Firefighters battle a church fire stated by an electric heater on the first floor at the rear of the building. (Photo: Dave Stewart - MassFirePics.Com)
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2010
Church damaged by fire
MASSACHUSETTS — Firefighters responding to a 6:37 a.m. fire alarm at a large, unoccupied church found a fire spreading up a wall into the second floor and attic. They initiated an interior attack, but pulled back to an outside defensive stance when the size of the fire made that necessary. After the flames were sufficiently knocked down, they reinitiated the interior attack for final extinguishment.
The four-story, wood-frame church, which was 110 feet (34 meters) long and 60 feet (18 meters) wide, was built of heavy timber with balloon construction and an asphalt-shingle roof. The building had a fire detection system connected to a municipal radio master box. There were no sprinklers.
Investigators found an electric heater on the first floor at the rear of the building, the electric wiring of which passed through the floor to a basement electrical panel. The fire started where the wiring passed through the floor and wall when resistance heating ignited the wood.
Damage to the building, valued at $2 million, was estimated at $1 million. Its contents, valued at $1 million, sustained $600,000 in damage. Three firefighters suffered minor injuries.
Man uses fire to commit suicide
TEXAS — A 24-year-old man who died in a fire in his apartment was determined to have committed suicide.
A neighbor discovered the blaze and called 911 at 12:42 p.m. Responding firefighters, who found heavy fire and smoke coming from the second-floor unit, had trouble entering the apartment because the man had placed a sofa against the front door and a mattress against a bedroom window.
Before firefighters managed to extinguish the blaze, the heat caused the glass patio door to fail, allowing the fire to spread into and throughout the attic and involve the entire two-story, wood-frame building. The building had single-station smoke alarms in the apartments and the hallway, but there were no sprinklers.
Investigators ruled that the young man, found by firefighters in the bathroom, started the fire by igniting combustibles with a cigarette lighter.
The building, valued at $500,000, and its contents, valued at $20,000, sustained losses estimated at $250,000 and $18,000, respectively.
Fire in trash chute damages apartment building
TEXAS — An unknown person stuffed a beer bottle with newspapers, set it on fire, and threw it down a trash chute from the third floor of a three-story, wood-frame apartment building. When the bottle reached the bottom of the chute, it ignited the contents of the dumpster, starting a fire that went back up the chute along wooden structural members, eventually spreading to the first and second floors of the building and the attic.
The building had a brick-and-stucco veneer and a flat roof covered by tar and gravel. An automatic fire detection system with monitored smoke detectors and manual pull stations in the common hallways near the stairwells and exit doors had been installed throughout. There were no sprinklers.
The fire alarm tripped, alerting the fire department at 12:19 p.m. The building and its contents, valued at approximately $606,080, were a total loss. There were no injuries.
Smoking material starts fatal fire
SOUTH CAROLINA — A 56-year-old woman with mobility and cognitive limitations died of burns and smoke inhalation when her clothes ignited as she tried to escape a fire in her unsprinklered single-family home.
The single-story, wood-frame house was 36 feet (11 meters) long and 24 feet (7 meters) wide. There was a smoke alarm in the living room, but investigators could not determine whether it operated.
The victim had a habit of dropping cigarettes in her house, and investigators believe that she dropped one into a wicker trash basket in a hallway, where the heat from the cigarette ignited the trash. To escape from her bedroom, the woman had to pass the burning trash basket in a narrow hallway and did so without her walker, which she often refused to use.
Investigators concluded that her awkward movements near the fire caused her clothes to ignite. She moved an additional 5 feet (1.5 meters) before she fell and died. The fire, which burned itself out, went unnoticed until a family member returned to the home and found the victim’s body.
The home, valued at $80,000, and its contents, valued at $15,000, sustained a loss of less than $500.
Damaged appliance cord causes fatal home fire
NORTH CAROLINA — A 34-year-old man died of smoke inhalation in his single-family home while his wife and children were away visiting relatives.
