This large lumber and hardware store was significantly damaged by a fire started by a propane torch a contractor was using to repair the roof. (Photo: Steve Griffin/The Salt Lake Tribune)
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2011
Torch starts roof fire at lumber and hardware store
UTAH — A propane torch being used to seal the roof membrane of a lumber and hardware store ignited the material, and the fire spread to wooden structural members.
The two-story, wood-frame building, which measured 100 feet (30 meters) by 120 feet (37 meters), had concrete block walls and a wooden roof deck with a built-up surface of asphalt and rubber roofing material. The structure had no fire detection or suppression equipment.
Earlier in the day, a roofing contractor was repairing a section of the roof by removing damaged substrate and underlayment, and laying down new roofing material. He used a propane-fired torch to heat the roofing membrane to bond sections together and seal the joints. The contractor finished his work for the day around 5 p.m. and sent his crew home after checking the roof surface.
About 30 to 45 minutes later, employees preparing to close the store for the evening smelled something burning. When they went to investigate, they saw smoke and flames coming from the corner of the building where the contractor had been working. They called 911 at 5:55 p.m.
Arriving firefighters evacuated the store and called in additional resources. The suppression operation lasted for more than four hours, as crews fought to prevent the blaze from spreading further and involving the warehouse.
Flames consumed a large portion of the wooden roof and significantly damaged the store, which was valued at $1.5 million. There were no injuries.
No batteries found in smoke alarms in fatal fire
FLORIDA — A man in his 60s died of smoke inhalation when a fire that started in the living room filled his single-family house with smoke as he slept. His body was discovered by a deputy sheriff who responded to a 911 call from a Meals-on-Wheels driver who’d become worried because the man had not answered his door in two days.
The one-story, single-family house was constructed of wood and concrete and had a wood-framed roof covered by asphalt shingles. There were no sprinklers, and the three smoke alarms installed in the kitchen, the hallway, and the master bedroom had no batteries.
Fire department investigators discovered a distinctive V-pattern burn that clearly showed that the fire started in an upholstered couch and burned until it burned itself out. They also noted that high heat left the walls very dark from about the 5-foot (2-meter) level to the ceiling and stained the floor throughout the house. When they found an ashtray with cigarette butts and open beer cans around the couch, they determined that the victim had dropped a lit cigarette on the couch before going to bed.
The house, which was valued at $100,000, and its contents, valued at $20,000, sustained an estimated $5,000 in damage.
Woman dies after falling asleep while smoking
CALIFORNIA — An 86-year-old woman who was not ambulatory died of smoke inhalation and burns when a lit cigarette dropped on the couch in her apartment ignited upholstery.
The victim lived in a three-story, multifamily, wood-frame building that had stucco walls and a composition roof. Her unit had battery-operated smoke alarms, but the batteries had been installed backwards, rendering the alarms inoperative. The apartment had no sprinklers.
Investigators determined that the fire spread from the couch to the rest of the apartment. The woman had a history of falling asleep on the couch while smoking and drinking wine, and the couch had sustained several minor burns in the past.
Damage to the building, valued at $850,000, was estimated at $30,000. Damage to its contents was estimated at $30,000.
One man dies in house fire of undetermined origin
OKLAHOMA — Firefighters found the body of a 56-year-old man in his bedroom while they were extinguishing a fire that began in the bedroom and spread to other areas of his two-family home.
The single-story house was 60 feet (18 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide. The man’s unit had no smoke alarms, but smoke alarms in the other unit were operating when firefighters arrived. There were no sprinklers.
Firefighters received a 911 call from a neighbor reporting the fire at 7:29 p.m. He told them that he had seen smoke coming from the house and tried to kick in the front door. When that failed, he went around to the rear, where he forced the back door open, calling for the victim. Receiving no response, he went back to the front of the house, where he noticed a bedroom window starting to fail. By the time firefighters arrived, the fire was venting from the front window.
