A faulty light fixture was blamed for a fire in this North Carolina home that killed a 92-year-old woman.(Photo: Carol Brooks)
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2010
Woman dies in home fire
The one-story, wood-frame house, which covered approximately 2,000 square feet (186 square meters), had no smoke alarms or sprinklers. The interior walls were paneled in wood, and the ceilings were covered in composite ceiling tiles.
NORTH CAROLINA — A 92-year-old woman who used a wheelchair died in her single-family home in a fire started by a malfunctioning light fixture.
A neighbor called 911 at 7 p.m. and told firefighters who arrived two minutes later that he had seen the victim at a window calling for help. Fire crews immediately entered the house without a hose line to rescue her, but the intense heat drove them out. Once they established a hose line, they knocked the fire down, and an interior search team located the woman in a wheelchair in the kitchen. She had died of smoke inhalation.
Investigators determined that a wall-mounted fluorescent light fixture between the bedroom and the living room malfunctioned and that heat from the fixture ignited the wall paneling. The fire then spread until it engulfed the room. They also found that the victim, who used a variety of medications, had been asleep in her bedroom when the fire broke out and had tried to escape in the wheelchair.
The house, valued at $200,000, sustained $180,000 in damage. Damage to its contents, valued at $100,000, was estimated at $80,000.
Boy killed in manufactured home fire
ALASKA — A 9-year-old boy died and his 12-year-old brother was injured in a fire that began when the flue pipe of a homemade wood stove in their 1970 manufactured home failed.
The home was actually made up of two unsprinklered manufactured homes placed side by side with a built-up, lean-to-style roof overhead. Occupants reported that the home had two smoke alarms, but investigators could not locate any, and a survivor did not hear a smoke alarm sound during the fire.
The occupants were eventually woken by smoke and heat, but not before the fire blocked the only working exit. Another door had been screwed shut, and the home had no emergency escape windows. With no working phone, the residents were unable to call the fire department, and the fire was not reported for 20 minutes, when a passerby reported it by cell phone at 10:58 p.m.
Investigators determined that the occupants were burning unseasoned wood in the homemade wood stove and that the flue pipe had split, allowing creosote and burning materials to drop onto combustibles in the living room. The home’s wooden wall paneling contributed to the rapid fire spread.
The home and its contents, valued at $30,000, were destroyed.
Child starts deadly blaze
ARKANSAS—A 4-year-old triplet died in a fire he started when he set a piece of paper on fire using an operating stove burner while left unsupervised by his mother, who was next door at a neighbor’s house. One of his brothers threw the burning paper into the kitchen trash barrel, where it continued to burn, and the fire spread to the walls and the adjacent room.
Someone called 911 at 9:30 a.m. to report the fire. Neighbors tried to rescue the boys by breaking windows, allowing the fire to spread through the remainder of the one-story, wood-frame house, which had no sprinklers or fire alarms.
Two of the boys survived, but one ran to their bedroom and got into bed, where he was trapped by the advancing blaze. The bedroom was actually a walk-in closet and did not have any windows for escape.
The fire destroyed the house, which was valued at $40,000. There were no other injuries.
Heater ignites bedding
NORTH CAROLINA—A 45-year-old woman died in a fire started by a portable electric heater in her bedroom in her single-family home. The portable unit was the woman’s only source of heat and had been left on all night because of the low temperatures.
A smoke alarm had been installed in the hallway outside the bedrooms, but investigators could not determine whether it operated. The wood-frame house had no sprinklers.
A passerby discovered the fire and asked a neighbor to call 911 before trying unsuccessfully to rescue the victim. Investigators learned that the woman, who had been drinking alcohol, was asleep when the heater next to the bed ignited her bedding.
The victim died of smoke inhalation, and the passerby was burned during the rescue attempt.
The house, valued at $45,000, and its contents, valued at $5,000, were completely destroyed.
Fatal bedroom fire
MAINE—A 57-year-old woman died in an unintentional fire that started in the bedroom of her apartment.
The seven-unit apartment building, which was actually two older, wood-frame homes of balloon construction that had been connected, was roughly 100 feet (30 meters) long and 40 feet (12 meters) wide. One side had three stories, and the other had two. Hardwired smoke detectors had been installed in the common hallways. No smoke alarms were present in the apartment of fire origin. There were no sprinklers.
A passerby noticed fire coming from a fire escape and called 911 at 4:25 a.m. Arriving firefighters saw fire coming from a second-floor door and window, and heavy smoke emanating from the eaves.
Responding to reports of occupants trapped inside, crews entered the building and found wisps of smoke coming from the top and bottom of a second-floor apartment door, whose varnish had blistered, indicating a hot fire on the other side.