The one-story, wood-frame house, which was 40 feet (12 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide, had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
A passerby discovered the fire and called 911 at 5:24 a.m. Firefighters arriving 15 minutes later found fire coming from one side of the building and heavy smoke from the eaves and attic on all sides. Using a 134-inch hose line, a three-person team entered from the front and found the victim asleep on a couch in a front room. After removing him, the crew reentered the house and advanced the line as far as the hallway. Fire spread over and behind the entry team until a backup team entered from the side and helped control the blaze. The two crews were then able to aggressively fight the fire at its seat in the attic.
EMS treated the victim and the family’s pet on scene and took the man to the hospital, where he later died of smoke inhalation.
Investigators determined that the fire started in a breezeway that had been converted into a laundry and storage area. They found a cord for a freezer under a washer and dryer, and believe that damage to the cord led to the ignition of the wall covering.
The house, valued at $120,000, and its contents, which were valued at $20,000, were destroyed.
Smoking on oxygen ignites fatal fire
OHIO — A 71-year-old terminally ill woman who was using oxygen died in her wood-frame home of burns after her cigarette ignited her clothing.
The two-story, single-family house was 40 feet (12 meters) long and 21 feet (6 meters) wide. A battery-operated smoke alarm was operating when firefighters entered the home. There were no sprinklers.
A passerby noticed the fire and called 911 at 5:30 p.m. Firefighters arriving seven minutes later found smoke coming from the front and side of the house on the first floor and saw the fire through a side window. Entering the house, they encountered heavy smoke and flames in a front room. After firefighters extinguished the fire, they found the victim’s body.
Investigators concluded that the woman was smoking in the living room and that a hot ash or ember ignited her clothing. The fire then spread to a table and chair before it was extinguished.
The house, valued at $112,000, sustained damages estimated at $10,000. Its contents, valued at $60,000, sustained $20,000 in damage.
Children start deadly fire
CALIFORNIA — A 4-year-old boy and his 6-year-old sister put newspapers on a bed in their apartment, poured lighter fluid on them, and set them on fire using a cigarette lighter. As the fire grew, the little boy fled the room to tell his mother, but his sister hid in a closet. Firefighters’ efforts to rescue her were unsuccessful, and she died of thermal burns.
The two-story wood-frame apartment building had a stucco exterior and a tile roof. Hardwired smoke alarms with battery backup, located in the common spaces and near the bedrooms, operated as designed.
The building, valued at $1.75 million, sustained $175,000 in damages. Damage to its contents was not reported.
One person dies in electrical fire
NEW YORK — A 23-year-old man died of smoke inhalation and a 38-year-old man suffered burns to his face in a fire that started when an electrical power strip, suspended 2 feet (0.6 meters) off the floor behind a recliner in their two-family home arced and ignited nearby combustibles.
A first-floor occupant discovered the fire on the second floor 15 to 20 minutes after it started and called 911 at 9:50 a.m. Before firefighters arrived, a neighbor, who was a volunteer firefighter, tried to rescue the two without personal protective equipment and suffered burns to his knee and smoke inhalation.
The unsprinklered, two-story, wood-frame house, which was 30 feet (9 meters) long and 40 feet (12 meters) wide, had no smoke alarms, although investigators found one in a box under the sink. The building, valued at $450,000, and its contents, valued at $50,000, sustained losses estimated at $100,000 and $25,000, respectively.
Smoking ignites victim’s clothing
WASHINGTON — A 64-year-old woman died of burns and smoke inhalation when her clothing became involved in a fire caused by smoking materials.
The one-story, eight-unit, wood-frame apartment building was part of a retirement community offering independent living. The hardwired ionization smoke alarms installed in the bedroom and living room provided a local alarm and activated a horn and strobe outside the unit. Cords in the bedroom and bathroom also could be pulled to activate this alarm. There were no sprinklers.
A passerby walking past the apartment noticed the strobe light operating at the unit and called 911 at 4:47 a.m.
