NFPA Journal®, September/October 2009
Woman dies after clothing ignites
CALIFORNIA — A 42-year-old woman, impaired by alcohol and medication, died of smoke and burn injuries when her clothing caught fire while she was in the utility room. She walked into the kitchen for help, allowing the fire to spread, and collapsed in the kitchen as the home’s other occupants tried unsuccessfully to extinguish her burning clothing.
The exterior walls of the single-family, wood-frame dwelling, which covered 1,152 square feet (107 square meters), were faced with stucco. There were no sprinklers, and investigators could not determine whether the home’s battery-operated smoke alarms sounded.
Firefighters arrived within three minutes of the call, and their initial offensive was pulled back until they knocked the heavy fire down. Crews then re-entered the home using multiple hose lines and found the victim in the kitchen, where she had succumbed to products of combustion.
Investigators determined that the fire started in the utility room, but they were unable to determine whether her clothing or the contents of the utility room ignited first.
The fire heavily damaged the contents of the utility room, garage, and master bedroom, as well as the kitchen and other areas of the home. Estimated damages to both the structure and its contents were placed at $350,000. All other occupants escaped unharmed.
Child playing with fireworks starts fire in house
MARYLAND — An 11-year-old boy and his brother were playing with firecrackers in one of the boy’s bedrooms when they started a fire that heavily damaged the second floor of their townhouse.
The two-story, wood-frame townhouse was a middle unit with similar units on either side. Hardwired smoke alarms were located on each level of the home and worked as designed. There were no sprinklers.
The boys ignited a firecracker with a butane lighter and put it in a dresser drawer, where it exploded and ignited the contents of the drawer. One of the boys tried to extinguish the blaze by throwing a cupful of water onto it, but he was unsuccessful. At some point, the smoke alarm operated, and their father, who was on the first floor, went to investigate. When he spotted the fire, he tried to control it using a portable fire extinguisher before calling 911 around 11:53 a.m.
Arriving firefighters, who found heavy smoke coming from the front and rear of the house, put out the blaze with interior hose lines. By the time they extinguished the fire, it had spread to the attic and roof trusses. The second floor sustained heavy smoke and fire damage, while smoke and water damaged the first floor.
Neither the boys nor their father was hurt, but the house, valued at $130,000, and its contents, valued at $30,000, sustained losses of $50,000 and $20,000, respectively.
House fire kills four
OHIO — Two 53-year-old women, a 41-year-old man, and a 12-year-old girl died in an early morning fire that began in the living room of their two-story, single-family home.
The wood-frame house was 32 feet (10 meters) long and 28 feet (9 meters) wide and had an asphalt roof. Firefighters found a battery-operated smoke alarm on the ceiling but did not report hearing it operate. The house had no sprinklers.
The police were conducting an investigation several blocks away when they first smelled smoke and began a search for its source. Twelve minutes later, they located the burning house and radioed for fire units at 3:30 a.m. Some arriving firefighters advanced a hose line through the front door to protect the stairwell and extinguish the fire in a middle room, while others entered the rear of the house and went up to the second floor to search for occupants.
They found the first victim in a second-floor bedroom and the second in the second-floor hallway. The third victim was found in the first-floor kitchen by the sink, whose faucet was running. The last victim was found on the living room floor.
Investigators determined that the unintentional fire began in the middle room on the first floor. It was confined to the room of origin, although heat damaged the adjoining rooms and smoke damaged the upper floor.
The house, valued at $70,000, sustained $35,000 in damage. Contents, valued at $30,000, were a total loss.
Two intentional fires in foreclosed home
ARIZONA — An intentionally set fire substantially damaged the second floor of a large, single-family house. Although the house, which was under foreclosure, had a fire sprinkler system, it failed to operate because the water had been shut off due to nonpayment.
The two-story wood-frame home, which covered approximately 5,900 square feet (548 square meters), was vacant at the time of the fire. All it contained was some trash and an upholstered couch. Hardwired smoke detectors were located in the common areas and bedrooms, but they had been disabled by lack of electricity.
A neighbor noticed the fire and called 911 at 11:58 p.m. Firefighters arrived minutes later to find heavy smoke and flames coming from the second floor, and extinguished the blaze using a tower ladder and several monitor nozzles.