During search and rescue operations, fire crews found the victim on the floor in the room of origin on top of what had been vinyl window blinds, leading them to suspect he had been trying to escape before he was overcome by smoke and heat.
Investigators noted that fire damage in the kitchen and living room was moderate to heavy and that it became more extensive in the hallway, bathroom, and bedroom. Although they found evidence of smoking in the bedroom, the investigators listed the cause of the fire as undetermined because the victim had a pre-existing mental health condition.
The property, valued at $180,000, and its contents, valued at $26,000, sustained damage estimated at $80,000 and $15,000, respectively.
Unattended cooking leads to one fire death
TENNESSEE — A 39-year-old man with a physical disability was fatally injured in his single-family home in a fire started by unattended cooking.
The one-story, manufactured home, which was 70 feet (21 meters) long and 14 feet (4 meters) wide, had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
A neighbor discovered the fire when he was woken by barking dogs and called 911 at 4:01 a.m. By the time firefighters arrived, the house was engulfed in flames, and fire crews had to use five attack lines from three engines and two tankers to extinguish the blaze.
They found the man, whose medication sometimes made him forgetful, on his bed.
Investigators determined that the victim had started to cook some food and had forgotten to take the pan off the stove when he went to bed. The food ignited, and the resulting fire spread from the stove to the kitchen floor, wall, and ceiling before engulfing the victim’s bedroom, which was next to the kitchen. Damage estimates were not provided.
Wall heater starts fire, killling two women
WASHINGTON — An 84-year-old woman with a physical disability died when she was trapped in her bedroom by a fire that began in her 69-year-old daughter’s bedroom when a wall heater ignited bedding pushed up against it. A neighbor discovered the fire and called 911 at 4 p.m.
According to investigators, the victim’s daughter, who had cognitive disabilities, awoke to find her bed on fire and tried to extinguish it, but the fast-spreading flames forced her from her first-floor bedroom. She managed to escape through the basement.
Firefighters found her mother dead of smoke inhalation in another first-floor bedroom at the other end of the house. A delay in alarm may have contributed to her death.
The single-family, three-story, wood-frame house, which was 55 feet (17 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide, had no smoke alarms or sprinklers. The home, valued at $270,000, sustained $80,000 in damage, and its contents, valued at $50,000, sustained damage estimated at $45,000.
Child playing with lighter starts fatal fire
UTAH — A 4-year-old girl died when she started a fire in a bedroom used for storage and was unable to extinguish it.
The exterior of the three-story, single-family, wood-frame house, which measured 66 feet (20 meters) by 22 feet (7 meters), was made of stucco, and its wooden roof was covered with asphalt shingles. It had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
Four other children were in the room when the little girl used a butane lighter to ignite clothes on the floor in front of a closet. As the fire grew out of control, she told the others to go outside and closed the door while she tried to extinguish it. The only adult in the house, an older woman who had been diagnosed with dementia, managed to escape, and an infant was rescued from another bedroom.
A passerby called 911 at 4:15 p.m., then entered the house to try to save the girl. Forced back down the stairs by smoke and heat, he threw a rock through the window of the room of origin and yelled for the child to come to the window with no success. Arriving firefighters found the little girl dead of smoke inhalation and burns.
The house, valued at $275,000, had $50,000 in structural damage. Its contents, valued at $50,000, sustained damage estimated at $10,000.
Improperly installed wiring leads to fatal fire
OREGON — A 72-year-old man died in a fire started by improvised electrical wiring in his single-family home.
The one-story, wood-frame house, which covered approximately 856 square feet (80 square meters), had no sprinklers. Investigators could not determine whether smoke alarms were present, but none were recovered.
Neighbors detected the fire at 3:37 a.m. and called the fire department, but the blaze did significant damage before firefighters could extinguish it.
Investigators determined that the fire began in the living room where the homeowner used electrical extension cords from two outlets to supply power to appliances and other equipment. The connections did not use plugs; rather, the cords were spliced and twisted to the appliance cords, leaving wiring exposed. This resulted in overheating or arcing at the spliced points, which ignited combustibles, and started the fire. The clutter in the house may have contributed to the occupant’s inability to escape.