Firefighters were initially told the call was for a fall incident but realized that a fire was in progress when the passerby told them that the door felt hot. As crews performed size-up, they found dark smoke venting from a rear window. Once firefighters donned their personal protective equipment, they entered the unit through the window and began to search the smoky apartment.
When they reached the front door, the firefighters found the woman wedged into a utility closet, her burned wheelchair nearby. They opened the door and took her out to the lawn as other crews advanced a hose line into the apartment where they found the fire confined to the wheelchair, a hallway chest, and the victim’s clothing. Despite emergency medical treatment, the woman died of burns and smoke inhalation.
Investigators determined that the woman ignited her clothing with smoking materials and that the fire spread to her electric wheelchair. The victim’s caregiver reported that she had been displaying increased confusion in the previous week, possibly because she had not been taking all her medications.
The unit sustained damages estimated at $35,000; its contents sustained $5,000 in damage.
One dead in garage fire
IOWA — The 21-year-old occupant of an apartment above a two-car garage died of smoke inhalation when a fire that started in the garage spread into his unit.
The garage, constructed of concrete block, measured 24 feet (7 meters) by 20 feet (6 meters). The wood-frame apartment above had a wooden roof covered with asphalt shingles. There were no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
A passerby called 911 at 4:45 a.m. to report the fire, and arriving firefighters found the garage and apartment fully involved in flames. After crews brought the fire under control, they entered the apartment and found that the floor had partially collapsed. They extended ladders to the second floor and entered a bedroom, where they found the victim, whom they removed by breaching the wall between the bedroom and kitchen and bracing what remained of the floor.
Investigators determined that the fire began when an electrical arc at a junction box ignited the ceiling joists of the garage. The fire spread through the garage and entered the second floor through a floor register.
The building, valued at $35,000, sustained damage of $25,000, and the contents, valued at $17,000, were destroyed.
Smoking fire damages apartment building
CALIFORNIA — Five units of a 16-unit apartment building sustained heavy fire damage and three others suffered water and smoke damage in a fire that began when cigarette butts ignited combustibles on a patio. Fortunately, all the building’s occupants were safely evacuated.
The two-story, wood-framed building had a fire detection system monitored by a central station alarm company. Heat detectors were located in each apartment and sprinklers connected to domestic water provided coverage in an exterior stairwell and played no part in the fire.
Firefighters responded to a central station alarm for the building at 10:14 a.m. and called for an additional alarm en route when they saw smoke as they approached from a distance. Companies arrived in just under five minutes and found two apartments in flames and the fire spreading into the attic. Within minutes, the roof over the involved units collapsed, but crews managed to keep the fire from spreading into the other half of the building.
Investigators determined that smoking materials ignited either a plastic container or an ice chest on the first-floor patio where cigarettes were often discarded. The fire spread to the wood siding and decking above, then moved into the building.
The building, valued at $6.5 million, sustained $3.2 million in losses. Its contents, valued at $500,000, sustained $250,000 in damage.
Man dies in motel fire
ILLINOIS — A 48-year-old man died of smoke inhalation and heat stress in an early morning fire of undetermined origin that began in his motel room.
The two-story, 73-room motel had concrete block walls and an original flat roof that was covered in 1985 with a second, wood-framed, pitched roof that created a 5-foot (1.5-meter) overhang over the second-floor balcony. This new roof structure, which was covered by asphalt shingles, ran the entire length of the building. The underside of the overhang was made of aluminum with ventilation penetrations. The motel’s smoke alarms were not interconnected and did not sound an alarm in the manager’s office. There were no sprinklers.
A motel staff person discovered the fire when she went to investigate a commotion on the second-floor balcony and found guests who said that smoke was coming into their room. Grabbing a cordless phone, the staffer called the manager, who told her to check out the situation and call 911 if there was a problem. When she discovered black smoke coming from a guest room, she dialed 911 at 3:47 a.m.
