Firefighters battle a fire that started when a utility employee began changing an exterior gas meter on a residential condominium building without shutting off the gas supply. Home fire sprinklers confined the fire to the building. . (Photo: Peter Lobo)
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2011
Two dead in space heater fire
OHIO — A 70-year-old man and a 69-year-old woman died of smoke inhalation and burns in a fire that spread from the living room of their single-family house to their bedroom. The one-story, wood-frame house had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
A deputy sheriff on patrol saw the fire and called in the alarm at 4:58 a.m. Investigators determined that the fire started when a space heater in the living room ignited clothing, furniture, and clutter, although fire officers were unsure how the heater managed to ignite the items.
Leaking natural gas ignites
MASSACHUSETTS — A 30-year-old utility employee was injured when natural gas drawn into the intake of a heating unit ignited as he changed a gas meter on the exterior of a wood-frame residential condominium building.
The exterior of the three-story, seven-unit building, which was 150 feet (46 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide, was sided with wood, and its roof was covered by asphalt shingles. A wet-pipe sprinkler system had been installed throughout, and local smoke alarms were located in each unit.
Investigators determined that the worker had begun changing the meter without shutting off the gas supply, causing the gas to leak. Once the fuel entered the heating unit intake, it ignited, and flames spread along the exterior into the soffit and the building. After fire spread inside, an unknown number of sprinklers helped confine the fire to the building, but firefighters could not extinguish the blaze until the utility company shut off the gas line feeding the structure.
Damage to the property was estimated at $975,000.
One dead in building fire
CALIFORNIA — Firefighters responding to a structure fire at a 39-unit apartment building found the body of a woman who had succumbed to a blaze in her second-floor unit.
The three-story building, which was 200 feet (61 meters) long and 100 feet (30 meters) wide, had hardwired smoke alarms with battery backup. There were no sprinklers.
On the evening of the fire, the smoke alarms operated, alerting the building’s occupants. Firefighters responding to the 7:10 p.m. alarm found smoke and flames coming from two windows on the second floor and began advancing a 2 ½-inch hose line into the structure. Crews assigned to search and rescue helped evacuate the second- and third-floor residents, one of whom was taken out over a ladder.
The fire, which started in a bedroom of the woman’s second-floor apartment and spread to the outside of the building and into the attic, was under control in 70 minutes. Investigators discovered that the blaze started with bedding, but they could not determine the ignition source.
There were no other injuries, although 47 of the building’s residents were displaced.
Car fire spreads to home
OKLAHOMA — A 73-year-old woman died in her single-family home when a fire that started in a car parked in the carport spread to the attic above it and into the house.
The one-story, wood-frame house, which covered approximately 2,400 square feet (223 square meters), had smoke detectors in all three bedrooms, the hallway, and the den, although firefighters did not hear any of them sounding during the fire. There were no sprinklers.
A passerby noticed the fire and called the fire department at 1:10 p.m. When firefighters arrived 5 minutes later, the vehicle was fully involved and smoke was coming from the carport and the gable end of the house. As soon as they knocked the fire down, firefighters found the woman, who had an unspecified disability, just inside the front door.
Investigators determined that the fire started in the car’s passenger compartment and spread from the carport ceiling into the attic. Family members said that the car had been used the night before without incident and that they saw nothing unusual when they left the house in the morning.
Heavy fire damage was limited to the end of the house on the carport side and the attic. Property damage was estimated at $120,000, the home’s value, while damage to its contents was placed at $80,000.
Fire started to cover murder
KANSAS — Firefighters responding to a fire in a 24-unit apartment discovered the body of a woman who had been killed before the fire began.
Two occupants on the second floor of the unsprinklered, three-story, wood-frame building discovered the fire, one person when her carbon monoxide detector woke her and the other when her smoke detector operated, and both called 911. The first alarm was received at 4:54 a.m. Arriving firefighters found nothing showing outside the building but, after talking to one of the callers, discovered the fire in a neighboring unit.
When they entered the apartment, they saw fire and smoke and began to evacuate occupants from the units on the floor above.
Crews advancing a hose line into the unit of origin noted two fires, one in the living room and one in the bedroom, where they discovered the victim’s body. When they’d extinguished the two fires, they found a gasoline can in the living room and sealed the apartment for investigators.
The investigators determined that the woman had suffered severe head trauma and died before the perpetrator poured a trail of gasoline from the bedroom to the living room and ignited it with a lighter.
Damage to the building, valued at $500,000, was estimated at $40,000; damage to its contents was estimated at $10,000. There were no injuries.
