dwelling and began CPR, another team entered the building and extinguished the fire.
Investigators believe careless smoking caused the fire, which damaged the living room, hallway, and the bedroom where the oxygen concentrator was located. Three cylinders of oxygen were found in the room, but they were not involved in ignition.
The home sustained $15,000 in damage. The victim, who used a walker, died of severe burns and smoke inhalation.
Sprinkler controls cigarette fire
HAWAII — A single sprinkler controlled a fire that began when a terminally ill 78-year-old man left a burning cigarette on a leather jacket on a bed in his apartment. Heat from the cigarette ignited the jacket, the bedding, and the mattress before the sprinkler operated.
The apartment was located on the thirty-sixth floor of a steel-and-concrete-frame high-rise building that contained condominiums and hotel rooms. The building’s detection and suppression systems included smoke and heat detectors and a wet-pipe sprinkler system. Dry standpipes were also available for fire department use, and there were portable fire extinguishers in the hallways.
The fire alarm operated and apparently alerted the building’s other occupants. The fire was reported to the fire department at 8:43 p.m. Arriving firefighters found that the sprinkler had confined the fire to the bed where it began.
Structural damage to the unit of fire origin, valued at $260,000, was estimated at $40,000, and damage to its contents was estimated at $10,000. The unit’s occupant, who showed signs of dementia and may have been impaired by alcohol, survived.
Lack of working smoke alarms contributes to death
FLORIDA — A 62-year-old man died when an unattended candle started a fire in his manufactured home.
The home was 40 feet (12 meters) long and 20 feet (6 meters) wide. Two single-station, battery-operated smoke alarms had no batteries.
The candle, which the man had left burning when he went to bed, fell to the floor at some point and ignited nearby combustibles. When the light fixtures began falling to the floor, the man awoke to find his home on fire.
Rather than trying to escape, he tried to extinguish the blaze until he was overcome by the smoke and heat. At about this time, a passerby called 911, then grabbed a garden hose in an attempt to knock the fire down and rescue the trapped man.
Arriving firefighters extinguished the blaze and found the victim’s body. The fire marshal stated that the “occupant would have survived had he exited the structure without attempting to extinguish the fire." He also noted that the man would have “had earlier warning had he not removed the batteries from the smoke alarms."
Cooking fire leads to death
SOUTH CAROLINA — A woman with impaired mobility died of burns caused by a cooking fire in her single-family home.
The one-story, wood-frame house was 60 feet (18 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide. A smoke alarm in the living room operated during the fire. There were no sprinklers.
The fire began when a pan of food ignited. The cook, a man suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, tried unsuccessfully to control the flames, but the fire continued to spread. He was able to leave the house, but the woman, who used a wheelchair, couldn’t get out in time. A neighbor eventually rescued her, but not before she was fatally burned.
The home, valued at $50,000, sustained $35,000 in damage. Its contents, valued at $15,000, were destroyed.
Stove ignites fatal fire
CONNECTICUT — An 85-year-old man died of smoke inhalation after a gas stove ignited combustibles in the kitchen of his single-family home.
The two-story, wood-frame house was 48 feet (15 meters) wide and 24 feet (7 meters) long. Single-station, battery-operated smoke alarms on the first and second floors operated as designed. There were no sprinklers.
Firefighters arriving at the house at 1:52 p.m. found heavy fire coming from the open front door and the rear of the home. They tried to enter the structure from the front, but a limited water supply and the volume of the fire forced them to wait for other resources to arrive. Once a water supply had been established, crews used hose lines to knock the fire down and began searching for the occupant.
They found his body on the second floor, where he had died of smoke inhalation. Investigators determined that he had tried unsuccessfully to extinguish the fire with a portable fire extinguisher. When that failed, he opened the front door, then walked upstairs to a bedroom to call the fire department on the home’s only working telephone. This delay allowed the fire to spread up the stairwell and trap the man on the second floor.
Investigators were told that the victim used one stove burner for his cooking and used the rest of the stovetop for storage. They also learned that he had difficulty walking up and down stairs.
The home, valued at $776,750, and its contents sustained significant damage. Four firefighters were injured during extinguishment operations.
