The owner of this single-family home in Massachusetts was killed in a fire caused by a malfunctioning oil-fired boiler. (Photo: Courtesy of Martha’s Vineyard Times)
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2011
Oil-fired boiler causes fatal fire
MASSACHUSETTS — A malfunctioning oil-fired boiler started a fire that led to the death of the owner of a single-family home.
The two-story, wood-frame house measured approximately 30 feet (9 meters) by 40 feet (12 meters). A single-story addition 8 feet (2 meters) wide and 20 feet (6 meters) long had been built onto the rear of the house and led to another single-story addition that measured 20 feet (6 meters) by 30 feet (9 meters). The house had no sprinklers, and investigators could not determine whether smoke alarms were present.
A neighbor noticed the fire when she woke to take care of her baby and called 911 at 5:30 a.m. She then woke her husband, who ran around the burning house banging on walls and windows to try to alert the occupant.
Shortly after firefighters arrived, a portion of the roof began to collapse.
Investigators determined that the fire was started by a malfunctioning oil-fired boiler in the basement and that the fire traveled up through the two-story section of the house.
The value of the house and its contents was not reported.
Smoking in bed leads to fatal fire
NORTH CAROLINA — A 60-year-old man died and his 56-year-old wife was injured in a fire that started when smoking materials ignited bedding and curtains in their bedroom.
The single-story, wood-frame manufactured home, which was 60 feet (18 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide, had a pitched wooden roof covered with asphalt shingles. Smoke alarms were located in the hallway and living room. There were no sprinklers.
The couple called 911 at 8:53 a.m. after the smoke alarm alerted them to the fire. Rather than leaving the house immediately, however, they tried to extinguish the blaze themselves. The woman finally left the burning building, but her husband did not follow her out. Firefighters who arrived 5 minutes after receiving the alarm found him in the bathroom near the room of origin. They brought him outside and tried to resuscitate him to no avail.
The wife told investigators that her husband was smoking in bed when the fire started. The blaze spread from the bedroom to a utility room and the bathroom where the victim was found.
The fire destroyed the house, which was valued at $85,000, and its contents, valued at $50,000.
Smoking materials ignite combustibles on balcony
MARYLAND — A fire that started when improperly discarded smoking materials ignited paper on the balcony of a third-floor unit in an apartment building quickly spread up the exterior of the building to the attic, heavily damaging the structure.
The three-story, wood-frame building, which measured 100 feet (30 meters) by 75 feet (23 meters), was unsprinklered. The six units in the middle of the building, where the fire occurred, had single-station smoke alarms, only one of which sounded.
A passerby discovered the fire and called 911 at 12:24 a.m. Responding firefighters found flames showing from three rear units and the attic. It took three ladder companies and 10 engines companies about 90 minutes to confine the fire to the middle of the building and extinguish it. Adjacent sections of the building were spared significant losses by fire walls.
Damage to the building, which was valued at $1.7 million, was estimated at $1.5 million. Damage to the contents, valued at $45,000, was estimated at $40,000.
Smoking material fire kills two
UTAH — Two women, one 90 years old and the other 55, died when a fire started by smoking materials that had been improperly disposed of ignited a recliner, filling their single-family home with smoke.
The single-story, wood-frame house, which was 40 feet (12 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide, had concrete block walls and a pitched wooden roof covered with asphalt shingles. A battery-operated smoke alarm had been installed in the first-floor hallway, but firefighters said they did not hear it operating during their initial search and rescue operations. There were no sprinklers.
The former husband of one of the women, who visited frequently and acted as their caretaker, arrived around10:15 a.m. When he opened the door, he found smoke filling the house. He called 911 and told the arriving crews that the two women, who were both physically disabled, were probably inside.
Firefighters found the first victim in the bathroom off the master bedroom on the first floor and quickly took her outside for emergency medical treatment. A second crew found the other woman in a basement bedroom on the floor next to the bed. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
Investigators determined that the fire started in the basement family room in an upholstered recliner, on the arm of which they found a full ashtray that was leaning in a bit toward the seat. After the fire consumed the available oxygen, it almost self-extinguished. Firefighters put out the smoldering remains.