Heater starts deadly fire
CALIFORNIA — An 85-year-old woman died when clothing drying on a chair in front of a wall-mounted LP-gas heater in a bedroom of her unsprinklered single-family house ignited, starting a fire that spread throughout the house.
The one-story, wood-frame home, which was 100 feet (30 meters) long and 20 feet (6 meters) wide, had smoke alarms, but they did not activate.
The victim and her husband left the house after calling 911 at 7 p.m., but reentered it with a garden hose in an unsuccessful attempt to extinguish the blaze. Firefighters arriving 10 minutes after the alarm used a combination of exterior and interior attacks to put out the flames.
The victim was found dead on the ground outside. Her husband escaped unharmed through the back door.
The fire destroyed the house, which was valued at $200,000, and its contents, valued at $50,000.
Fatal unattended cooking fire
NORTH CAROLINA — An 87-year-old woman died in a fire that started when a pan of grease left unattended on the stove ignited and spread up the wall and into the attic of her single-family house. The attic was filled with clothes and clutter that contributed to the fuel load, allowing the fire to spread throughout the dwelling.
The single-story, wood-frame house, which was 40 feet (12 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide, had an asphalt-shingled roof and a brick veneer on the exterior walls. It had no sprinklers, and the presence of smoke alarms was not reported.
A neighbor called the fire department at 3:11 p.m., and firefighters arrived 7 minutes later to find the home fully involved in flames. When a bystander reported that the woman, who lived alone, was still inside, crews forced entry and searched for her until the ceiling and roof began to collapse. They found the victim, who had succumbed to smoke inhalation, after they extinguished the fire using an exterior attack.
The fire destroyed the home, which was valued at $50,000, and its contents, valued at $25,000.
Gasoline fire kills child
COLORADO — A 21-month-old boy died of burns when a portable heater ignited vapor from gasoline his father and uncle were using to clean a boat engine in their garage. The garage, which was attached to a two-family, wood-frame house, had no sprinklers.
Shortly before the fire started, the uncle had gone into the house. Moments later, as the father opened the door from the garage to the house, he heard a whoosh and turned to see his son’s clothing in flames. He grabbed the boy and ran out of the garage through the open garage door to the driveway, but the child had been too badly burned to survive. His father, though injured, survived.
Someone in the house called 911 at 11:57 a.m., and firefighters arrived 5 minutes later to find the garage filled with flames. The house was filled with smoke, and the second-story exterior was starting to burn. Crews fought the fire and cared for the two victims.
Investigators determined that the fire began when the portable electric heater ignited vapors from gasoline that had spilled from the 2 ½-gallon (9-liter) gasoline container.
The house, valued at $250,000, and its contents, valued at $80,000, sustained estimated damage of $100,000 and $75,000, respectively.
Manufactured home fire kills one
LOUISIANA — A 68-year-old man died in a fire that started in a bedroom off a center hallway of his manufactured home.
The single-story dwelling, which was 80 feet (24 meters) long and 12 feet (4 meters) wide, had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
A passerby called 911 to report a structure fire around 1 a.m. The first responder on the scene was a police officer, who found the manufactured home fully involved in flames. When he tried to open the front door, he found it had a deadbolt but no outside doorknob, so he kicked it. As he did, black smoke poured out of the home. The officer called out to see if anyone was inside but heard nothing, so he continued to go around the home banging on the sides and calling out until the fire became too intense.
While waiting for firefighters to arrive, the officer learned from a by stander that an older man lived in the house. He notified arriving firefighters that the man might be inside, and crews found the victim in a bedroom.
Fire damage was extensive, spreading from the bedroom to the other rooms out windows and to an unregistered school bus parked in the driveway. Investigators could not determine the cause of the blaze, but found that it started in a bedroom where the victim usually slept. Because he was found fully clothed and in a different bedroom, they believe he had been trying to escape. They also believe that alcohol was a contributing factor in his death.
The fire destroyed the home and its contents, together valued at $50,000.
Delay in reporting fatal fire
NEW JERSEy — A 48-year-old woman and her dog died of smoke inhalation in a fire started by smoking materials.
The fire occurred on one side of a single-story, wood-frame, two-family house with masonry walls and a wooden roof covered by asphalt. The only smoke alarm was located in the basement. There was no other detection or suppression equipment.
One of the building’s occupants called 911 at 12:20 a.m. to report the fire, and firefighters arrived minutes later to find smoke and flames coming from front and side windows. They extinguished the flames and found the victim and the dog in the kitchen near a door partially blocked by a child’s motorized toy car.