Firefighters entered the apartment, extinguished the blaze, and found the woman in the living room. Although investigators could not identify the heat source, they determined that the fire was unintentional and had started in the bedroom when bedding ignited. The fire destroyed an exterior escape door, introducing a southerly wind into the apartment. From the bedroom, flames spread throughout the apartment and into the common attic, racing horizontally through the building and heavily damaging the top floor and roof.
Investigators determined that the closed bedroom door confined the heat and smoke, preventing the fire from reaching the smoke alarms in the building’s common hallway.
The apartment building, valued at $225,000, sustained structural damage estimated at $150,000. Its contents, valued at $50,000, were destroyed. There were no other injuries.
Child dies in wood stove fire
PENNSYLVANIA—A 2-year-old boy died of smoke inhalation injuries he sustained in a fire that began in a wall near a recently installed wood-burning stove.
The two-story, single-family, wood-frame house, which was 60 feet (18 meters) long and 20 feet (6 meters) wide, had no sprinklers. There was a smoke alarm on the first floor, but it had no batteries; there was no smoke alarm on the second floor.
The home’s occupant installed the stove on the first floor, cutting into the wall to place the single-walled flue pipe. However, he neglected to install a thimble or use double-walled flue pipe, and radiant heat from the stove ignited the wall after several days of continuous burning.
A passerby saw the fire and called 911 at 7:30 a.m., but the fire had already heavily damaged the structure.
The home, valued at $50,000, and its contents, valued at $20,000, were completely destroyed.
Fatal fire starts on balcony
TEXAS—A 20-year-old man died of smoke inhalation in a fire that began when discarded smoking materials ignited fabric on a couch on the balcony of his third-floor apartment.
Each floor of the unsprinklered, three-story, wood-frame apartment building, which was built in the 1980s, covered about 3,600 square feet (334 square meters). Each of the 18 apartments had hardwired smoke detectors with battery backup in the hallway and bedrooms.
The occupant of a single-family home next to the apartment building discovered the fire and called 911 at 12:58 a.m. Firefighters responding within six minutes reported heavy smoke coming from the roof. As they walked around the building, they saw heavy fire coming from a third-floor balcony.
Advancing a 134-inch hose line up an exterior stairwell to the third floor, one crew entered the apartment attached to the balcony, to find one wall of the living room and kitchen on fire. Another crew searched units next to and below the burning apartment, but found no one inside. Firefighters continued to attack the blaze in the original unit, where smoke had banked down, making visibility poor.
After searching the apartment and finding nothing, the interior crews opened the ceiling and saw heavy fire spreading rapidly through the attic. The incident commander withdrew the firefighters and began a defensive attack to bring the blaze under control.
After extinguishing the fire, crews conducted a secondary search of the apartment and found the young man’s body in the bedroom. People who had been at a birthday party in the apartment before the fire told investigators that the victim, who rarely drank alcohol, had consumed a number of alcoholic beverages that evening. They also said that several of the guests were smoking on the balcony. Around midnight, the guests decided to go to a restaurant, putting the victim to bed and leaving him alone in the apartment.
Investigators discovered that the fire started on or near the couch on the young man’s balcony and spread to the wooden siding and roof.
The building, valued at $1 million, and its contents, valued at $400,000, sustained damage estimated at $300,000 and $100,000, respectively.
Sprinkler controls fire in home
ARIZONA—A sprinkler held a fire in a bedroom of a single-family home in check until firefighters arrived, preventing a significant fire loss. Investigators believe that the fire began when an unattended candle ignited furniture in the bedroom. No one was home at the time of the fire.
The one-story, wood-frame house, which covered an area of 2,000 square feet (186 square meters), was built on a concrete slab and had a tile roof. It was protected by smoke alarms, which were operating when firefighters responded to a neighbor’s 911 call at 12:48 p.m.
The house, valued at $500,000, and its contents, valued at $50,000, sustained damages estimated at $20,000 and $5,000, respectively. There were no injuries.
Kerosene heater starts fatal fire
ARKANSAS—An 88-year-old woman died of burns and smoke inhalation she suffered when fuel from an operating kerosene heater spilled as it was being moved, setting their single-family, wood-frame house on fire.
The one-story home was built on a concrete slab and had an exterior brick veneer. The 2,000-square-foot (186-square-meter) structure had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
The woman had asked her husband to look at the portable heater in the kitchen, which she said was making “a strange noise.” As he started to move the heater outside, however, it “exploded on him.” He dropped the heater and escaped, but his wife could not. Firefighters arrived within minutes of a 7:29 a.m. 911 call and found heavy smoke and flames coming from the rear of the house.
They tried to enter it to search for the trapped woman, but the heat kept them from making much headway. Hose lines were repositioned at the rear of the house to knock down some of the heavy fire, and teams cut a hole in the roof over the kitchen to allow heat and smoke to vent. When an interior crew entered the house, firefighters found the victim within 2 feet (61 centimeters) of the heater and extinguished the fire.
