A fire that began when warm ashes placed in a plastic bag in a trash can in the garage of this two-story home completely destroyed the house.
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2010
Cigarette fire kills student in unsprinklered apartment
NEW YORK — An 18-year-old man died and another suffered smoke inhalation injuries in a fire that began when a cigarette ignited the living room couch in a second-floor apartment.
All the apartments in the three-story, eight-unit apartment building, which was of balloon-type, wood frame construction, were occupied by students. Smoke alarms installed in the common areas and hallways on each floor operated as designed and alerted other occupants, who called 911 at 2:53 a.m. There were no sprinklers.
At about 1 a.m. on the night of the fire, occupants attending a party in the unit of origin noticed that the couch was on fire and extinguished it. Thinking the fire was out, they left the apartment to get something to eat, leaving an 18-year old man asleep on the couch.
Witnesses told investigators that the victim had actually left the building during the fire but re-entered it before the arrival of the firefighters, who found him dead of smoke inhalation on the third floor. The man who had fallen asleep on the couch suffered smoke inhalation. Both men were reportedly intoxicated.
Damage to the building, valued at $350,000, and its contents, valued at $150,000, came to $150,000.
Space heater ignites deadly fire
LOUISIANA — Three occupants of a manufactured home managed to escape from a fire in the dwelling, but two 6-year-olds, an 8-year-old, and a 10-year-old died in the blaze.
The single-story dwelling, which was 15 feet (5 meters) wide and 80 feet (24 meters) long, had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
A daughter who had been out for the evening returned home to find the house on fire and, with the help of a neighbor, managed to rescue two occupants. A neighbor called 911, and the fire department responded at 12:05 a.m.
Arriving firefighters brought the fire, which started in a bedroom and spread down a hallway, under control and found all four victims in a bedroom at one end of the dwelling. They had died of smoke inhalation. The three survivors also suffered smoke inhalation injuries.
Investigators determined that a space heater in the bedroom of origin ignited clothing and that the fire spread to other combustibles.
The home, valued at $70,000, sustained $50,000 in damage, while its contents, valued at $40,000, sustained $25,000 in damage.
Heart attack victim’s cigarette starts fire in apartment
RHODE ISLAND — A woman suffered a fatal heart attack while smoking and her cigarette started a fire in the 10-story senior apartment complex in which she lived. Fortunately, two of the building’s sprinklers activated, confining the fire to her tenth-floor apartment.
The 150-unit, steel-frame apartment building, which was 262 feet (80 meters) long and 50 feet (15 meters) wide, had concrete block walls, concrete slab floors, and a built-up roof. Local hardwired smoke detectors installed in each apartment were designed to alarm for five minutes locally before activating the municipal alarm system. The building’s system included smoke detectors in the common spaces and water flow alarms associated with the wet-pipe sprinkler system. All the alarms were connected to a municipal fire alarm system. The building also had fire walls and a fire-rated stair tower.
The fire department received the alarm at 10:05 a.m. When firefighters entered the unit, they discovered that two sprinklers were holding a small fire in the living room in check. There was no need to evacuate the floor or surrounding apartments.
Investigators determined that the victim was sitting in a chair smoking when she had a heart attack. The cigarette fell, igniting combustibles. The fire was confined to the victim, her clothing, and her chair. Investigators also determined that the apartment’s smoke alarm operated, but neighbors did not call 911 upon hearing it. Once smoke entered the common hallway, it actuated the building-wide alarm system.
The building, valued at $10 million, and its contents, valued at $3 million, sustained $86,000 worth of damage. There were no other injuries.
Sprinkler extinguishes fatal apartment fire
MINNESOTA — A single sprinkler extinguished a fire in a three-story apartment building, but not before it fatally burned an 86-year-old woman, who died 12 hours later.
The three-story wood-frame apartment building was part of a large complex protected by a monitored wet-pipe sprinkler system. The system also provided smoke detector coverage in the apartments and common spaces. The water flow alarm activated the fire alarm, which notified the fire department at 8:30 a.m.
