In California, three large wildfires in mid-November resulted in an estimated $1.4 billion in property damage. (Photograph: AP/Wide World)
U.S. Fire Loss for 2008
Home fires account for 83 percent of all civilian fire deaths, which is why fire-safety efforts aimed at the home are key to reducing the overall fire death toll.
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2009
By Michael J. Karter, Jr.
In 2008, public fire departments responded to 1,451,500 fires in the United States, according to estimates based on data NFPA received from fire departments responding to its 2008 National Fire Experience Survey. This figure represents a decrease of 6.8 percent compared with 2007, and is the lowest since NFPA began using its current survey methodology in 1977–78.
Download the "Fire Loss in the United States 2008" report (PDF, 244 KB)
Overall fire statistics
RELATED NFPA JOURNAL FEATURES
U.S. Fire Loss - 2007 (Sep/Oct 2008)
FIRE BY THE NUMBERS
- 1,451,500 fires were attended by public fire departments in 2008, a decrease of 6.8 percentfrom the previous year.
- 515,000 fires occurred in structures, a decrease of 2.9 percent.
- 403,000 fires, or 78 percent of all structure fires, occurred in residential properties.
- 236,000 fires occurred in vehicles, a decrease of 8.5 percent from the year before.
- 700,500 fires occurred in outside properties, a decrease of 8.9 percent.
- A fire department responds to a fire somewhere in the United States every 22 seconds.
- A fire occurs in a structure at the rate of one every 61 seconds.
- A residential fire occurs every 78 seconds.
- Fires occur in vehicles at the rate of one every 134 seconds.
- A fire occurs in an outside property every 45 seconds.
CIVILIAN FIRE DEATHS
- 3,320 civilian fire deaths occurred in 2008, a decrease of 3.2 percent from the previous year.
- 2,755 civilian deaths, or about 83 percent of all fire deaths, occurred in homes, a decrease of 3.8 percent.
- 350 civilians died in highway vehicle fires.
- 120 civilians died in nonresidential structure fires.
- Nationwide, there was a civilian fire death every 158 minutes.
CIVILIAN FIRE INJURIES
- 16,705 civilian fire injuries occurred in 2008, a decrease of 5.5 percent. This estimate for civilian injuries is on the low side because many civilian injuries are not reported to the fire service.
- 13,560 of all civilian injuries occurred in residential properties.
- 1,400 civilian injuries occurred in nonresidential structure fires.
- Nationwide, there was a civilian fire injury every 31 minutes.
- An estimated $15.5 billion in property damage occurred as a result of fire in 2008, an increase of 5.7 percent from 2007.
- Approximately $12.4 billion of property damage occurred in structure fires.
- Approximately $8.5 billion of property loss occurred in residential properties.
INTENTIONALLY SET FIRES
- An estimated 30,500 intentionally set structure fires occurred in 2008, a decrease of 6.2 percent from 2007.
- Intentionally set fires in structures resulted in 315 civilian deaths, an increase of 6.8 percent.
- Intentionally set structure fires resulted in $866 million in property loss, an increase of 18.2 percent.
- 17,500 intentionally set vehicle fires occurred, the samenumber as the previous year, and caused $139 million in property damage, a decrease of 4.1 percent from the year before.
An estimated 515,000 structure fires were reported to fire departments in 2008, a decrease of 2.9 percent, the lowest figure reported since 2005, when there were 511,000 structure fires. For the period 1977–2008, the number of structure fires was at its highest in 1977, when 1,098,000 occurred. The number then decreased steadily, particularly in the 1980s. For 1989, 688,000 structure fires were reported. Structure fires continued to decrease during the 1990s, and for the period 1999–2008, they ranged from 505,000 to 530,500 annually.
Of the reported structure fires in 2008, 403,000 were residential fires, accounting for 78.2 percent of all structure fires, a decrease of 2.7 percent from the year before. Of the residential structure fires, 291,000 occurred in one- and two-family homes, accounting for 56.5 percent of all structure fires. Another 95,500 occurred in apartments, accounting for 18.5 percent of all structure fires.