Investigators believe that the woman was in bed when the fire started and tried to put it out before anyone called the fire department. The fire, which started when smoking materials ignited combustibles in the bedroom, spread through the open bedroom door into the living room.
Man on home oxygen fatally burned while smoking
COLORADO — An 86-year-old man with a physical disability was fatally injured in a fire that started when a cigarette ignited the tubing of his home oxygen unit and the flames, intensified by the oxygen, spread to the oxygen tanks. The victim’s one-story, single-family, wood-frame dwelling had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
The fire burned until the man’s brother arrived home and found smoke coming from the house. Upon entering, he found his brother engulfed in flames. He managed to pull him to the front door, then went to a neighbor’s house, where he called 911 at 12:38 p.m.
Firefighters arriving 3 minutes later struck a second alarm and called for an additional medical unit. As the fire grew, flames spread to oxygen tanks, causing them to fail and escalate the fire, which spread to the home’s exterior. Once outside, the flames caused the natural gas meter to fail, filling the house with flammable gas that further intensified the blaze.
The house, which was valued at $350,000, and its contents, valued at $80,000, were destroyed.
Sprinkler douses hotel room fire
SOUTH DAKOTA — A single sprinkler extinguished a fire involving the plastic cover of a fluorescent light and other combustibles in the bathroom of a hotel guest room before firefighters arrived at the scene.
The three-story, wood-frame hotel, which was 200 feet (61 meters) long and 100 feet (30 meters) wide, contained 93 rooms. Smoke detectors in the hallways and single-station smoke alarms in the guest rooms were monitored by a central station alarm company, as was the hotel’s wet-pipe sprinkler system.
The room’s occupants had called the front desk to report that they smelled smoke in their room when the fire alarm operated at 12:46 a.m. Responding firefighters found that a sprinkler located just 8 inches (20 centimeters) from the light fixture had already extinguished the blaze.
Investigators determined that arcing and resistive heating at the point at which the fluorescent bulb connected to the fixture had produced enough heat to ignite the light’s plastic cover, causing it to melt or fall down onto towels below. Some heat damage was noted on the walls, but fire spread was limited by the sprinkler.
Damage to the hotel and its contents, valued at $3.1 million, was limited to $5,100. There were no injuries.
Sprinkler extinguishes fire in home under construction
ILLINOIS — A single sprinkler in a two-unit townhouse under construction extinguished a fire that started when oil-soaked rags stuffed into a cardboard box in a plastic garbage can spontaneously ignited.
The two-story, wood-frame townhouse had local smoke alarms on each level, but they were not a factor during the incident. The sprinkler system had already been installed, and the sprinkler operated despite the fact that it still had a protective cover over it.
A worker who saw the fire called 911 at 7:05 a.m., and firefighters arrived within minutes to find the sprinkler operating and a heavy haze of white smoke inside the building.
Property damage to the house, valued at $475,000, was estimated at $5,000. No one was injured.
Smoking in bed leads to death
KANSAS — A 55-year-old woman with a physical disability died of complications from burns she suffered in a fire that started while she was smoking in bed. A sprinkler in the bedroom extinguished the blaze, but not before she was severely burned.
The victim lived in a two-story, four-unit, wood-frame apartment building. Each unit was equipped with smoke alarms, which operated as designed, as did a wet-pipe sprinkler system monitored by a central station alarm company.
Firefighters received the alarm at 8:10 p.m. and arrived 2 minutes later with security personnel, who reported that a person was trapped in a first-floor apartment. Crews advanced a pre-connected hose line and entered the unit to find that the sprinkler had already extinguished the fire.
They found the 350-pound (159-kilogram) woman lying on a burned mattress and tried to lift her with a special flexible stretcher. When they were unable to do so, they dragged her on the mattress from the building.
The victim told investigators that, while in bed, she tried to light a cigarette with a lighter when a fan blew a napkin towards her, and it ignited. The burning paper then ignited the bedding and her clothing, and the fire burned until it was extinguished by the sprinklers in the bedroom and bathroom. Flame damage was limited to the room of origin.
The building, valued at $400,000, sustained losses estimated at $2,000. The contents of the apartment, valued at $4,000, also sustained an estimated loss of $2,000.
Sprinklers put out restaurant fire
CALIFORNIA — Two sprinklers extinguished a fire on a prep table near a deep fat fryer in the kitchen of a restaurant before it could do much damage to the property.