The women died of smoke inhalation. The house, valued at $100,000, and its contents, valued at $30,000, sustained undetermined damages.
Improper disposal of smoking materials leads to fire death
TEXAS — A 90-year-old woman who lived alone died in a fire that began when she dropped a cigarette on the living room couch in her single-family home. Her relatives told investigators that the victim did not use ashtrays. The one-story, wood-frame house, which was 35 feet (11 meters) long and 45 feet (14 meters) wide, had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
A neighbor who was shoveling the walk during a snow storm and a passerby discovered the fire and called 911 at 11 a.m. The neighbor then broke the front windows in an effort to rescue her while a police officer kicked in the front door, but these actions only intensified the fire.
Investigators determined that the fire started in or on the living room sofa and burned for some time before it was discovered. Firefighters, who found the woman’s body after they extinguished the blaze, noted that the floor under the sofa had burned away. Contributing to the delay in extinguishment was the fact that the woman had pulled all the drapes and curtains in the house, which was located off a side street.
Valued at $165,000, the house sustained an $80,000 loss. Its contents, valued at $75,000, sustained damage estimated at $50,000.
Medical oxygen contributes to fatal apartment fire
WASHINGTON — An 80-year-old blind woman who was using home oxygen died in a fire that began when a heated towel she had in her lap ignited combustibles on or near the couch on which she was sitting.
The fire occurred in a fourth-floor unit of a six-story apartment building in which roughly 150 low-income older adults lived. The structure was of fire-resistive construction, with block walls and cement floors and ceilings. The building had a new wing and an old wing, which resulted in variations in fire detection and suppression systems. The old wing, in which the fire occurred, did not have sprinklers. The alarm system was being upgraded, but only single-station smoke alarms and pull stations were present at the time of the fire.
The smoke alarm alerted nearby residents, and the fire department was notified by pull stations and a 911 call shortly after 6 p.m. When a caregiver arrived at the apartment of origin, she heard the woman cry. She opened the door, crawled into the burning apartment, pulled the woman out, and took her to a neighbor’s unit.
By the time firefighters arrived, smoke and flames were venting out a window. Crews raised an aerial ladder and used a ladder pipe to knock down the blaze before advancing hose lines to the fourth floor and completing extinguishment. The fire was confined to the unit of origin, but smoke affected portions of the fourth, fifth, and sixth floors. The fourth-floor hallway suffered heavy smoke and heat damage, but smoke damage to the fourth-floor units whose doors were closed was minor.
The woman, who suffered from burns and smoke inhalation, died of her injuries, but she lived long enough to tell investigators how the fire started. She had put a towel in her new microwave oven to warm it, removed the towel, and unfolded it. As it was being unfolded, she said, the overheated towel began burning. Investigators determined that oxygen flowing from an oxygen generator that was filling a nasal cannula on the living room floor was a contributing factor.
During the fire, six other residents of the building suffered smoke inhalation or stress-related injuries. An 88-year-old woman who had left the hospital without being treated died of a heart condition the following day.
The building, valued at $8 million, sustained damage estimated at $323,000. Its contents, valued at $1 million, sustained a $15,000 loss.
Wall heater starts fatal fire
OKLAHOMA — Combustibles placed too close to a propane-fired wall heater in a single-family house caught fire, and the blaze spread through the house, killing a 15-year-old boy diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
The one-story, wood-frame house, which covered 1,800 square feet (167 square meters), had rock walls and a wooden roof covered by metal over asphalt and wood shakes. There were no smoke alarms or unsprinklers.
A passerby discovered the fire and reported it at 6:20 a.m. By the time firefighters arrived 8 minutes later, smoke and flames were coming out of every window of the house.
The boy’s 50-year-old mother, who had managed to escape from the house, told fire crews that her son was still inside. Firefighters laid hose lines and tried to knock the fire down so they could search for the boy, but they were blocked by debris. They tried a second time from the rear, but were still unable to find him. When they finally extinguished the blaze, they discovered the boy’s body in the kitchen.
Investigators determined that the fire started in a wall heater in the living room and intensified after two small cylinders of medical oxygen failed.