For nonresidential structure fires, most property types showed little or no change in 2008. Notable changes in property types included a decrease of 13 percent in industrial properties, to 10,000 reported fires; a decrease of 7.7 percent in educational properties, to 6,000 fires; and a decrease of 7.1 percent in institutional properties, to 6,500 fires.
In 2008, there were 700,500 outside fires, a decrease of 8.9 percent and the lowest figure since NFPA began using its current survey methodology in 1977–78. In particular, fires outside with value decreased 16.5 percent from the year before, to 71,000. Rubbish fires also saw a significant decrease, falling 9 percent to 188,000, and brush fires decreased 5.6 percent to 335,000.
For the period 1977–2008, the number of outside fires was at its highest in 1977, when 1,658,500 occurred. The number then began to drop, to 1,011,000 in 1983, a decrease of 39 percent. Outside fires changed little for the rest of the 1980s, except for 1988, when 1,214,000 occurred. Outside fires dropped to 910,500 in 1993 and stayed near the 1,000,000 level for the next three years. Since 1997, the number of outside fires has ranged from 839,000 to 861,500, except for 1999, when they jumped to 931,500, and during the 2003–05 and 2008 periods, when they ranged from 700,500 to 801,000.
Civilian fire deaths
The 1,451,500 fires reported by fire departments in the United States in 2008 resulted in an estimated 3,320 civilian deaths based on data reported to NFPA. This is a decrease of 3.2 percent from the year before. The nature of this decrease is better understood when results are examined by property type.
An estimated 2,780 civilians died in residential fires in 2008, a decrease of 4 percent from 2007. Of these deaths, 390 occurred in apartment fires, the lowest figure since 2002, when a similar number died in apartment fires. Another 2,365 died in one- and two-family homes, virtually no change from the year before. In all, fires in the home, defined here as one- and two-family dwellings, including manufactured homes and apartments, resulted in 2,755 civilian deaths, a decrease of 3.8 percent from 2007, and the third lowest figure since 1977.
Several observations are worth noting regarding civilian deaths since 1977. Home fire deaths were at their peak in 1978, when 6,015 people died. Home fire deaths then saw a steady overall decrease from 1979 to 1982, falling 20 percent, to 4,820, by the end of 1982. From 1982 to 1988, the number of home fire deaths remained steady, ranging from 4,655 to 4,955, except for 1984, when 4,075 people died. From 1989 to 1996, home fire deaths continued to decline, ranging from 3,425 to 4,335 annually. Since 1997, home fire deaths have generally continued to decline, with the number of deaths ranging from 2,580 to 3,190 since 2001.
Home fire deaths fell by 53 percent during the period 1977–2008, from 5,865 in 1977 to 2,775 in 2008. The number of home fires also declined steadily, for an overall decrease of 47 percent for the same period. By contrast, the death rate per 1,000 home fires was 8.1 in 1977 and 7.2 in 2008, a decrease of just 11 percent, meaning that the death rate risk when a fire occurs has not changed much over the past three decades.
With home fires still accounting for 2,755 fire deaths, or 83 percent of all civilian fire deaths, fire-safety initiatives targeted at the home remain the key to any reductions in the overall fire death toll. More widespread public fire safety education is needed to teach people how to prevent fires and avoid serious injury or death if a fire occurs. Information on the common causes of fatal home fires should continue to be used in the design of fire-safety education messages. More people must use and maintain smoke detectors and develop and practice escape plans. Wider use of residential sprinklers must be aggressively pursued, and additional ways must be sought to make home products more fire-safe. The special fire-safety needs of high-risk groups such as children, older adults, and the poor also need to be addressed.
Also in 2008, 120 civilians died in nonresidential structure fires, an increase of 14.3 percent, and an estimated 350 civilians died in highway vehicle fires, the lowest number since NFPA began using its current survey methodology in 1977–78.
