Firefighters in Kentucky battle a fire involving multiple apartments in 2009. (Photo: AP/Wide World)
U.S. Fire Loss for 2009
The overall number of fires fell by more than 7 percent from the previous year, while the value of property damaged by fire fell by 19 percent
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2010
By Michael J. Karter, Jr.
Download the "Fire Loss in the United States During 2009" report (PDF, 324 KB)
In 2009, public fire departments responded to 1,348,500 fires in the United States, according to estimates based on data NFPA received from fire departments responding to its 2009 National Fire Experience Survey. (NFPA gratefully thanks the many fire departments that responded to the survey.) A fire department is defined here as a public organization that provides fire prevention, fire suppression, and associated emergency and nonemergency services to a jurisdiction such as a county, municipality, or organized fire district. The overall number of fires represents a significant decrease of 7.1 percent from 2008 and is the lowest since NFPA began using its current survey methodology in 1977 – 1978.
There were an estimated 480,500 structure fires reported to fire departments in 2009, a significant decrease of 6.7 percent, also the lowest since 1977 – 1978. For the 1977 – 2009 period, the number of structure fires peaked in 1977 with 1,098,000 reported fires. The number of structure fires then decreased steadily, particularly through the 1980s, to 688,000 by the end of 1989, for an overall decrease of 37.3 percent from 1977. Since 1989, structure fires have continued to decrease steadily, falling another 24.7 percent, to 517,500 by the end of 1998. They stayed in the 505,000 to 530,500 range from 1999 to 2008, before the decrease to 480,500 in 2009.
Of the structure fires, 377,000 were residential fires, accounting for 78.5 percent of all structure fires, and a significant decrease of 6.5 percent from the previous year. Of the residential structure fires, 272,500 occurred in one- and two-family homes, accounting for 56.7 percent of all structure fires. Another 90,000 occurred in apartments, accounting for 18.7 percent of all structure fires.
For nonresidential structure fires, all property types declined with some notable decreases: 16,500 fires occurred in stores and offices, a decrease of 19.5 percent; 5,500 fires occurred in institutional properties, a decrease of 15.4 percent; and 22,500 fires occurred in special structure properties, a decrease of 10 percent.
For the 1977 – 2009 period, the number of outside fires peaked in 1977 when 1,658,500 occurred. The number of outside fires decreased steadily the next six years to 1,011,000 in 1983, a decrease of 39 percent. Outside fires changed little for the rest of the 1980s, except for 1988, when 1,214,000 occurred. Outside fires dropped to 910,500 in 1993 and stayed near the 1,000,000 level for the next three years. From 1997 to 2002, the number of outside fires mostly stayed in the 839,000 to 861,500 range, then rose in 2005 and 2006 before declining to 649,000 at the end of 2009.
Of the outside fires in 2009, an estimated 306,000 were brush fires, a significant decrease of 8.7 percent from 2008, while an estimated 171,000 rubbish fires occurred, a decrease of 9 percent.
FIRE BY THE NUMBERS
- 1,348,500 fires were attended by public fire departments, a decrease of 7.1 percent from the year before.
- 480,500 fires occurred in structures, a decrease of 6.7 percent.
- 377,000 fires, or 78 percent of all structure fires, occurred in residential properties.
- 219,000 fires occurred in vehicles, a decrease of 7.2 percent from the year before.
- 649,000 fires occurred in outside properties, a decrease of 7.4 percent.
- Every 23 seconds, a fire department responds to a fire somewhere in the nation. A fire occurs in a structure at the rate of one every 66 seconds, and in particular a residential fire occurs every 84 seconds. Fires occur in vehicles at the rate of one every 146 seconds, and a fire occurs in an outside property every 49 seconds.
CIVILIAN FIRE DEATHS
- 3,010 civilian fire deaths occurred in 2009, a decrease of 9.3 percent from the previous year.
- About 85% of all fire deaths occurred in the home.
- 2,565 civilian fire deaths occurred in the home, a decrease of 6.9 percent.
- 260 civilians died in highway vehicle fires.
- 105 civilians died in nonresidential structure fires.
- Nationwide, there was a civilian fire death every 175 minutes.