Investigators found evidence that a door had been forced open before the firefighters arrived. They also determined that an accelerant poured on the second floor and in the first-floor hallway had been ignited by an unknown ignition source. The fire consumed some of the remaining contents before it spread through structural floor and ceiling voids to the attic.
The home, valued at $1 million, incurred $200,000 in damage.
Two nights later, the house was destroyed by a second fire. By the time firefighters were summoned to the property at 8:05 p.m., flames were visible on both floors of the structure, and they had to use more than 160,000 gallons (606,000 liters) of water to extinguish the blaze.
Investigators found that the lock on the natural gas supply valve had been broken and that valves on the gas line in the laundry room and water heater room had been opened before an accelerant poured in a first-floor hallway was ignited. The fire spread up the open stairs and vented through the roof, which had been opened during the previous fire.
Malfunctioning dishwasher starts destructive fire
ALABAMA — A dishwasher pump motor failed and started a fire in the kitchen of a large, single-family home that spread to concealed spaces and heavily damaged the structure.
The single-story, wood-frame house, which was unoccupied at the time of the fire, covered an area of approximately 3,400 square feet (316 square meters). It had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
A passerby called in the alarm at 11:32 p.m., and firefighters responded within eight minutes to find heavy black smoke coming from the roof eaves and the whole house heavily involved in fire.
Investigators learned that a cleaning person had turned the dishwasher on and noticed that the water was not emptying from it. Not realizing that the machine’s pump had failed, she cleaned out the drain line, thinking it was plugged, and turned the unit back on. Eventually, the failed pump’s motor overheated and ignited the structural framing behind the dishwasher and the cabinets above it. Two several-ton operating air conditioning units fed more air to the fire and helped the blaze spread to the ceiling and into the attic.
Damage to the home, which had historic value, was estimated at $220,000. No one was injured.
Blocked windows foil escape
ARIZONA — Although a smoke alarm alerted the two occupants of a manufactured home to a fire that began on the structure’s exterior, they were unable to escape. Both windows in the master bedroom were blocked, one by furniture and the second by an air conditioning unit, forcing the victims into the path of the fire.
The single-story manufactured home had a bedroom at one end and another bedroom at the other, bracketing the living room, kitchen, and bathroom. Two additions contained an office and a pantry, and a covered porch ran the length of the building. Smoke alarms had been installed at both ends of the unsprinklered home.
Police officers discovered the fire and alerted the fire department at 11:02 p.m. By the time firefighters arrived, the home and office addition were well involved in fire. Crews advancing a hose line into the house found the first victim sitting against the front door and the second victim lying in the doorway of the master bedroom. Firefighters managed to extinguish the fire without incident.
Investigators could not locate the exact source of ignition or determine what had been ignited first, but the fire started on the exterior wall of the office addition and spread into the structure from there.
Damage to the home was significant but no dollar loss was reported.
Smoking on oxygen injures one
PENNSYLVANIA — A resident of a board-and-care facility was burned and his bedding damaged by a fire started by a cigarette. The occupant, whose age was not reported, was smoking while using oxygen.
The four-story facility was 119 feet (36 meters) long and 46 feet (14 meters) wide. The building did not have sprinklers, although a fire detection system monitored by a central station alarm company provided full coverage. Each unit and all common areas had smoke detectors that worked as designed.
The fire department received the alarm from the alarm company at 3:40 p.m. Arriving firefighters found that a staff member had successfully extinguished the fire on the resident’s bed using a 10-pound (5-kilogram) dry chemical fire extinguisher. The staff had been alerted to the fire by the fire detection system.
The structure, valued at $300,000, sustained approximately $2,000 in damage. Its contents, valued at $400,000, sustained a loss of approximately $1,000. The resident had burns to the face and hands.
No smoke alarms in fatal fire
ILLINOIS — A 32-year-old woman and a 35-year-old man died in an early morning fire that started in the basement and spread to the upper floors, heavily damaging their single-family home. A neighbor discovered the fire at 4:42 a.m.
The two-story, single-family home, which was 66 feet (20 meters) long and 24 feet (7 meters) wide, was constructed of wood framing and had an asphalt-shingled roof. There were no sprinklers, and investigators could not locate smoke alarms at any level.
The fire began near the electrical panel on the west wall of the basement. During the investigation, an electrical engineer noted that wiring had short circuited and caused insulation to burn before the fire spread to nearby combustibles.