The woman had extensive burns to her head and face, as well as smoke inhalation injuries. Her 87-year-old husband suffered minor burns.
Damage to the house, valued at $150,000, was estimated at $100,000, while damage to its contents was approximately $75,000.
Disabled woman dies in cooking fire
PENNSYLVANIA—A 73-year-old woman who was blind and used a wheelchair died of burns she suffered when she dropped a foil-and-paper-wrapped sandwich that had caught fire in her microwave onto her lap.
The four-story, steel-frame masonry apartment building, which was 100 feet (30 meters) long and 75 feet (23 meters) wide, had a fire suppression system and a fire detection system that alerted the occupants and the fire department at 5:52 p.m. Responding firefighters discovered that the fire was so small it had extinguished itself before the sprinklers could operate.
Investigators believe that the woman put the sandwich in the microwave, not realizing that it was wrapped in aluminum foil under the paper. When she turned the microwave on, the foil arced and ignited the paper covering the sandwich. After retrieving the burning sandwich from the microwave, the woman dropped it in her lap, where it ignited her clothing. The fire enveloped the victim, but did not spread any further.
Damage to the building and its contents was estimated at $25,000. Two other building occupants, ages 86 and 63, suffered smoke inhalation.
Coffee pot starts fatal fire
NEVADA—A 98-year-old man who used a walker died of burns he sustained when he tried to reheat coffee in the wrong type of pot. Investigators determined that the coffee pot, designed for use with an automatic drip coffee maker, contained plastic parts that melted and ignited when he put it on the burner. The ensuing fire spread to the victim’s fleece pants.
His single-story, wood-frame home, valued at $277,600, sustained damage estimated at $2,500. Its contents, valued at $50,000, sustained $2,500 in damage. The house, which covered an area of approximately 2,870 square feet (267 square meters), had battery-operated smoke alarms in the hallway, but there were no sprinklers.
Extension cord under carpet starts fatal fire
WASHINGTON—A 59-year-old man died as a result of injuries he sustained escaping from a fire in his single-family home.
The victim used the one-story, wood-frame house, which was 30 feet (9 meters) long and 41 feet (12 meters) wide, as an office, as well as his home. As a result, certain areas had a heavy fuel load of cardboard boxes and paper files. Investigators found no evidence of smoke alarms, and the house had no sprinklers.
Firefighters responding to a 911 call from a neighbor had difficulty reaching the scene due to heavy snows and freezing roads and were further hampered by the lack of hydrants in the rural area.
The fire started along the floor in the living room, where a groove held an extension cord covered by a carpet. Heat from the cord ignited the flooring, and the fire spread to a sofa and then into the kitchen. As the blaze spread to the attic and toward the bedroom where the victim was located, it blocked both the house’s primary doors. The victim ran through the fire and out the front door rather than trying to escape through the bedroom window. Firefighters found him outside the house suffering from smoke and heat inhalation and burns to his face and body. He died the next day.
The home, valued at $66,200, was a total loss.
Damaged electrical feed ignites deadly fire
VIRGINIA—A 45-year-old man died of smoke inhalation when a fire trapped him in the basement of his unsprinklered single-family home.
The single-story, wood-frame house, which was 40 feet (12 meters) wide and 25 feet (8 meters) long, had brick veneer exterior walls and a roof covered with asphalt shingles. A hardwired smoke detector with battery backup was located at the top of the basement steps, but investigators could not determine if it operated.
After the man woke and discovered the fire, he yelled for his mother to get out of the house. She saw smoke and called 911 at 8:08 a.m.
Firefighters arriving seven minutes later reported heavy black smoke coming from the basement and first floor, and advanced a hose line into the house in search of the trapped occupant. The incident commander ordered a second alarm and committed a second interior team to search the first floor. Firefighters found the victim in the basement and removed him, but he was pronounced dead at the scene.
Investigators discovered that the occupants had struck the underground power feed to the house while digging in the yard about a week before the fire, resulting in a fault in the wiring that ignited the structural framing. The fire spread in several directions in the basement and up the stairs, blocking the victim’s means of egress.
The structure, valued at $130,000, and its contents, valued at $20,000, sustained damage estimated at $50,000 and $10,000, respectively.
Cigarette ignites home oxygen unit
ILLINOIS—Two sprinklers extinguished an apartment fire that started when a 78-year-old man removed the tubing of his home oxygen system, placed it near a cigarette burning in an ashtray, and left the room.
The eight-story, steel-frame, Type1 fire-resistive apartment building had concrete floors, walls, and roof. Brick covered the exterior, and the roof was of built-up construction. Each unit had battery-operated smoke alarms. A wet-pipe sprinkler system protected the entire building, and hardwired smoke detectors were located in the common areas. The sprinkler and detection systems were monitored by a central station alarm company.