She and a hotel guest then tried to enter the room using a master key, but found that the door’s dead bolt had been locked. With permission from the staff person, the guest kicked the door in, and the two saw flames around the bed and fire reaching the ceiling. They saw the victim on the bed, but heavy black smoke prevented them from rescuing him.
When firefighters arrived, they found that the room’s window had failed. They used hose streams from several directions to try to knock down the heavy fire in the victim’s room, but when they tried to ventilate through the room’s ceiling, they saw heavy fire in the attic overhead. The incident commander ordered everyone out of the building for fear that the roof would collapse.
Investigators determined that the fire started near the base of the bed, but they could not determine the cause. Witnesses reported that they didn’t hear any smoke alarms sounding when the room’s door was forced open, and investigators found many of the hardwired smoke detectors in other rooms had been disconnected. Investigators also said that if the attic and second roof had complied with current codes, there would have been fire or draft stopping, which would have stopped the rapid fire spread throughout the attic.
The fire spread caused an estimated $2 million in damage to the building and $250,000 to its contents.
Overloaded power strip causes deadly fire
OREGON — Two men died in their apartment as the result of a fire that began when an overloaded power strip heated an appliance cord, which ignited nearby combustibles.
The two-story, six-unit, wood-frame apartment building had a manual fire alarm system, but there were no smoke detectors in the unit of origin, and the building was unsprinklered. The men’s second-floor apartment was originally a two-bedroom unit, but a third bedroom had been added by installing foam board insulation that divided the living room. A power strip under the bed provided electricity to several appliances and high-intensity grow lamps in the new room; an extension cord was used for some of the connections.
The occupant of the third bedroom told investigators that he got up to use the bathroom and found a fire at or near the end of his bed when he returned. He tried to alert the other two occupants before he left the apartment. A second occupant’s clothing caught fire as he escaped, causing severe burns from which he died eight days later. The third occupant was briefly seen near a window, but firefighters later found him in his bedroom, where he had apparently tried unsuccessfully to break out a window using an end table. He had died of smoke inhalation.
The building, valued at $188,520, sustained an estimated $31,500 in damage. The unit’s contents, valued at $94,500, sustained $15,000 worth of damage.
Four dead in apartment building fire
MICHIGAN — An early morning fire spread from the second floor of a four-story apartment building, trapping and killing a 38-year-old woman and three men, ages 44, 53, and 63.
The unsprinklered building was constructed of heavy timber construction with a brick exterior and a flat roof covered by a rubber membrane. It had only local smoke alarms, which operated as designed, alerting the residents, most of whom were asleep at the time.
The fire began in a second-floor laundry room and spread throughout the building. The 44-year-old man was found on the third floor. The locations of the woman and the other two men were not reported.
The building, valued at $750,000, and its contents, valued at $60,000, were destroyed. A resident of the building has been charged with setting the fire and is awaiting trial.
Sprinkler controls apartment building lightning fire
CONNECTICUT — One sprinkler controlled a fire in a 39-unit apartment building for older adults that began when a bolt of lightning struck the building during a summer storm, igniting the roof and attic.
The apartments occupied four floors of the wood-frame building, which also contained a fifth half-story, with a maintenance office built into part of the attic. The building, which was 150 feet (46 meters) long and 72 feet (22 meters) wide, had a brick exterior and a flat roof covered with a rubber membrane. Local smoke alarms were installed in each unit, and a fire detection and alarm system protected the common areas. The alarm system was monitored by a central station alarm company, which also monitored the complete-coverage wet-pipe sprinkler system.
Just after midnight, a fourth-floor resident was awakened by a large bang and saw sparks coming from the roof. Shortly afterward, the sprinkler tripped the water flow alarm, alerting the monitoring company, which notified the fire department at 12:17 a.m. On arrival two minutes later, firefighters discovered that the roof was on fire and called for additional support. With the help of aerial apparatus lines, fire crews used a hose line to extinguish the remaining fire.