The victim was cooking gelatin on the front burner of her kitchen stove when her robe caught fire. The robe burned quickly until the sprinkler activated and extinguished the fire.
Damage estimates for the building and contents were not reported.
Ashes ignite garage fire
CONNECTICUT — A large, single-family house was heavily damaged by a fire that started in the garage when a housecleaning crew dumped warm ashes from the fireplace into the household trash.
The two-story, wood-frame house had wooden siding, an asphalt-shingled roof, and an attached four-car garage with living space above.
The unsprinklered home’s smoke and heat detectors were monitored by an alarm company, which notified the fire department that the alarms had activated at 10:46 a.m. Responding to the alarm and several 911 calls, a police officer found the garage involved in flames that were spreading quickly. Seeing two vehicles parked inside, he forced open the front door in search of occupants, but the heat and smoke forced him out when he reached the second floor. Fortunately, the homeowner and the cleaners had already left the premises.
Firefighters arriving minutes later found the fire spreading to the living space over the garage and to the house.
The homeowner told investigators that five people were cleaning his home, including the wood-burning fireplace the family had used the day before. Investigators determined that the cleaners had dumped still-warm ashes in a plastic trash bag with other household trash and put the bag in the garage. About two hours later, the discarded ashes ignited the trash, and the fire spread and destroyed the home.
The amount of property damage was not reported.
Deadly fire blamed on smoking
MICHIGAN — A 68-year-old man with advanced amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) died in a fire that began on the couch on which he was sitting, smoking.
The single-family, one-story, wood-frame house was 65 feet (20 meters) long and 50 feet (15 meters) wide. It had battery-operated and hardwired smoke alarms on each level. There were no sprinklers.
A passerby noticed the fire and called 911 at 3:45 p.m. Arriving firefighters found the first-floor den engulfed in flames and used a single 1 3/4-inch hose line to extinguish the blaze, which had not spread beyond the den. The victim, who was found on the den’s couch with a candle holder next to him, was pronounced dead at the scene.
Investigators discovered that the man habitually used a candle to light cigarettes and determined that the fire was related to his smoking, although they could not determine whether the candle or the cigarette actually started the fire.
The dwelling, valued at $150,000, and its contents, valued at $40,000, sustained structural damage estimated at $15,000 and $10,000, respectively.
Candle fire kills man with cognitive disabilities
VERMONT — A man with obsessive-compulsive disorder died of smoke inhalation in a fire in his home that began when unsecured wall sconces holding lit candles fell onto his living room couch, igniting the upholstery, bedding, and a sleeping bag.
The single-family, one-story, wood-frame house had five single-station smoke alarms. There were no sprinklers.
A passerby called the fire department at 10:35 a.m., and responding firefighters heard the smoke alarms sounding inside the house. Crews extinguished the fire, but not before it nearly destroyed the house and its contents, which were valued at $225,000.
Investigators determined that the fire spread from the couch to other combustibles in the living room and eventually became starved of oxygen. Once a window broke, however, fresh air flowed into the room, and the fire reignited with intensity.
Malfunctioning heating system leads to fire death
MICHIGAN — A fire that started in a forced hot air gas-fired heating system spread through ductwork to upper portions of a two-story, single-family house, killing an 86-year-old woman. A smoke alarm outside the woman’s bedroom operated, but she used a walker and a wheelchair, and was unable to escape.
The unsprinklered wood-frame house covered approximately 1,200 square feet (111 square meters).
The fire started in the basement near the furnace and spread through the forced air and return air ductwork to the attic. A neighbor who heard the operating smoke alarm called 911 at 4:30 a.m.
After the fire, the furnace was tested, and a valve connection problem was found. The home, valued at more than $100,000, was a total loss. Its contents, similarly valued, were almost completely destroyed.
Woman killed by oxygen cylinder damaged by fire
FLORIDA — A 71-year-old woman died of blunt force trauma after she was struck in the head by an oxygen cylinder that became airborne when it was damaged by a fire in a home oxygen generator.