Man injured in garage fire
NEW YORK — A 57-year-old man was overcome by smoke when he opened the door to his attached garage and discovered a fire that had started in one of his vehicles. The blaze ignited another vehicle in the garage before spreading to the exterior of the single-family house. A neighbor called 911 at 5:48 a.m.
The two-story dwelling, which was 43 feet (13 meters) long and 71 feet (22 meters) wide, had a brick exterior and a slate roof. There were hardwired smoke detectors on the first and second floors, but they did not sound in the house or at the monitoring station. There were no sprinklers.
Investigators determined that the electrical wiring in one of the vehicles malfunctioned, causing it to ignite.
The victim sustained burns and smoke inhalation injuries. A 23-year-old man was also treated for smoke inhalation, as was the victim’s son.
The house, valued at $2 million, and its contents, valued at $500,000, sustained damage estimated at $300,000 and $100,000, respectively.
Portable electric heater blamed in deadly fire
MICHIGAN — A 19-year-old woman died in a fire that began when a portable electric heater next to the bed in her manufactured home ignited the bedding. Alcohol intoxication was also a factor in her death.
The exterior walls and roof of the wood-frame home, which was 50 feet (15 meters) long and 14 feet (4 meters) wide, were constructed of metal. A local single-station smoke alarm in the hallway had no battery, and the home was not sprinklered.
The fire was discovered by neighbors, who called 911 at 2:33 p.m. They initially delayed calling the fire department because they believed the blaze was a brush fire.
Firefighters arrived within four minutes of the alarm to find heavy fire coming from the rear of the building. The roof had partially collapsed, and live power lines had fallen to the ground, limiting firefighters’ access.
During the suppression operation, the victim’s mother arrived on the scene and told the incident commander that her daughter was probably inside the home. Firefighters then entered the structure and found the young woman in the bathroom.
The house and its contents, valued at $4,500, were destroyed.
Fireplace starts fatal fire
CALIFORNIA — A 91-year-old woman died and her 89-year-old husband was injured in a fire that began as the man burned newspapers, old mail, and trash in the fireplace of their second-floor apartment.
The walls of the six-unit, wood-frame apartment building, which was 50 feet (15 meters) wide and 75 feet (23 meters) long, consisted of plaster over wood lath. Stairwells at the front and rear of the building provided egress to two apartments on each level. Smoke alarms had been installed in the common stairwells and the individual units. There were no sprinklers.
The fire department received the alarm at 11:52 a.m. and arrived minutes later to find fire blowing out of the windows and threatening exposures and the floor above. The man, who had managed to escape from the unit, met firefighters and reported that his wife was still in the apartment.
Advancing hose lines to the second floor, firefighters knocked the spreading fire down and entered the apartment, where they found the body of the victim in the hallway by the front door near the room of origin.
The woman’s husband told investigators that he was burning paper and trash in his fireplace when some of the burning paper spilled onto the floor and ignited nearby combustibles. He tried to extinguish the fire with wet towels and water, but it grew quickly, spreading to upholstered furniture. Calling for his wife, he left the building by the rear staircase.
The building, valued at $4.5 million, sustained $800,000 in damage. The contents were valued at $600,000, and sustained $400,000 in damage. The victim’s husband was burned, but no one else was injured.
Improperly fueled wood stove starts fatal fire
TEXAS — A 63-year-old man died in a fire that began when he used diesel fuel to start a fire in his wood stove. Flames ignited the vapors, and the fire ignited his clothes, the contents of the living room, and the room’s wood paneling before spreading into the kitchen. The man either threw the container of fuel or dropped it, further intensifying the fire.
The fire occurred in a one-story, single-family, wood-frame house that was 40 feet (12 meters) long and 29 feet (9 meters) wide. The home had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
The victim managed to call 911 at 7:40 p.m. but succumbed to smoke and burn injuries before he could leave the house.
Water heater flue pipe ignites combustibles
ARIZONA — A fast-food restaurant was destroyed by an early morning fire that began when combustibles placed too close to the flue pipe of an operating hot water heater in a dry goods store room ignited.