The house, valued at $53,290, had an estimated $25,000 in property damage. Its contents, valued at $10,000, were destroyed.
Sidewall sprinkler extinguishes apartment fire
VIRGINIA — The fire department credits residential sprinklers with extinguishing a fire started by smoking materials that had been discarded in a trash can on the first-floor balcony of a three-story apartment building.
The wood-framed, garden-style apartment building, which was 75 feet (23 meters) long and 75 feet (23 meters) wide, had vinyl exterior siding and an asphalt roof. A monitored NFPA 13R residential sprinkler system with patio and balcony coverage initiated interior alarms when the sprinkler activated. The apartment building also had smoke detectors installed throughout, as well as fire walls and portable fire extinguishers.
The occupants of the apartment of origin were awoken by the fire alarm, noticed the sprinkler operating on the balcony, and called 911 at 7 a.m. The fire department, which also received a report from the monitoring station, dispatched firefighters, who arrived to find that the balcony’s sprinkler had already extinguished the blaze. Fire damage was limited to a trash barrel and the building’s vinyl siding.
One of the apartment’s occupants told investigators he had been smoking on the balcony around 2 a.m. and had dropped his cigarette butts in a small trash can, which melted after the trash inside ignited.
The building, which was valued at $600,000, sustained structural losses of $500. Damage to thestructure’s contents, which were valued at $10,000, was limited to $50. There were no injuries.
Sprinkler extinguishes sorority house fire
KANSAS—A single sprinkler extinguished a fire started by a candle left burning unattended in a room in a sorority house.
The three-story, wood-frame building, which was 100 feet (30 meters) long and 50 feet (15 meters) wide, had brick walls and a slate-tiled roof. A monitored fire detection system was located in all common spaces, and local single-station smoke alarms were installed in the bedrooms. A wet-pipe NFPA 13R fire suppression system provided coverage in all living spaces.
A candle left burning in a second-floor room ignited artificial flowers placed just above it, and the resulting fire activated a sprinkler, which extinguished the blaze. The fire was confined to the room of origin.
The building, valued at $1.3 million, sustained $10,000 in damage. Its contents, valued at $664,000, sustained $6,000 in damage. No one was injured.
Early morning house fire kills sleeping man
CALIFORNIA — A 46-year-old man died of smoke inhalation in the single-family home he rented when a burning log rolled out of a wood stove and ignited the wooden floor. The early morning fire spread to the first and second floors before neighbors detected it.
The two-story, wood-frame house, which was 100 feet (30 meters) long by 30 feet (9 meters) wide, was originally built as a one-story house in 1937. A second story was added in the 1980s, and an attached carport was converted to a garden shed. The property had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
Neighbors were alerted to the fire by cracking and popping sounds, explosions, and light coming from the home’s windows. Initially, there was some confusion about the nature of the fire, as the first 911 reports at 1:29 a.m. mentioned a medical emergency and a tree fire before a structure fire was finally confirmed. Firefighters, who arrived five minutes after the alarm, were told that an occupant might still be in the building.
Fire crews deployed hose streams to protect exposures, including a large wood pile outside the house, as additional engine and ladder companies set up a water supply and heavy stream appliances for a defensive attack. Most of the house, with the exception of the bedroom in which the victim was found, sustained significant fire damage.
Investigators discovered that the wood floor below the wood stove in the first-floor family room was damaged and determined that the area of origin was just in front of it.
The house, valued at $850,000, and its contents, valued at $30,000, were completely destroyed. Investigators believe that alcohol intoxication may have contributed to the victim’s death.
Two teenaged boys die in fire at seasonal camp
NEW YORK — Two boys, ages 14 and 15, died of smoke inhalation when heat from a wood stove ignited structural members of the seasonal camp in which they were staying. The fire went undetected until the next day when a visitor to the camp saw the remains of the building and called police, who discovered the boys’ bodies in the debris.