A neighbor heard the smoke alarm operating in the woman’s single-family, wood-frame house and opened the front door to investigate. When he smelled smoke, he called 911 at 9:24 a.m. and waited for the fire department to arrive. Responding firefighters found the unconscious victim just outside of her bedroom and extinguished the fire, keeping flame damage confined to the bedroom.
Investigators determined that an arc in a home oxygen generator in the bedroom ignited the unit’s plastic housing and the fire spread to other combustibles in the room. During the fire, one of several small oxygen cylinders stored in the room was damaged and became airborne. The cylinder struck the ceiling and hit the woman in the head.
The house, valued at $128,000, sustained $15,000 in damage; its contents, valued at $15,000, sustained $1,200 in damage.
Sprinkler controls incendiary fire in college classroom
PENNSYLVANIA — Sprinklers controlled an incendiary fire in a college classroom building, and the building’s fire alarm system alerted occupants, who safely evacuated. The building was open and classes were in session at the time of the fire.
The three-story, steel-frame building had concrete block walls and a wooden roof with a built-up surface. The building had an automatic detection system, but its type and coverage were not reported. A partial wet-pipe sprinkler system was monitored by a central station alarm company.
An unknown person deliberately ignited paper in a classroom in which teaching supplies were kept. The fire spread through the classroom until heat activated two sprinklers in the hallway, which confined the fire to the room of origin.
The building, valued at $5 million, sustained $100,000 in damage. Its contents, valued at $1 million, sustained damage estimated at $50,000. There were no injuries.
Health CareDental technician burned by alcohol-fueled fire
TEXAS — A 26-year-old dental technician was burned when vapors from a plastic bottle of denatured alcohol ignited as she tried to refuel a torch in a patient treatment room at a dental office. Two men, ages 40 and 53, were also burned when they put the fire out with a portable extinguisher.
The technician believed the flame of the torch was out when she poured the fuel into it, but the torch was still burning and ignited the alcohol vapors. The alcohol container also tipped over during the refilling process. As flames spread to her clothing, she left the treatment room and began rolling on the floor. Two co-workers helped her put out the flames, which caused second-degree burns to her abdomen and arm.
The fire department was called to the scene for medical aid at 11:31 a.m.
Sprinklers tame warehouse fire
ILLINOIS — Four sprinklers activated and controlled a fire started by a malfunctioning battery charger in the middle of a three-tier rack storage system in a warehouse until firefighters could extinguish it.
The steel-frame warehouse, which was 20 feet (6 meters) high, 400 feet (122 meters) long, and 300 feet (91 meters) wide, had concrete panel walls and a metal deck roof covered by rubber. It was protected by a monitored wet-pipe sprinkler system, but whether the sprinkler system provided coverage within the racks was not reported.
The fire department received the alarm at 7:22 p.m. and arrived on the scene to find light smoke coming from the roof line. Firefighters forced the door and advanced a 2 1/2-inch hose line into the building, where the visibility was zero and the heat was moderate. A ladder company raised the aerial ladder to the roof. When the interior crews reached the north end of the warehouse, they saw that the fire was being kept in check by the sprinklers installed along the ceiling. Firefighters removed three overhead skylights and two overhead doors to ventilate the structure.
Investigators determined that the fire was started by a malfunctioning electric battery charger on a pallet on the second tier of the rack storage system on which rolled plastic was stored. The fire spread to the upper rack along the wooden pallets and stored combustibles, and burning plastic dripped down to ignite combustibles on the lower tier.
The building, valued at $500,000, and its contents, valued at $1 million, sustained $25,000 and $250,000 worth of damage, respectively. There were no injuries.
Sprinkler extinguishes candle fire
FLORIDA — A candle left burning unattended over the weekend in a hair salon at a strip mall started a fire that spread to combustibles until a sprinkler activated and extinguished the flames.
