Firefighters battle a residential fire in Ohio that investigators believe was started by a 5-year-old boy, who perished in the blaze. (Photograph: The Repository/Copyrighted/Used With Permission)
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2010
Boy dies in fire he started
OHIO — A 5-year-old boy died in a fire investigators believe he started himself with a lighter or matches in the living room of his single-family home. Though the three-story, wood-frame house had smoke alarms on each floor, including the basement, there were no sprinklers.
Just before the boy’s sister discovered the fire, the child announced he was going upstairs. When the girl saw the blaze, she told her father, who tried to extinguish the flames before he dialled 911. When he realized that he couldn’t put the fire out, he called for the boy to come downstairs, but the child refused. The father and two of his daughters escaped without the boy, whose body was found on an upper floor where he had been trapped by smoke and flames.
The house, which was valued at $80,000, and its contents, valued at $40,000, were destroyed.
Fatal manufactured home fire
NORTH CAROLINA — A 27-year-old man, a 28-year old woman, a 7-year-old boy, and a 2-year-old girl died in their manufactured home in a fire that began when a portable electric heater ignited a sofa bed 3 to 6 inches (8 to 15 centimeters) away. One resident, who was awakened by smoke, escaped by climbing out a bedroom window.
The one-story, wood-frame home, which had metal exterior walls and a metal roof, was 65 feet (20 meters) long and 14 feet (4 meters) wide. The central living space was flanked at one end by a bedroom and at the other by two bedrooms. There were no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
A neighbor called 911 at 3:13 a.m. after hearing glass breaking and the home’s occupant yelling to those still inside. Due to a language barrier, however, the dispatcher initially sent only the police. Responding to a second 911 call at 3:16 a.m., firefighters arrived 11 minutes later to find the home engulfed in flames. The blaze was threatening another home and two vehicles.Fire crews fought the fire defensively, placing the first hose lines to protect the exposures.
The sole survivor was treated by EMS for cuts and burns to his arms. He told firefighters that after he escaped, he went around the house, broke all the windows, and banged on the walls to alert the other occupants. In the process, he woke the neighbor who called 911.
After extinguishing the blaze, firefighters found three of the victims in the master bedroom and the fourth in one of the bedrooms at the opposite end of the house. They had all succumbed to smoke inhalation.
The house and its contents were destroyed.
Unattended cooking ignites deadly fire
TEXAS — A 22-year-old woman died in a fire that began when the contents of a pan she left unattended on the stove in her two-story, wood-frame duplex ignited.
Investigators determined that aluminum-like metal on and around the burner melted and ignited nearby combustibles. The fire spread from the kitchen to the dining room, most of the walls of which did not have sheetrock. Three of the seven joists above the dining room were severely damaged, causing the floor in the bedroom above to collapse.
The duplex, valued at $68,000, sustained $50,000 in damage. Damage to its contents was estimated at $10,000. The duplex had neither smoke alarms nor sprinklers.
Two die in fire started by smoking materials
OREGON — A 48-year-old man and his 48-year-old wife, who had a partial mobility disability, died in their single-family home when they were trapped by a fire that began when smoking materials landed in a cardboard box on their rear porch. Two other occupants managed to escape.
The two-story, wood-frame home, which covered an area of approximately 1,290 square feet (120 square meters), had a battery-operated smoke alarm on the second floor, but it did not sound.
One of the survivors pled guilty to negligent homicide. According to his courtroom testimony, he tried unsuccessfully to extinguish the fire with the help of the other survivor, but it spread out of control. The two left the house, leaving windows and doors open. At about this time, the male victim came down from the second floor and discovered the blaze. He went back upstairs to his wife, and they died of smoke inhalation.
The fire destroyed the house, which was valued at $110,000, as well as its contents, valued at $10,000.
Smoke alarms removed before fatal fire
TEXAS — An 88-year-old woman who smoked heavily died in her single-family home in a fire started by a cigarette in the dining room.
The single-story, wood-frame home, which was 50 feet (15 meters) long by 25 feet (8 meters) wide, had exterior brick walls and an asphalt-shingle roof. Smoke alarms had been installed, but they had been removed so the ceiling could be painted, and they were never replaced.