The restaurant, located in single-story, wood-frame strip mall, had a kitchen hood suppression system and a wet-pipe sprinkler system. The restaurant was closed for the night.
Firefighters responding to the 1:06 a.m. sprinkler system’s monitored water flow alarm found light smoke in the restaurant and called for additional units before forcing the front door and advancing a hose line into the kitchen. Once inside, they discovered that the fire had already been extinguished by the operating sprinklers. Other fire department companies helped ventilate the restaurant and shut down the sprinkler system.
Investigators discovered a distinctive “V” pattern on the preparation counter to the left of a deep fat fryer where a plastic colander filled with tempura batter and soybean oil was draining into a plastic bowl. They determined that the bowl was the point of fire origin and that the cause of the fire was spontaneous ignition.
The fire did approximately $5,000 in damage. There were no injuries.
Sprinkler controls dryer fire
SOUTH CAROLINA — A single sprinkler prevented a fire that started in a clothes dryer from spreading throughout a continuing care complex clubhouse.
The two-story, wood-frame clubhouse, which covered 10,000 square feet (929 square meters), had a steel-frame roof covered by a wooden deck and a rubber roof membrane. The building was protected throughout by a monitored smoke detection system and a wet-pipe sprinkler system.
Grease-laden cotton towels and mops heads used to clean the clubhouse’s kitchen floor had been laundered and put in the dryer, the heat from which apparently ignited a greasy residue that remained on the towels after laundering. The fire was confined to the dryer, but the heat activated an overhead sprinkler 2 feet (0.6 meters) away. The sprinkler cooled the dryer and prevented other nearby materials from igniting. Firefighters completed extinguishment. Automatic fire doors operated and kept smoke spread to the area of origin. Because a number of floor drains were not working, water damaged several rooms and the hallway.
Property damage to the facility, valued at $1.5 million, was estimated at $43,000.There were no injuries.
Child dies in fire in recreational vehicle
IOWA — An 8-year-old girl died of smoke inhalation and burns in a fire in a recreational vehicle that had been set up as living quarters.
The 30-foot (9-meter), metal-frame vehicle, which had metal siding and a fiberglass roof, was located in a salvage yard next to a garage, from which an extension cord had been run to supply it with electricity. There were no smoke alarms in the sleeping areas.
The day of the fire, the girl had stayed home with her father, who worked nearby, while her mother and another child were out. When her mother arrived home, she noted nothing unusual until she opened the door to the vehicle and thick, black smoke came rolling out.
Calling their daughter’s name, the girl’s parents emptied a fire extinguisher on the blaze, which momentarily squelched the flames. However, the fire roared back, quickly filling the interior and venting out the roof.
Firefighters received a 911 call reporting the fire at 5:41 p.m., and arriving units reported heavy smoke and fire showing from the vehicle. Crews quickly extinguished the blaze and found the child in a rear bedroom, overcome by smoke.
Investigators discovered that the family had slept inside the vehicle the previous night, using two portable electric heaters and a portable propane-fired heater for heat. They believe that the propane heater was placed too close to combustibles and ignited them.
The vehicle and its contents, together valued at $5,000, were destroyed.
Sprinklers control fire in furniture warehouse
VIRGINIA — Sprinklers controlled a fire in a furniture warehouse until firefighters arrived to extinguish it.
The single-story, steel-frame building, which was 1,500 feet (457 meters) long and 400 feet (122 meters) wide, had masonry walls and a steel-frame roof covered by metal decking topped with foam insulation and a rubber membrane. The building was protected by a wet-pipe sprinkler system with a monitored water flow alarm.
Firefighters received the alarm at 11:59 a.m. and had begun to respond when the warehouse manager cancelled the alarm four minutes later. At 12:08 p.m., however, the manager called back to confirm that there was a fire, and firefighters once again responded. Despite the initial cancellation, the volunteers had continued to respond to fire department headquarters, so the cancellation did not cause a delay in response.
When fire crews arrived at the scene, they learned from employees that the fire was in the center of an aisle with stacked boxes of furniture. The employees had tried unsuccessfully to control the blaze using portable extinguishers, but the flames spread from the furniture to the roof, causing four sprinklers to operate and contain the fire. Because of the stacked storage, the seat of the fire was shielded from the sprinklers’ discharge. Wearing SCBA, the firefighters used forklifts to remove furniture and extinguished the fire using hose lines.
Investigators suspect that the fire was intentionally set by someone who used an open-flame device to ignite the cardboard boxes.
Manual fire doors were closed during the fire, limiting fire damage to the immediate area. Estimates of property damage were not reported.