The blaze destroyed the house, which was valued at $60,000, and its contents, valued at $40,000.
Two dead in house fire
TEXAS — A fire in a single-family home that started on a front porch that had been enclosed to make a room flashed over and spread through the structure, killing a 52-year-old man and a 49-year-old woman. The man had back problems that reduced his mobility, and the woman sometimes used a walker. Both victims were intoxicated.
The single-story, wood-frame house was 30 feet (9 meters) long by 35 feet (11 meters) wide. It had two bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, a living room, and the porch that had been enclosed to add another room. There were no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
A visitor to the house next door saw the fire through the windows as he approached and ran around the burning house banging on windows. He noticed that the back door was open, but he was unable to see inside.
Responding to an 8 p.m. call, firefighters arrived to find smoke and flames coming from the windows on two sides of the house. They advanced a 2-inch (5-centimeter) hose line through the front door, knocked down the heavy fire on the porch, and went into the house, where they found the first victim between the front room and the living room. They discovered the other victim in the kitchen during their secondary search.
Investigators determined that the fire started in the enclosed porch in an entertainment cabinet containing a television, VCR, and other electronic equipment. It was most likely the result of some type of electrical problem in one of the components. The fire heavily damaged the addition and the front of the house before it spread through an open door to the main body of the house.
The house, which was valued at $62,000, and its contents, valued at $22,000, were destroyed. Alcohol intoxication was a contributing factor in the couple’s deaths.
Child dies in house fire
TEXAS — A 9-year-old boy died in an early morning fire in his single-family home, despite his father’s attempt to rescue him.
The one-story, wood-frame house had a battery-operated smoke alarm in the hallway by the front bedrooms. The smoke alarm operated and woke one of the adults, who alerted the others. There were no sprinklers.
Neighbors heard the boy’s 36-year-old mother screaming in the middle of the night, saw the house on fire, and called 911 at 2:37 a.m. Responding crews advanced a 1 ½-inch (4-centimeter) hose line into the house and found the boy, who had died of burns and smoke inhalation.
Investigators believe that the fire was started by an electrical problem in a television that had been left on all night in the living room. The blaze was spreading into the hallway when the boy’s 36-year-old father grabbed his son from his bedroom and tried to carry him out of the house. Before he made it through the living room to the front door, however, he and the boy were engulfed in flames and fell to the floor. The father crawled to the door and escaped, but his son did not. The mother was treated at the scene, and the father was sent to a burn center.
The fire destroyed the house, which was valued at $30,000, and its contents, valued at $15,000.
Improper use of gasoline in home leads to deadly fire
MISSOURI — A 26-year-old woman died and her husband suffered burns when gasoline he was pouring into a bucket from one of two motorcycle fuel tanks stored in a bedroom of their single-family home ignited.
The two-and-a-half-story, wood-framed house, which was 60 feet (18 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide, had exterior brick walls and a composite shingled roof. There were no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
The man suspected that one of the gasoline tanks was leaking and began draining it in the bedroom where four portable electric heaters were operating. When the fuel spilled onto one of the heaters, the gasoline vapors immediately ignited. As the fire spread to the bed on which his wife was sitting, the man tried to smother it with blankets until he realized his pants were on fire.
He asked his wife to help him control the fire and ran outside to try to extinguish the flames consuming his pants. He thought his wife had followed him out of the house, and when he realized that she had not, he asked neighbors to help him rescue her. Firefighters responding to the alarm discovered her body in the bedroom, where she had succumbed to smoke inhalation and burns.
The house, valued at approximately $9,000, was a total loss.
Sprinklers control fire in garage
CALIFORNIA — Two sprinklers in the garage of a single-family home controlled a fire in the engine compartment of a car until firefighters arrived to extinguish it.
The two-story, wood-frame house, which covered an area of 2,400 square feet (223 square meters), had hardwired smoke alarms and an NFPA 13D wet-pipe sprinkler system.
The sprinkler system’s water flow alarm sounded locally, alerting the home’s occupants who called 911 at 9:11 p.m. Firefighters arrived 2 minutes later to find that the sprinklers had confined the flames to the vehicle, which was fully involved. They advanced hose lines into the garage to complete extinguishment. The interior of the vehicle was heavily damaged, and the garage sustained some fire and water damage.