Investigators believe that the fire smoldered for some time before a newspaper carrier saw smoke and flames coming from a window and notified the fire department. Responding firefighters found the woman in her recliner in the living room, overcome by smoke. They found ashtrays in the living room, bedroom, and the dining room, where she often smoked. Investigators believe that her cigarette came in contact with papers and similar materials that family members told them typically covered the dining room table and chairs.
Damage to the home was estimated at $120,000.
Woman fatally injured in smoking-related fire
ALASKA — A 54-year-old woman who was smoking and drinking alcohol while reading in her living room started a fire that killed her and damaged her single-family, two-story home.
Investigators believe that the woman fell asleep with a cigarette in her hand and that the cigarette came in contact with the day bed on which she was lying, igniting it. The resulting fire enveloped the woman and nearby combustibles, consuming all the oxygen in the house. As firefighters responding to a 7 p.m. 911 call from a passerby arrived, the dwelling’s windows failed.
The woman suffered fatal burns. The house, valued at $200,000, sustained $38,000 in property damage. Its contents, valued at $30,000, sustained an estimated $12,000 in damage.
Discarded cigarette ignites deadly fire
MISSOURI — A bedridden 55-year-old man died in a fire that started when the 65-year-old woman who was taking care of him dropped a cigarette onto a chair in the living room, and the blaze spread throughout his home. The woman barely managed to escape with her life.
The one-story, wood-frame, single-family house, which had brick-veneer exterior walls and a roof covered in asphalt shingles, had a hardwired smoke detector with battery backup. There were no sprinklers.
The woman had woken at 2:30 a.m. to feed her charge, who slept in a hospital bed in the living room, then sat in a chair next to him, smoking a cigarette. At some point, she fell asleep and dropped the cigarette on the chair. When she woke up, she went back to her bedroom and slept until she was roused by the smoke alarm. By that time, the fire was free-burning.
The woman tried to extinguish the blaze with a bucket of water, but the heat and smoke forced her to retreat to the bathroom. She escaped through the bathroom window with the help of a passerby, who called 911 from his cell phone at 6:55 a.m.
The fire department estimated that the fire had been burning for approximately 3 hours before it was detected.
The man died of smoke inhalation. The house, valued at $120, 000, sustained $30,000 worth of damage. Its contents, valued at $12,000, sustained $10,000 in damage.
Sprinkler extinguishes fire started by child
TENNESSEE — A single sprinkler extinguished a fire started by one of several boys left alone in an apartment while their mother went out to get them some medication.
The three-story, wood-frame apartment building, which was 210 feet (64 meters) long and 47 feet (14 meters) wide, had a fire alarm was installed in accordance with NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, and a wet-pipe sprinkler system installed in accordance with NFPA 13R, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in Residential Occupancies up to and Including Four Stories in Height. Both systems were monitored by a company that reported the fire at 12:42 p.m.
According to the mother, her children were playing video games when she left, but they apparently went into her room where she kept matches and candles. When she returned, the apartment was filled with smoke.
Investigators determined that one of the boys lit a match and threw it down when it burned his fingers. It landed in the bedroom curtains, starting a fire that burned until the sprinkler activated and extinguished it.
Damage to the building and to its contents was estimated at $7,000.
Disabled smoke detector delays alarm in fatal fire
PENNSYLVANIA — A 25-year-old woman died and 16 other occupants of an 11-story apartment building were injured when a fire in a second-story apartment spread throughout the entire floor.
The steel-frame apartment building, which was 200 feet (61 meters) long and 100 feet (30 meters) wide, was constructed of concrete and plaster with brick exterior walls. It had a smoke detection system but no sprinklers. The entrance to the building was on the third floor.
The fire started when smoking materials ignited bedding in one of the apartments. When the fire activated the smoke detector, the occupant tried to dismantle it and bring the fire under control — unsuccessfully — rather than calling the fire department. The delayed alarm allowed the fire to spread, forcing a 15-year-old boy out of a third-floor window.
The victim died of smoke inhalation, and the 15-year-old broke his back and wrist. Fire damage to the unit of origin and smoke damage to the third floor were estimated at $20,000.
The fire department noted in its report of the incident that municipal budget pressures had put several companies out of service the previous day, causing longer response times for the ladder companies.
Smoking materials start multimillion-dollar fire
TEXAS — After finishing his cigarette around 11:45 p.m. on the balcony of his third-floor apartment, the occupant dropped the butt into a potted plant, starting a fire that did millions of dollars of property damage.
