Home Fires Involving Heating Equipment
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2010
By John R. Hall, Jr.
In 2007, heating equipment was involved in an estimated 66,400 reported U.S. home structure fires, with associated losses of 580 civilian deaths, 1,850 civilian injuries, and $608 million in direct property damage. The estimated home heating fire total was up 4 percent from the previous year but down 72 percent from its peak in 1982. Associated deaths were up 9 percent from 2006 but down 49 percent from their 1982 peak. Associated civilian injuries were up by 32 percent compared to 2006 but down by 50 percent from their 1983 peak. Direct property damage adjusted for inflation was down by 37 percent from 2006 and by 69 percent from the 1980 peak. “Homes” refers to one- and two-family dwellings, which include manufactured homes, and apartments, which include town houses.
Fixed and portable space heaters, excluding fireplaces, chimneys, and chimney connectors but including wood stoves, accounted for 32 percent of reported 2003–2007 U.S. home heating fires, 79 percent of associated civilian deaths, 62 percent of associated civilian injuries, and 49 percent of associated direct property damage. Another 23 percent of 2003–2007 home heating fires were identified by incident type as confined to heating equipment but had no equipment or non-heating equipment coded under equipment involved in ignition.
Gas-fueled heating devices, particularly space heaters, pose a higher risk of death due to non-fire carbon monoxide poisoning. In 1998, 2000, 2001, and 2003, there were 2.5 electrocution deaths per year involving electric water heaters and 1.8 electrocution deaths per year involving electric furnaces. Heating equipment accounted for 62,900 injuries reported to hospital emergency rooms in 2008.
Creosote is a sticky, oily, combustible substance created when wood does not burn completely. It rises into the chimney as a liquid and deposits on the chimney wall. A conservative best estimate of creosote fires would combine failure-to-clean confined chimney or flue fires with failure-to-clean fires involving solid-fueled space heaters, fireplaces, chimneys, and chimney connectors. This produces estimates of 14,720 reported creosote fires per year, which is 22 percent of the total, with associated losses of 4 civilian deaths, 24 civilian injuries, and $33 million in direct property damage per year.
The leading factors contributing to ignition in home heating equipment fires were failure to clean (25 percent), unclassified mechanical failure or malfunction (13 percent), and a heat source too close to combustibles (13 percent). Heat sources located too close to combustibles accounted for the largest share, at 46 percent, of associated deaths.
The leading items first ignited during home heating equipment fires were unclassified items, at 19 percent; flammable or combustible gases or liquids, at 15 percent; structural members or framing, at 8 percent; and film or residue , also at 8 percent. Space heaters result in far more fires and losses than central heating devices and have higher risks relative to usage.
Comparisons of different fuel or power options within central heating equipment do not show any types to be clearly and consistently better or clearly worse for all types of loss. Among central heating equipment, gas-fueled units show a higher rate of civilian fire deaths per user household but lower fire incident rates, civilian fire injuries, and property damage rates. Liquid-fueled equipment had the highest rates for fire incidents and direct property damage.
Among space heating equipment, electric-powered devices, portable or fixed, show the lowest rates of fires and civilian fire deaths. There are no other clear differences.
Water heaters show a very large difference in risk for fires, deaths, injuries, and damages, with gas-fueled equipment showing a higher risk than electric-powered equipment.
The leading area of origin for confined or non-confined home heating fires is the heating room or area, at 21 percent, followed by living room, family room, or den, at 9 percent, and kitchen, also at 9 percent.
Home heating fires peak in the mid-morning and in the mid-evening. Home heating fires are less common from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. This could reflect the practice in many homes of turning down the heat overnight, allowing blankets and bedding to compensate, and of relying less on heating equipment in the middle of the day during school and work hours, when temperatures are at their daily highs and occupants are least likely to be at home. It also reflects the fact that sleeping occupants are not actively interacting with the equipment, which is how fires begin.
A few safe-heating behaviors:
- All heaters need space. Keep things that can burn, such as paper, bedding, or furniture, at least 3 feet (0.9 meters) away from heating equipment.
- Use heating equipment that bears the label of a recognized testing laboratory.
- Install stationary space heating equipment, water heaters, or central heating equipment according to the local codes and manufacturer’s instruction. Have a qualified professional install the equipment.
- Make sure all fuel-burning equipment is vented to the outside to avoid carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. CO is created when fuels burn incompletely. CO poisoning can cause illness and even death. Make sure the venting for exhaust is kept clear and unobstructed. This includes removal of snow around the outlet to the outside.
- Install and maintain carbon monoxide alarms to avoid risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Maintain heating equipment and chimneys by having them cleaned and inspected annually by a qualified professional.
Possible Impairment by Alcohol or Drugs as a Contributing Factor in Home Fire Deaths
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2010
By Marty Ahrens
Based on data reported by the fire service, NFPA estimates that possible impairment by alcohol or drugs was a factor contributing to an average of 430, or 15 percent, of home fire deaths annually in 2003–2006. Although this percentage is lower than that typically found in studies based on autopsy reports, the data are useful in understanding the demographics and circumstances of these deaths.
Seventy-one percent of the victims were male; men are more likely to be drinkers and to drink in larger quantities than women. Eighty-eight percent of the victims with possible alcohol or drug impairment as a contributing factor were over 14 and under 65 years of age. The percentage of the population that drinks at all peaked in the 25–44 age group, while the 18–24 age group had the highest percentage of heavier drinkers. The percentage of drinkers and heavy drinkers was lower in the older age groups.
Forty-five percent of these deaths resulted from fires started by smoking materials. Twenty-eight percent of the deaths resulted from fires that began with upholstered furniture. At the time of the fires, 46 percent of the victims were in the area of origin and involved in the ignition. Almost one-third of the victims died in fires in which flame damage was confined to the room of origin.