The house, valued at $149,000, and its contents, valued at $70,000, were destroyed. Toxicology results showed the victims were impaired before the fire by alcohol and other substances. Two firefighters were injured during fireground operations.
Heating pad starts fatal fire
KANSAS — A woman died in an early morning fire that began in an upholstered recliner in the family room of her single-family house.
The single-story, wood-frame dwelling had three bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room, and a garage that had been converted into a family room. Its hardwired smoke detectors with battery backup operated as designed. There were no sprinklers.
A passerby discovered the fire and alerted police officers at a convenience store around 1:20 a.m. The officers responded to the scene and notified the 911 dispatcher of the situation. The officers then forced the front door open and removed the woman, who was lying on the living room love seat just inside the door. By that time, however, she had sustained fatal smoke inhalation injuries.
Within minutes, fire crews arrived to find fire coming from the home and police outside with the victim. While some firefighters advanced a 134-inch (4-centimeter) hose line through the front door, others tended to the victim, established a water supply, and ventilated the building. Crews searching for additional victims reported high heat and heavy smoke.
Investigators determined that portions of an electric heating pad that the woman had used in the recliner to soothe her chronic back pain had been forced into the folds of the chair’s padding. The bent pad overheated and eventually ignited, and the fire burned until all combustible items in the room reached ignition temperature, flashing over before the fire department arrived.
The home sustained an $80,000 loss, and its contents, valued at $40,000, were destroyed.
Electrical arc causes fatal fire
VIRGINIA — A 61-year-old man died in a fire that burned for several hours before a neighbor detected it and notified the fire department at 8:28 a.m.
The three-story, single-family, wood-frame dwelling was 27 feet (8 meters) long and 53 feet (16 meters) wide. It had brick exterior walls and a wood-framed roof covered with asphalt shingles. There were no sprinklers, and investigators could find no smoke alarms.
Electrical wiring in a basement ceiling joist channel is believed to have arced, igniting the structural framing. The fire then burned along the subfloor to the first floor near the wall and spread into the living room, igniting its contents. From there, the smoke and heat spread into the hallway to the rest of the house.
The fire, which heavily damaged the living room and caused smoke and heat to spread throughout the dwelling, caused approximately $75,000 in property damage to the house, which was valued at $100,000, and to its contents, which were valued at $50,000. The victim was found to have died of smoke inhalation.
Sprinklers control hotel fire
ILLINOIS — Sprinklers operated to control a fire that began when a hotel guest fell asleep while smoking and her cigarette ignited the bedding.
The two-story hotel, constructed of concrete, was 100 feet (30 meters) long and 40 feet (12 meters) wide. It had a pitched roof covered with asphalt shingles. A dry-pipe sprinkler system and fire detection system were both monitored by an off-site fire alarm company.
Smoke from the fire caused the room’s smoke alarm to activate, and this was followed by the activation of a sprinkler, which controlled the blaze until firefighters arrived at 1:11 a.m. The fire department completed extinguishment using a 134-inch (4-centimeter) hose line.
By the time firefighters arrived, the hotel staff and guests had evacuated, and all were accounted for except the occupant of the room of origin. She had been seen by either staff or other guests after she self-evacuated, but she left the scene shortly thereafter. When she was eventually located, she admitted to falling asleep while smoking, causing the mattress and bedding to ignite. Investigators determined that she was under the influence of alcohol and had stayed at the hotel so as not to drive home.
Fire damage was limited to the room of origin, although there was some smoke damage on the second floor and water damage in the room of origin, an adjacent room, and the room directly below the fire. The building, valued at $2 million, sustained $10,000 worth of damage. The contents of the room of origin, valued at $5,000, were a total loss. There were no injuries.
Incendiary fire destroys abandoned building
NORTH CAROLINA — An intentionally set fire damaged a large abandoned manufacturing building that had been condemned and was slated for demolition. It was being used for storage, and its contents provided the fire’s fuel.
The three-story building, which was 300 feet (91 meters) long and 150 feet (46 meters) wide, was constructed of heavy timber with dimensional structural wood framing and brick walls. Its flat roof was covered by tar roofing material. A sprinkler system had been installed, but previous freeze-ups and falling timbers had caused the piping to break, rendering it useless.
A passerby called 911 at 6:26 p.m., and fire companies arriving four minutes later fought the blaze defensively because of the existing structural problems. Investigators determined that someone had ignited plastics and rolls of paper stored on the first floor near the middle of the warehouse.