Of the 2,900 civilians that died in structure fires, 315, or 10.8 percent, died in fires that were intentionally set.
Civilian fire injuries
Results based on data reported to NFPA indicate that, in addition to 3,320 civilian fire deaths, there were an estimated 16,705 civilian fire injuries in 2008. This represents a decrease of 5.5 percent from the year before.
Estimates of civilian fire injuries are generally regarded as low, because many civilian injuries are not reported to the fire service. For example, many injuries occur at small fires to which fire departments do not respond, and when departments do respond, they are sometimes unaware of injured persons that they did not transport to medical facilities.
NFPA estimates that 13,560 civilians were injured in residential properties, a decrease of 3.1 percent. Of these injuries, 9,185 occurred in one- and two-family homes, and 3,975 occurred in apartments. There were also 1,400 civilians injured in nonresidential structures in 2008.
For the period 1977–2008, the number of civilian injuries has decreased 48 percent overall, ranging from a high of 31,275 in 1983 to a low of 16,400 in 2006. There was no consistent pattern until 1995, when injuries fell by roughly 5,000 to 25,775. From 1996 to 2002, injuries declined 28 percent, to 18,425. From 2002 to 2008, injuries have typically ranged from 17,650 to 18,425.
NFPA estimates that the 1,451,500 fires to which the fire service responded in 2008 caused $15.5 billion in property damage, an increase of 5.7 percent from the year before. This figure includes property damage from the 2008 California wildfires, estimated at $1.4 billion. Wildfire losses typically include many structures and vehicles, but detailed property losses are often unavailable.
Fires in structures resulted in $12.4 billion in damage, a significant increase of 16.2 percent. Average loss per structure fire was $24,002, an increase of 19.7 percent.
During the period 1977–2008, and excluding the events of September 11, 2001, the average loss per structure fire ranged from a low of $3,757 in 1977 to a high of $24,002 in 2008, for an overall increase of 538 percent. When property loss is adjusted for inflation, the increase in the average structure fire loss between 1977 and 2008 is 80 percent.
Of the property loss in structures, $8.5 billion occurred in residential properties, a significant increase of 13.3 percent. An estimated $6.9 billion occurred in one- and two-family homes, a significant increase of 10.7 percent. An estimated $1.3 billion also occurred in apartments.
Other property damage figures worth noting for 2008 include $1.4 billion in industrial properties, a significant increase of 79.9 percent, including three fires that resulted in a total property loss of $775 million. Fires in special properties resulted in losses of $459 million, a significant increase of 26.8 percent. Fires in other residential properties did $307 million in property damage, an increase of 95.5 percent, including one fire that caused $100 million in property loss, while fires in educational properties resulted in $66 million in property loss, a significant decrease of 34 percent.
Property loss totals can change dramatically from year to year because of the impact of occasional large loss fires. NFPA provides an analysis of these fires in its annual “Large Loss Fires” report, which will appear in the November/December issue of NFPA Journal.
Intentionally set fires
Based on data reported by fire departments, NFPA estimates there were 30,500 intentionally set structure fires in 2008, a decrease of 6.2 percent from the year before. These fires resulted in an estimated 315 civilian deaths, an increase of 6.8 percent, as well as $866,000,000 in property loss, a significant increase of 18.2 percent.
There were also an estimated 17,500 intentionally set vehicle fires in 2008, a decrease of 14.7 percent from the year before. These fires resulted in $139 million in property loss, a decrease of 4.1 percent from 2007.
NFPA thanks the many fire departments that responded to the 2008 National Fire Experience Survey. The author also thanks the many members of NFPA staff who worked on this year’s survey, including Frank Deely, John Baldi, and John Conlon for editing the survey forms and making follow-up calls to fire departments, and Norma Candeloro for processing the survey forms and typing this report.
Michael J. Karter, Jr. is senior statistician with NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division.