Smoke detectors and local kitchen hood fire suppression systems had been installed in the unsprinklered single-story building, which had masonry walls with a wooden roof and a partial mansard roof facade. However, investigators could not determine whether they operated.
The fire was discovered by a restaurant employee, who smelled smoke. The restaurant was partially closed for the night, with only the drive-through portion open and two employees on duty. The employee who smelled smoke alerted the other, and they both went to investigate. In the store room, they saw the flames approximately 5 feet (1.5 meters) high near the water heater. They called 911 at 2:37 a.m. and safely evacuated.
After the fire was extinguished, investigators determined that it began when combustibles stored near the flue pipe of a gas-fired water heater ignited. Flames quickly compromised the dropped ceiling, allowing the fire to spread into the attic.
The building, valued at $1.5 million, and its contents, valued at $1 million, were destroyed. There were no injuries.
Patient burned during operation
NEBRASKA — A woman undergoing an operation was burned when the dressing applied to her neck ignited in the operating room.
The building in which the operating theater was located was constructed of noncombustible components and was equipped with a monitored fire detection system and a wet-pipe sprinkler system.
During the procedure, the patient’s neck was prepped with alcohol, which soaked into gauze bandages and gave off vapors that pooled in the area. When a cauterizing instrument came into contact with the vapors, they ignited and set the bandages on fire.
The patient suffered nonfatal burns to her neck. The fire, which was not large enough to activate the sprinklers, caused no structural damage.
Sprinkler controls fire in dryer
ILLINOIS — Firefighters responding to a water flow alarm at a commissary that provided products for pizza restaurants found a single sprinkler controlling a fire in a commercial clothes dryer.
The 15,000-square-foot (1,394-square-meter), steel-frame building had concrete block walls covered with a brick veneer and a metal roof deck topped with a rubber surface. A central station alarm company monitored a full-coverage wet-pipe sprinkler system.
Firefighters received the alarm at 6:49 p.m. and responded to find smoke in the building. Upon investigation, they found a sprinkler controlling a fire in the dryer. They extinguished it and disconnected the natural gas supplying the unit, as well as the electrical power.
The building, valued at $1 million, and its contents, valued at $400,000, sustained $5,000 worth of damage.
Sprinklers control furniture warehouse fire
SOUTH CAROLINA — Six sprinklers controlled a fire in the warehouse section of a furniture and mattress store until firefighters could extinguish it.
The steel-frame building, which was 50 feet (15 meters) wide and 175 feet (53 meters) long, had sheet metal walls and a metal roof deck with a built-up surface. Interior walls made of wooden studs covered with gypsum separated the warehouse from the store. There was no fire detection system, but a wet-pipe sprinkler system provided full coverage.
The sprinkler system’s water motor gong alerted store occupants and employees, who called the fire department at 2:31 p.m. Arriving firefighters, who reported smoke showing from two sides of the building, advanced a 134-inch hose line through a garage door, but the contents, heavy smoke, and limited visibility made progress difficult. Once the building was ventilated, the crew found fire in the center of the warehouse and extinguished it.
Investigators could not determine the cause of the fire, which was confined to packing material.
The building, valued at $259,000, sustained $10,000 in damage, while its contents, valued at $150,000, sustained $30,000 in damage.
Sprinkler controls air handling unit fire
ILLINOIS — A sprinkler extinguished a fire in the air handling unit of an office building. A water flow alarm alerted the building’s owner, who was alone in the building at the time.
The two-story, wood-frame building, which was 60 feet (18 meters) long and 90 feet (27 meters) wide, had a wooden roof and exterior walls covered with wood shake shingles. It had a fire detection system, and a full-coverage wet-pipe system had been installed on all floors. A dry-pipe system had been installed in the attic.
Firefighters arrived shortly after 5:59 a.m. to find that heat-resistive coils in an electric air handling unit installed in a mechanical room had ignited a high-efficiency filter before activating the sprinkler.
The building, valued at $3.6 million, and its contents, valued at $2.75 million, sustained $75,000 and $75,000 in damage, respectively. It re-opened for business later that morning.