There were no injuries.
Fire destroys restaurant
IOWA — An early morning fire started by an electrical malfunction destroyed a bar and grill.
The one-story, wood-frame building, which was 62 feet (19 meters) long and 28 feet (9 meters) wide, had a basement and a wood roof covered by asphalt shingles. A fire detection system in the kitchen operated, but the only suppression system was installed over the cooking area.
Crews responding to a 2:30 a.m. alarm from the monitoring company forced a rear door open and entered the kitchen, where they found moderate heat and heavy smoke but no fire. They backed out and forced the front door open, entering the restaurant to find floor-to-ceiling smoke and high heat. As the firefighters crawled along the floor, they could feel the heat through their protective pants and suspected that the seat of the fire was in the basement.
Investigators determined that the fire started in the stairwell leading to the basement, which contained several pieces of electric-powered equipment. An electrical malfunction in one of them started the fire, which ignited manufactured wood products.
The building, valued at $500,000, and its contents, valued at $250,000, were destroyed.
Concealed fire damages mall
KANSAS — An undetermined electrical malfunction is believed to have ignited lint from a dry cleaner that had accumulated in the void between the ceiling and roof of a strip mall, starting a fire that damaged several businesses.
The single-story mall was 400 feet (122 meters) long and 100 feet (30 meters) wide. It had masonry walls and a flat wooden roof. The structure was equipped with smoke detectors but it had no sprinklers.
The fire was reported at 6:20 p.m. by someone in the mall’s parking lot, who saw smoke coming from the building. Firefighters arriving within four minutes also saw the smoke and started laying multiple hose lines to the building. Once inside the mall, crews could see the fire in the dry cleaning store. Additional companies found that masonry fire walls extending to the roof had confined fire damage to two shops that shared attic space.
The property was valued at $7 million dollars, and its contents were valued at $5 million. Damage to the building was estimated at $1.5 million, while damage to the contents was estimated at $2.5 million.
There were no injuries.
Sprinkler controls department store fire
PENNSYLVANIA — A single sprinkler operated to control a fire in the stock room of a large department store that was about to open for business, containing it until firefighters could extinguish it. The three-story, steel-frame building, which had concrete block and brick walls, had a wet-pipe sprinkler system and smoke detectors monitored by an alarm company.
The alarm company alerted the fire department to the sprinkler system’s water flow alarm at 8:36 a.m. Responding firefighters saw no fire or smoke until they entered the building, where they encountered smoke near a first-floor bathroom and heavy smoke in an adjacent stock room. By then, the fire was out, and firefighters finished ventilation in roughly an hour.
Investigators determined that the fire started when a foam bed pad wrapped in plastic and placed on a shelf next to a radiant ceiling heater ignited when a drop in temperature caused the heater to operate. Melting plastic and foam flowed onto products below the shelf until the sprinkler operated and extinguished the fire. The store was allowed to open about an hour after the fire, although the affected area remained off limits.
The building, valued at $12 million, sustained structural losses of $10,000. Its contents, valued at nearly $30 million, sustained $300,000 worth of damage. One firefighter suffered a minor eye injury during the operation.
Welding starts fire in mall
UTAH — Two sprinklers operated and controlled a fire that began when welders installing a decorative tree at a mall that was closed for the night ignited the tree’s foam material. The two-level mall, which had 50-foot (15-meter) ceilings, was equipped with a wet-pipe sprinkler system.
The fire department received the alarm at 10:59 p.m., and firefighters arrived within three minutes to find smoke coming from the roof of the mall and filling the interior. Advancing a hose line into the building, they found that the smoke had banked down from the ceiling to just 4 feet (1 meter) from the floor, substantially limiting their visibility.
When they finally found the seat of the fire, firefighters used a hose line to complete extinguishment. After the fire was out, however, they noticed that smoke was being generated elsewhere, although the smoke and the height of the ceiling made it difficult to determine whether fire had impinged on the ceiling. Horizontal ventilation improved the situation only slightly because of the building’s large size.
As additional crews placed protective hose lines to limit possible fire spread, other crews controlled the mall’s HVAC units to exhaust the smoke from the building.
Construction workers reported that the fire started when their welding torch came too close to the spray foam on the tree and that they tried unsuccessfully to control the blaze with portable fire extinguishers.
Structural damage to the building was estimated at $25,000, while smoke damage was estimated at $1,175,000.