Investigators believe that a mechanical failure caused an engine part to overheat and ignite.
The house, valued at $300,000, sustained losses estimated at $8,000, while its contents sustained $3,000 worth of damage.
Sprinkler controls hotel laundry fire
KANSAS — A 99-room hotel with seven floors above grade and five below sustained limited fire damage when a sprinkler activated and controlled a fire in a laundry room in the building’s sub-basement.
The concrete-and-steel structure, which was 200 feet (61 meters) long and 120 feet (37 meters) wide, was equipped with wet-pipe sprinklers with a water flow alarm, and a fire detection system with heat detectors had been installed in the room of origin.
The central station alarm company reported the fire at 11:30 p.m. Firefighters initiated a high-rise response to locate and extinguish the fire, which they discovered in the hotel’s fourth sub-basement.
Investigators determined that cotton and linen items contaminated with animal or vegetable oils had been put in a clothes dryer but removed before they were completely dry. They were put in large baskets while still damp, and the trapped heat warmed the contaminated materials to their ignition points.
The building, valued at $10 million, was undamaged, and its contents, valued at $5 million, sustained $5,000 in damages. There were no injuries.
Sprinkler extinguishes unattended cooking fire
VIRGINIA — A single sprinkler activated and extinguished a fire that began in a first-floor unit of a three-story apartment building when a woman left a pan of oil heating unattended on the stovetop.
Each unit of the wood-frame apartment building had local smoke alarms, and the common areas were equipped with a fire alarm system. The building also had a wet-pipe sprinkler, which operated as designed.
The woman left the kitchen to attend to her granddaughter and discovered the fire on her return. When her attempt to put out the flames by throwing water on them made the fire larger, she grabbed the child and left the apartment just as the sprinkler activated. The apartment smoke alarm operated, as did the fire alarm system in the common areas.
Firefighters responding to a 911 call and a monitoring system notification found neither smoke nor flames showing from the building. When they located the unit of origin, they found that one sprinkler had put out the fire.
The building, valued at $1 million, sustained losses estimated at $5,000. There were no injuries.
Sprinkler extinguishes fatal smoking material fire
CALIFORNIA — A man living in an apartment complex for older adults died as a result of burns to his lower body when his clothing or the couch he was sitting on caught fire.
The multi-unit building had four wings united by a center hallway. Three of the wings had three floors, and the fourth had four floors and underground parking. The building had a fire alarm system, and a fire sprinkler system provided protection throughout the building.
A smoke alarm alerted a woman from an apartment down the hall from the unit of origin as she took her trash out. When she saw smoke in the hallway, she returned to her own unit and called the front desk to ask them to call the fire department, which received the call at 11:36 p.m. She then knocked on doors up and down the floor.
When she discovered smoke coming from the involved unit, she entered through the unlocked door and called out to the victim, whom she found sitting on the couch under the flowing sprinkler. At the time, he was conscious but not communicating. When her attempt to help the man escape was unsuccessful, she found someone to help, and they dragged him out of the apartment into the hallway.
When firefighters arrived 5 minutes after receiving the alarm, they saw no evidence of fire or smoke. After speaking to staff members, who reported a fire on the second floor in one of the three-story wings, they found the victim in the hallway outside the unit of origin, which was filled with light smoke. The single sprinkler had extinguished the blaze. Combustibles near the couch, the victim’s clothing, and the victim were the only things that had burned. Investigators could not determine the ignition scenario.
The victim, whose age was not reported, died of his injuries. Fire damage to the building and its contents was estimated at $5,000 each. Water damage to the first and second floors was not included in this estimate.
Sprinkler limits damage in apartment building fire
COLORADO — Sprinklers held a fire that started on a ground-floor apartment patio in check until firefighters arrived to extinguish it. The three-story, wood-frame apartment building, which was part of a complex, had a fire alarm system and a sprinkler system.