CIVILIAN FIRE INJURIES
- 17,050 civilian fire injuries occurred, an increase of 2.1 percent over 2008. This estimate for civilian injuries is on the low side, because many civilian injuries are not reported to the fire service.
- 13,050 of all civilian injuries occurred in residential properties; 1,690 occurred in nonresidential structure fires.
- Nationwide, there was a civilian fire injury every 31 minutes.
- An estimated $12.5 billion in property damage occurred as a result of fire in 2009, a decrease of 19 percent from 2008. This decrease reflects the California wildfires of 2008, with an estimated property loss of $1.4 billion.
- $10.8 billion of property damage occurred in structure fires.
- Nearly $7.8 billion of property loss occurred in residential properties.
INTENTIONALLY SET FIRES
- An estimated 26,500 intentionally set structure fires occurred, a decrease of 13.1 percent from the previous year.
- Intentionally set fires in structures resulted in 170 civilian deaths, a decrease of 46 percent.
- Intentionally set structure fires resulted in $684 million in property loss, a decrease of 21.2 percent.
- 15,000 intentionally set vehicle fires occurred, a decrease of 14.3 percent, and caused $108 million in property damage, a decrease of 22.3 percent from the year before.
Civilian fire deaths
The 1,348,500 fires reported by fire departments in the United States in 2009 resulted in an estimated 3,010 civilian deaths based on data reported to NFPA. This is a decrease of 9.3 percent from 2008 and is the lowest since NFPA started using its current survey methodology in 1977 – 1978.
The nature of the decrease is better understood when results are examined by property type.
An estimated 2,590 civilians died in residential fires in 2009, a decrease of 6.8 percent. Of these deaths, 465 occurred in apartment fires. Another 2,100 died in one- and two-family home fires, a decrease of 11.2 percent. Most of this decrease is due to a 33 percent drop in the death rate for departments that protect communities of 25,000 to 49,999 people and a 42 percent drop for departments that protect communities with populations of 2,500 to 4,999. While this drop is encouraging, it is important to remain cautious, because death rates can vary considerably from year to year by community size, particularly for smaller communities.
In all, fires one- and two-family homes, including manufactured homes and apartments, resulted in 2,565 civilian deaths, a decrease of 6.9 percent from 2008, and the lowest it’s been since 1977.
Looking at trends in civilian deaths since 1977 – 1978, several observations are worth noting. Home fire deaths peaked in 1978, with 6,015. Home fire deaths then decreased steadily overall during the 1979 – 1982 period, to 4,820 by the end of 1982, a decrease of 20 percent. From 1982 to 1988, the number of home fire deaths mostly remained in the 4,655 to 4,955 range, except for 1984, when 4,075 fire deaths occurred. From 1989 to 1996, home fire deaths continued to decline and stayed in the 3,425 to 4,335 range. Since 1997, home fire deaths have generally continued to decline, with the number of deaths staying in the 2,565 to 3,190 range since 2001.
Overall for the 1977 – 2009 period, the number of home fire deaths decreased from 5,865 in 1977 to 2,565 in 2009, for a decrease of 56 percent. The number of home fires also declined steadily, for an overall decrease of 50 percent for the same period. There is no steady decline in the death rate per 1,000 home fire incidents, however; instead, the rate fluctuates considerably. The death rate per 1,000 home fires was 8.1 in 1977 and 7.1 in 2009, for a decrease of 12 percent. These results suggest that, even though the number of home fires and home fire deaths declined similarly during the period, the death rate did not and that, given there is a home fire, the fire death rate risk has not changed much for the period.
With home fire deaths still accounting for 85 percent of all civilian deaths, fire safety initiatives targeting the home remain the key to any reductions in the overall fire death toll. Those initiatives include five major strategies. First, more widespread public fire safety education is needed on how to prevent fires and how to avoid serious injury or death if a fire occurs, and information on the common causes of fatal home fires should continue to be used in the design of fire safety education messages. Second, more people must use and maintain smoke detectors and develop and practice escape plans. Third, wider use of residential sprinklers must be aggressively pursued. Fourth, additional ways must be sought to make home products more fire-safe. The regulations requiring more child-resistant lighters are a good example, as are requirements for cigarettes with reduced ignition strength, generally called “fire-safe” cigarettes. The wider use of upholstered furniture and mattresses that are more resistant to cigarette ignitions is an example of change that has already accomplished a great deal. Fifth, the special fire safety needs of high-risk groups such as the young, older adults, and the poor need to be addressed.