The three-story, protected wood-frame apartment building, which contained numerous units on each floor, had a smoke detection system, but there were no sprinklers.
When one of the man’s downstairs neighbors noticed ash and embers falling past his window, he told his girlfriend, who went out on their balcony and saw the upstairs balcony on fire.
The man went to alert his neighbor, and the two tried to put the fire out with portable fire extinguishers. When that failed, they filled a bucket with water and tried again, still unsuccessfully. By this time, the fire had spread from the balcony into the apartment.
The fire department received the alarm around 1:50 a.m., and arriving firefighters found flames shooting above the building’s roof. They stretched a hose line to the third floor and entered the burning apartment, where they found the living space and the attic involved in flames.
When they found the same conditions in an adjacent unit, the incident commander ordered the fire crews out of the building so they could fight the fire defensively.
Investigators determined that dried potting soil and moss allowed the ash to smolder until, fanned by the wind, it ignited the plastic pot and other combustibles. The fire then grew along the roof area and entered the attic.
The fire completely consumed the attic and heavily damaged the third floor. The buildings lower floors sustained damage during firefighting operations. Property loss to the structure was estimated at $2 million, while damage to its contents was estimated at $500,000.
Alcohol contributes to fire death
ARIZONA — A 22-year-old man died in a fire investigators believe started when an unattended candle ignited combustibles on the coffee table in his apartment living room.
The 312-unit, two-story, wood-frame apartment building, which was 100 feet (30 meters) long and 50 feet (15 meters) wide, was unsprinklered. A battery-operated smoke alarm in the living room of the unit of origin provided local coverage.
A neighbor called 911 at 5:56 a.m. to report smoke coming from an adjacent apartment, and firefighters arrived 4 minutes later to find smoke coming from the second floor. When crews entered the apartment of origin, they found the victim near the front door with first-, second-, and third-degree burns to his body. Despite their attempts to resuscitate him, he died of burns and smoke inhalation.
Investigators determined that the fire smoldered for some time before it burst into flames, filling the apartment with smoke that activated the fire alarm, possibly waking the victim. Witnesses reported hearing a beeping sound but said they were unsure whether it was a smoke alarm or an alarm clock. Marks along the walls showed that the victim moved from the bedroom to the hall before collapsing by the front door. His blood alcohol level was 0.189, which contributed to his inability to respond to the emergency.
The building, valued at $500,000, sustained damages estimated at $30,000; its contents, valued at $7,200, sustained $1,500 in damage.
Staff extinguishes small fire in assisted-living facility
FLORIDA — Six occupants of an assisted-living facility suffered smoke inhalation injuries in a fire that began when the battery of a laptop computer overheated and ignited the computer’s plastic casing. Fortunately, the facility’s staff easily confined the fire to the room of origin using a portable fire extinguisher.
The one-story, wood-frame facility, which covered an area of almost 16,000 square feet (1,500 square meters), had a monitored fire detection system that provided coverage in the common spaces and individual rooms. The building was also equipped with a wet-pipe sprinkler system.
The fire activated the alarm, alerting a staff member who responded with a fire extinguisher, as other staff members began evacuating the building. The occupant of the room of fire origin called 911; the alarm company reported the incident, as well.
Firefighters quickly responded to the alarm and helped the staff treat the injured residents. The sprinklers failed to operate because the fire was so small and so quickly extinguished.
The building, valued at $1.4 million, was not damaged. Damage to its contents was estimated at $1,000.
Thermal imaging camera finds burning bearing
GEORGIA — When firefighters arriving 4 minutes after a 5:17 p.m. fire alarm activation at a three-story hospital were told there was smoke in the third-floor hallways, the officer in charge asked for additional resources. Patients from the second and third floors were evacuated to the lobby and other parts of the building.
As firefighters searched for the source of the smoke, the fire department stayed in contact with the hospital administration and the maintenance staff, which shut down the air-handling units for the second and third floors. About an hour into the incident, crews using thermal imaging equipment found a burned bearing on the conduit box of an air-handling door in the basement.
Once the unit was isolated and other units turned back on, the smoke cleared, and the patients were allowed to return to their rooms.
The amount of property damage was not reported.