Investigators determined that the lightning entered the attic and ignited several wooden roof joists, which burned until a sprinkler protecting the space activated and controlled the fire. Water damaged the units below the fire, but the building, valued at $4 million, sustained only $500,000 in damage. There were no injuries.
Sprinkler extinguishes fire in school lab
OREGON — A science class got more than it bargained for when the chemicals it was using to simulate a volcanic eruption started a fire that filled the second-floor classroom with smoke before activating a sprinkler and triggering the school’s alarms.
The two-story, steel-frame school had concrete block walls. A central station company monitored the smoke detection system and a wet-pipe sprinkler system.
Damage to the school and its contents, collectively valued at $24 million, was approximately $10,000. There were no injuries.
Explosion at propane filling station kills one
MINNESOTA — An 18-year-old man died instantly in an explosion that occurred as he filled a customer’s 100-pound (45-kilogram) tank at a propane filling station next to a large retail store. A 15-year-old boy who was nearby suffered minor burns but escaped more serious injuries.
The retail store sold farm equipment, fertilizer, and propane, which it dispensed at the outdoor filling station. The metal walls of the one-story, steel-frame building were 180 feet (55 meters) long and 170 feet (52 meters) wide, and its metal-deck roof was covered with a rubber membrane. A wet- and dry-pipe sprinkler system had been installed, as had a fire detection system; both were monitored by a central station alarm company.
Approximately 45 sprinklers operated and kept the fire from spreading into the store, as firefighters responded to the 5 p.m. alarm.
The building, valued at $2 million, sustained $250,000 in damage, while its contents, valued at $1.5 million, sustained $225,000 worth of damage. Investigators were unable to determine the ignition source, and the incident is still under investigation.
Sprinkler controls fire in commercial clothes dryer
MASSACHUSETTS — A single sprinkler above a gas-fired commercial clothes dryer in the laundry room of a 150-bed nursing and rehabilitation facility controlled a fire that started when the dryer’s contents ignited. Fortunately, that section of the building was undergoing renovation, and there were no patients nearby.
The single-story, wood-frame building had a flat structural steel roof covered with wood and a rubber roof membrane. A fire detection system and a wet- and dry-pipe sprinkler system were monitored by a central station company.
The fire department received the alarm at 11:02 p.m., and responding firefighters found that the sprinkler had activated, controlling the small blaze. Fire crews extinguished the remaining flames.
The $2 million building sustained no damage, although its contents, valued at $1 million, sustained an estimated $10,000 loss.
Sprinklers extinguish fire in dip tank
SOUTH CAROLINA — A manufacturer was spared significant losses when three sprinklers activated over a dip tank in the manufacturing plant, extinguishing the fire before the fire department arrived.
The one-story, steel-frame plant, which covered 50,000 square feet (4,645 square meters), had concrete block and metal walls and a metal-deck roof. The building was protected by a monitored fire detection and wet-pipe sprinkler system.
The dip tank in the first-floor production area was filled with a non-reported flammable liquid that ignited when a piece of equipment failed.
A 34-year-old employee suffered exposure injuries to hazardous materials, and the building sustained damage estimated at $10,000.
Fire destroys tire warehouse
MONTANA — An early morning fire of undetermined origin destroyed a warehouse in which tires were stored for distribution.
The three-story building, which was 100 feet (30 meters) long and 45 feet (14 meters) wide, was constructed of heavy timber and had a wooden, asphalt-covered roof. Originally built in the late 1890s, it had an open floor plan and an open elevator shaft. There were no sprinklers or fire detection equipment.
A passerby discovered the fire at 3 a.m. and called 911. When responding firefighters forced their way into the building, they found that the fire, which had begun on the main floor near the center of the building, had already spread to the second and third floors up the elevator shaft. By this time, the blaze was too large for interior operations, so fire crews began a defensive operation using multiple master hose streams, including two on mounted aerials. The roof burned through and collapsed during operations.
The warehouse, valued at $500,000, and its contents, valued at $1.75 million, were destroyed. No one was injured.