In 2009, 105 civilians died in nonresidential structure fires, a decrease of 12.5 percent. Of the 2,695 civilians that died in structure fires, 170, or 6.3 percent, died in fires that were intentionally set. An estimated 260 civilians died in highway vehicle fires, a decrease of 25.7 percent and the lowest number since 1977.
Civilian fire injuries
Results based on data reported to NFPA indicate that in addition to 3,010 civilian fire deaths, there were an estimated 17,050 civilian fire injuries in 2009. This represents an increase of 2.1 percent from the previous year.
Estimates of civilian fire injuries are on the low side, because many civilian injuries are not reported to the fire service. For example, many injuries occur at small fires to which fire departments do not respond, and sometimes when departments do respond, they may be unaware of injured persons that they did not transport to medical facilities.
NFPA estimates that there were 13,050 civilians injured in residential properties, a decrease of 3.8 percent. Of these injuries, 9,300 occurred in one- and two-family homes and 3,350 occurred in apartments. There were also 1,690 civilians injured in nonresidential structures in 2009.
For the 1977 – 2009 period, the number of civilian injuries has ranged from a high of 31,275 in 1983 to a low of 16,400 in 2006, for an overall decrease of 48 percent. There was no consistent pattern until 1995, when injuries fell to 25,775. From 1996 to 2002, injuries declined 28 percent, to 18,425 by the end of 2002. Since 2002, injuries have been in the 16,400 to 18,425 range.
NFPA estimates that the 1,348,500 fires the fire service responded to caused $12.5 billion in property damage in 2009. This is a highly significant decrease of 19 percent from 2008, though much of the decrease reflects the impact of the California wildfires of 2008, which resulted in an estimated property damage of $1.4 billion.
Fires in structures resulted in slightly more than $10.8 billion in property damage, a significant decrease of 12.3 percent. Average loss per structure fire was $22,564, a decrease of 6 percent.
Over the 1977 – 2009 period, excluding the events of September 11, 2001, the average loss per structure fire was $3,757 in 1977, compared to $22,564 in 2009, for an overall increase of 500 percent. When property loss is adjusted for inflation, the increase in the average structure fire loss between 1977 and 2009 is 80 percent.
Of the property loss in structures, nearly $7.8 billion occurred in residential properties, a decrease of 8.8 percent. An estimated $6.4 billion occurred in one- and two-family homes, a decrease of 7.3 percent. An estimated $1.2 billion also occurred in apartments.
Other property damage figures worth noting for 2009 include $572 million in industrial properties, a significant decrease of 59.2 percent from the previous year, though the decrease reflects three industrial property fires that resulted in $775 million in property damage in 2008; $757 million in public assembly properties, a significant increase of 46.1 percent that includes a casino fire that resulted in $340 million in property losses; $98 million in special properties, a highly significant decrease of 78.9 percent; $83 million in educational properties, a significant increase of 25.8 percent; and $791 million in storage properties, a significant increase of 19.7 percent.
It should be kept in mind that property loss totals can change dramatically from year to year because of the impact of occasional large loss fires. NFPA provides an analysis of these large-loss fires in the November/December issue of NFPA Journal every year.
Intentionally set fires
Based on data reported by fire departments in the survey, NFPA estimates there were 26,500 intentionally set structure fires in 2009, a decrease of 13.1 percent from the previous year. These fires resulted in an estimated 170 civilian deaths, a significant decrease of 46 percent. Both estimates of intentionally set structure fires and the resulting civilian deaths are the lowest figures since NFPA started using its current survey methodology in 1977 – 1978. These set structure fires also resulted in $684 million in property loss, a significant decrease of 21.2 percent.
There were also an estimated 15,000 intentionally set vehicle fires in 2009, a decrease of 14.3 percent from 2008. These fires resulted in $108 million in property loss, a decrease of 22.3 percent from the previous year.
Michael J. Karter, Jr. is senior statistician with NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division.