An occupant of a first-floor unit discovered the fire when she heard a loud bang outside her apartment. When she went to check on the noise, she saw her discarded Christmas tree, which had been moved to the patio, and a sectional sofa engulfed in flames. When the glass door to the patio failed, heat, smoke, and flames spread into the apartment, activating the smoke alarms and sprinklers. At this point, the woman woke her husband and evacuated the apartment with him and their dog.
Firefighters responding to the 12:04 a.m. alarm arrived 8 minutes later to find the heavy fire on the patio spreading to balconies above. Using hose lines, they knocked down the fire on the outside of the building, while interior companies advanced hose lines into the structure, where they found sprinklers holding the fire at bay.
Investigators discovered that a third-floor tenant who smoked on his balcony routinely tossed the lighted butts to the ground below. This time, they landed in the dried-out Christmas tree and the sofa on his neighbor’s patio, starting a fire that spread up the siding on the first and second floors and moderately damaged a third-floor balcony. Fire spread into the building was limited to the first floor.
Damages were estimated between $30,000 and $50,000. No one was injured.
Carpet recycling plant suffers million-dollar fire
GEORGIA — A carpet recycling plant sustained more than a million dollars in damage when dust, lint, and carpet residue that had built up on equipment and the ceiling of the building ignited and flames spread, despite the operation of 200 sprinklers.
The steel-frame plant, which covered 54,000 square feet (5,017 square meters), had metal walls and a metal roof. The building ranged in height from 24 feet (7 meters) to 36 feet (11 meters). A dry-pipe sprinkler system had been installed, along with occupant hose lines.
The recycling company placed carpet remnants on a conveyor belt 4 feet (1 meter) wide that moved them around the building 24 hours a day to different processing machines, before forming the carpets into a bale. According to employees, the fire began around two cleaning machines and spread along built-up residue on the ductwork and conveyor belts, up the walls, and along the ceiling to other areas of the building.
Several employees tried to control the flames using the hose lines and fire extinguishers, but the fire continued to grow and filled the building with heavy smoke. The plant was evacuated before firefighters arrived to support the sprinkler system, advance hose lines, and open up the roof with several large vent holes.
Investigators determined that the fire began near the two cleaning machines connected by the conveyor belt, but they could not determine the cause of ignition. They believe that the recycling process, the large open area, the baled products, the piled scraps, and the dust residue contributed to the fire spread.
The fire did $1.5 million in damage to the building, valued at $2.125 million, and its contents, valued at $5.24 million. One firefighter suffered a minor injury.
Sprinkler limits fire damage in business block
IOWA — A single sprinkler controlled a fire in the first-floor utility room of an historical building in an old block-long business district, significantly limiting fire damage.
The two-story, wood-frame building, which was 80 feet (24 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide, had brick exterior walls and a flat roof with a built-up roof covering. The building did not have an engineered sprinkler system, but a sprinkler tied into the domestic water supply provided coverage in the room of origin. The building had no fire alarm system, but a monitored smoke alarm in an adjacent business operated when smoke reached the detectors.
Firefighters responding to the fire at 10:26 a.m. on a Sunday morning found that the sprinkler had confined it to the utility room.
Investigators determined that the fire started when an electrical failure in an old motor burned through the telephone lines. Smoke travelled through the subflooring to the adjacent business.
Damage to the building, which was valued at $113,000, was estimated at $25,000. Damage to the structure’s contents, valued at $200,000, was estimated at $5,000.
Sprinkler extinguishes intentional fire in hospital
FLORIDA — A single sprinkler extinguished a fire that a 58-year-old man set by igniting a paper towel dispenser in a single-occupant restroom at a hospital.
The 10-story hospital was constructed of steel and concrete, and had concrete block walls. The structure was protected by a fire detection system and a wet-pipe sprinkler system.
Firefighters responding to the alarm at 6:10 a.m. arrived 8 minutes later. Security personnel directed them to the second floor, where they found that a sprinkler had already extinguished the blaze.
Security cameras caught the man smoking near the bathroom just before the fire started. Investigators determined that he used his lighter to ignite the paper towels and that the fire spread to the wall-mounted dispenser. The sprinkler extinguished the blaze before it could spread to anything else.
The building and its contents, which were valued at more than $25 million dollars, sustained $24,000 in damage. There were no injuries. Police arrested the perpetrator.