Firefighters responding to the 6:30 a.m. water flow alarm found that the two sprinklers had already extinguished the blaze, which investigators determined began when the cigarette ignited the oxygen flowing from the oxygen unit’s plastic tubing.
The building, valued at $2 million, sustained no structural damage. Damage to its contents, valued at $750,000, was estimated at $15,000. The occupant of the apartment was treated for smoke inhalation.
Cigarette ignites sofa in fatal fire
MISSOURI—A 57-year-old man was overcome by smoke when he tried to extinguish a fire in the living room of his single-family home with a portable fire extinguisher. The one-story, wood-frame house had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
A neighbor noticed the fire and called 911 at 5:32 a.m. Responding firefighters controlled the blaze and found the victim in the hallway with an uncharged fire extinguisher next to him. He was later pronounced dead as a result of smoke inhalation injuries.
Investigators determined that the fire began when the man fell asleep while smoking on a living room sofa. At the charred end of the sofa, they found his slippers, a blanket, an ashtray, and cigarettes. There was also evidence of alcohol consumption, which may have contributed to the fire.
Sprinklers control paper mill fire
NEW YORK—Two sprinklers controlled a fire in a paper production machine at a large paper mill until firefighters could extinguish it.
The mill, which covered nearly 300,000 square feet (27,900 square meters), had been added onto over the years. The older sections had wood structural members, while the newer sections were of noncombustible construction. The roof consisted of built-up asphalt and metal. A wet-pipe sprinkler system provided full coverage.
The mill’s staff noticed the fire and called 911 to report it at 7:08 p.m. Two sprinkler heads inside the paper production machine operated, extinguishing the flames in the machine and most of the fire in the pit below. Responding firefighters extinguished the remaining hot spots in the pit.
Investigators determined that abearing in the machine’s rollers overheated and ignited the paper being processed. As the fire burned, bits of flaming paper dropped into a pit under the machine and to the paper in upper parts of the machine.
Property loss was minimal, and no one was injured.
Firefighters unable to locate seat of warehouse fire
WISCONSIN—It took firefighters 18 hours to extinguish a slow-burning fire in a century-old warehouse that was filled with stacked cardboard and other stored materials.
The original portion of the building had concrete block and brick walls, timber supports, and a wooden roof covered by tin and asphalt. A steel-frame addition with metal walls and a metal roof nearly doubled its size. A fire door divided the original building from the newer section, but the older section had no fire doors. Neither portion of the structure had fire detection or suppression equipment.
A neighbor called police at 11 p.m. to report smelling something burning. Police investigating the alarm smelled smoke but could not initially locate the fire until an officer heard water running off the building’s roof. When he went to investigate, he saw ice and snow melting at a certain spot. The police contacted the fire department.
Arriving firefighters entered the warehouse in the middle of the building near the junction of the new and old portions to find the interior laden with smoke, although there was little heat. Crews advanced about 30 feet (9 meters) into the building while additional firefighters began opening the metal walls and doors trying to find the seat of the fire.
After firefighters searched unsuccessfully for the fire for about 20 minutes, the incident commander ordered everyone out of the building, fearing that someone would be hurt by the warehouse’s contents, which were beginning to fall over. Crews eventually brought the fire under control with exterior hose lines, but heavy equipment was needed to fully extinguish the blaze.
Investigators were unable to determine the cause of the fire or its point of origin.
Damage to the building was estimated at $2.5 million, and its contents, valued at $1 million, were destroyed. One firefighter was injured.
Sprinklers spare store major loss
OREGON—The motor of an HVAC system on the mezzanine of a retail store seized and created enough heat to ignite insulation, starting a fire that spread to the wooden roof joists. Fortunately, two sprinklers controlled the fire until firefighters, responding to a water flow alarm at 11:10 p.m., extinguished it.
The single-story building had a concrete floor and walls, and a wooden roof. A monitored wet-pipe sprinkler system provided full coverage.
The building, valued at $1,200,000, and its contents, valued at $300,000, sustained damages estimated at $20,000 each.
Sprinkler controls hospital fire
TEXAS—A sprinkler extinguished a fire in a hospital laboratory’s electrical room before firefighters responding to the 7:15 a.m. water flow alarm arrived.
The single-story, steel-frame building had a concrete floor, metal stud walls, and a flat, built-up roof that was covered with tar. It also had fire alarm and wet-pipe sprinkler systems monitored by a central station company.
Investigators determined that the fire began when a power supply transformer malfunctioned and overheated, causing the components of the unit to ignite. Smoke from the fire tripped the smoke detector in the room and the heat activated the sprinkler.
Damage to the building and its contents was not reported. No one was injured.