Sprinkler controls incendiary fire in shopping mall
TENNESSEE — A single sprinkler operated during an incendiary fire, sparing a multi-million-dollar shopping mall significant damage.
The two-story, steel-frame mall had concrete floors and walls and contained 1.3 million square feet (121,000 square meters) of floor space. It was protected by a wet-pipe sprinkler system and had a fire detection system that provided smoke detection, elevator recall, and occupant notification, as well as a water flow alarm.
A mall employee discovered the fire shortly after it began in a first-floor housekeeping break room. He notified mall security, which met firefighters responding to the 5:30 p.m. water flow alarm and directed them to the site of the blaze.
Investigators determined that the fire began when an unknown individual used a match or a lighter to ignite a plastic bag on a housekeeping cart in the break room, which was located under a wooden mezzanine. The fire consumed the bag and its contents and began to spread to the underside of the mezzanine before it was subdued by a sprinkler.
The fire did approximately $10,000 in damage to the building, which was valued at $120 million, and its contents, valued at $60 million. There were no injuries.
Grinding operation starts million-dollar fire
CALIFORNIA — People using grinders while building a parade float in a city-owned garage inadvertently ignited foam insulation stored in the structure, starting a fire that heavily damaged the building and its contents.
The one-story, wood-frame garage, which was 240 feet (73 meters) long and 34 feet (10 meters) wide, had a metal roof and several metal roll-down garage doors along one side. It had no fire detection or suppression equipment, although it was equipped with portable fire extinguishers. The garage, in which the city stored vehicles and equipment, was located in a complex of other buildings.
The float builders were making a metal frame for the float when sparks or hot slag ignited the insulation. They called 911 at 8:40 p.m., and firefighters arrived minutes later to find smoke and flames coming from two garage bays and threatening nearby exposures. As crews worked to protect the exposures, the incident commander called additional resources in to help them extinguish the blaze.
The building, which was valued at $1.5 million, contained $1 million worth of equipment and vehicles. Damage to the building was estimated at $750,000, while damage to its contents was estimated at $500,000. There were no injuries.
The fire investigator noted in his report of the incident that the float builders had not followed procedures to shield the grinding operations from combustible materials.
Sprinkler controls manufacturing plant fire
WISCONSIN — A single sprinkler controlled a fire in the basement of a large box manufacturing plant until firefighters extinguished the flames, preventing the fire from spreading throughout the building.
The two-story, concrete-block plant had been expanded over the years with several additions of various construction types. Fire walls and fire doors separated parts of the building, and the plant was protected by a monitored, wet-pipe sprinkler system.
Responding to the alarm company’s call at 8:30 p.m., firefighters found the fire under control in the basement and completed extinguishment with a single hose line.
Investigators determined that a 20-year-old air compressor had malfunctioned, allowing the oil in the unit to reach its ignition temperature.
Property damage to the building, which was valued at $1 million, and its contents, which were valued at $7 million, was estimated at $15,000.There were no injuries.
Sprinkler controls mineral oil fire in manufacturing plant
WASHINGTON — A single sprinkler controlled a fire in a large manufacturing plant, allowing firefighters to extinguish the blaze before it spread.
The two-story plant, built of ordinary construction, had a wet-pipe sprinkler system that was monitored for water flow, but it had no fire detection system.
The fire department received the call at 4:33 p.m. and arrived 3 minutes later to find light smoke coming from an open overhead door. As crews prepared to enter the building, the smoke darkened, and the incident commander ordered additional resources.
Firefighters making their way inside discovered that a penthouse roof sprinkler was controlling a fire on the second-floor ceiling. They removed fiberglass insulation concealing smoldering wood on the ceiling and doused the hot spots with water. Employees had already used extinguishers on the more active fire. Because of the tanks and piping overhead, overhaul activities were somewhat limited, and a fire watch was ordered.
Investigators learned that heated mineral oil had spewed from a tank when plant employees opened a plug to remove moisture from the tank. The oil pooled on the floor and drained to an opening by a heating pipe. When it touched the pipe, the oil reached its ignition temperature and ignited, and the fire spread to combustible construction and insulation.
The building, which was valued at $1 million, sustained an estimated $10,000 in damage. Its contents, valued at $500,000, also sustained an estimated loss of $10,000. There were no injuries.