The single-story, steel-frame mall had concrete block walls with lightweight steel bar joists supporting a metal deck roof with a built-up surface. A monitored wet-pipe sprinkler system had been installed.
The fire department was notified of the automatic water flow alarm at 8:02 a.m. and arrived five minutes later to find that a sprinkler had extinguished the fire in the salon’s bathroom. The door to the bathroom was closed, limiting the smoke and heat damage in the rest of the salon.
Investigators found a candle 8 inches (20 centimeters) in diameter on the top of a three-tier wire shelf. On the lowest shelf was an arrangement of dried flowers. Investigators determined that the flame burned through the bottom of the candle, releasing hot wax that dripped down to the flowers and started a smoldering fire.
The $11 million property suffered less than $1,000 worth of damage.
Sprinklers douse pet shop fire
WASHINGTON — Two sprinklers extinguished a fire caused by an electrical malfunction in the operating equipment of a salt-water aquarium at a pet store. The resulting heat ignited the equipment, and the fire spread to other available combustibles before it was extinguished.
The one-and-a-half-story building, which covered approximately 22,000 square feet (2,000 square meters), had concrete block walls and a wooden roof with a built-up surface. The store’s wet-pipe sprinkler system was not monitored; a water motor gong only provided a local flow alarm. There was no fire detection or notification equipment.
When the sprinkler systems activated, the water motor gong failed to operate, and the fire department only learned of the fire some 30 minutes later, when a passerby saw water coming from the building and called 911 at 5:23 a.m. Responding firefighters entered the shop and discovered the sprinkler system operating in the fish tank retail area.
Investigators discovered fire damage on the plastic housing of a heater and filter unit of the saltwater fish tank on a lower shelf and believe that the tank, which was leaking before the fire, caused an equipment malfunction.
The fire did $20,000 damage to the building, which was valued at $1 million, and $60,000 damage to its contents, which were valued at $750,000.
There were no injuries.
Man confined to wheelchair dies in welding fire
TEXAS — A 74-year-old man suffered fatal burns and smoke inhalation when hot slag from an electric welding torch he was using ignited a blanket draped over his lap. He was using a wheelchair, and once the fire started, he became entangled in the welding cables and was unable to escape.
The fire occurred in a wood-frame workshop next to his home. It had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
When the victim’s 71-year-old wife discovered the fire, it was already well-involved. Nonetheless, she tried to rescue him, sustaining burns in the process. The workshop, valued at $8,000, and its contents, valued at $9,000, sustained damage of $1,000 and $5,000, respectively. The fire did not spread to the house.
Combustible piping blamed for spread of outdoor fire
MASSACHUSETTS — A fire that started outside a sewage treatment plant when air scrubbing equipment malfunctioned spread along combustible piping to the exterior wall of the plant.
The steel-frame, two-story plant, which was 120 feet (37 meters) long and 50 feet (15 meters) wide, had concrete block walls and a steel roof deck. A wet-pipe sprinkler system and a fire alarm protected the interior of the building, but there were no detection or suppression systems in the fire area.
Someone in the building noticed the fire and used a manual pull station to activate the fire alarm system and notify the fire department. Arriving firefighters controlled the blaze without activation of the sprinkler system.
Investigators determined that heat from the malfunctioning equipment ignited synthetic piping, and the fire spread horizontally, then vertically along the exterior wall of the building.
The building, valued at $72 million, sustained $1.5 million in damage. There were no injuries.
Pipeline fire kills one, injures two
LOUISIANA — Three contractors working in a ground-level sump next to a crude oil supply pipeline leading to a refinery were injured, one fatally, when their metal grinding operation ignited flammable vapors in an enclosed space.
The concrete sump was 10 feet (3 meters) in diameter and was covered with a metal plate.
The three victims were using a grinder on the pipe when a mixture of flammable products in the sump ignited, causing a flash fire that burned all three. The fatality was found in the sump after the fire had been extinguished. The two others suffered second-degree burns.
There was no property damage.