The single-story, wood-frame structure, which measured 14 feet (4 meters) by 14 feet (4 meters), was being renovated at the time of the fire. The walls were 2 feet (0.6 meters) by 4 feet (1 meter) wide and covered with 7/16-inch oriented strand board sheathing. A generator was used for electricity. There were no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
Another individual who had been with the boys at the camp the evening before their bodies were discovered told investigators that the stovepipe attached to the camp’s outside wall repeatedly fell off. The three removed it and installed a new 26-gauge, single-wall metal vent pipe inside the structure and extended it through the loft and roof. The investigators determined that the fire started when combustibles too close to the hot stovepipe ignited. No thimbles, roof boots, or metal flashing normally seen in a typical installation were found, and the stove itself was designed as an add-on for a forced-air heating system, not for use as a primary heat source. Manufacturers’ instructions were not followed when it was installed.
The structure and its contents, valued at $6,000, were destroyed.
Fire spreads from car into fast-food restaurant
WASHINGTON — A car in the drive-through lane of a fast-food restaurant caught fire near the pickup window, and the blaze spread from the vehicle into the building.
The single-story, wood-frame restaurant covered approximately 3,000 square feet (279 square meters). Its exterior walls were covered, in part, by a brick veneer, and the roof, supported by lightweight wooden roof trusses, was covered with asphalt shingles. The restaurant had no fire detection or suppression equipment except for the kitchen hood extinguishing system in the cooking areas.
The drive-through had a remote ordering station and a designated lane where customers paid at one window, then moved to a second window to pick up their purchases. An 80-year-old woman was driving her 13-year-old car from the first window to the second when witnesses heard a “clunk” and saw oil or gas spilling from the bottom of the vehicle.
The 45-year-old man in the car directly behind the woman’s saw smoke, then flames coming from the bottom of the car. He got out of his car and banged on the woman’s passenger door, which was locked, to get her attention and told her that her car was on fire. The employee at the window also tried to tell her, but the woman did not appear to hear or understand her. The woman finally unlocked her door, and the man pulled her out of the burning vehicle. She had not realized it was on fire until she was being pulled from it.
Restaurant employees evacuated those inside the building, called 911, and helped move the woman away from the burning car.
The fire department received the call at 11:09 a.m., and firefighters arrived six minutes later. Initially, crews fought the fire offensively, but as it spread through the concealed roof space, they switched to a defensive attack using large-diameter aerial master hose streams.
Investigators narrowed the area of fire origin down to the car’s engine compartment, but they could not determine the cause of the malfunction.
The building, which was valued at $1 million, and its contents, valued at $400,000, were destroyed. Two civilians were injured.
Sprinkler system saves restaurant after hood system fails
COLORADO — A restaurant’s sprinkler system controlled a fire that started when cooking oil heating on a gas stove ignited until firefighters arrived to extinguish it.
The restaurant, located in a large, single-story strip mall 250 feet (76 meters) long and 60 feet (18 meters) deep, covered 1,800 square feet (167 square meters) and included a dining room, a service counter, and a kitchen in the rear. The steel-framed mall had concrete block walls covered with a brick veneer and steel roof trusses covered with a metal deck. A monitored wet-pipe sprinkler system provided coverage throughout the mall, and a wet-chemical hood extinguishing system provided coverage in the restaurant’s kitchen.
The fire department was first notified of a possible roof fire at the dry cleaning establishment next to the restaurant at 3:27 p.m. Responding firefighters, who arrived six minutes later, found light smoke coming from the roof and noted that people were evacuating the mall. When firefighters found no fire at the dry cleaner’s, they were told that the blaze was, in fact, in the restaurant.
Entering the restaurant, they encountered haze near the ceiling and complete blackness behind the counter leading to the kitchen. In the kitchen itself, visibility was zero and the heat was moderate. Crews found that the fire in the stove area had spread into the kitchen hood exhaust system and was being held in check by the sprinkler. They quickly extinguished the blaze.
Investigators learned that the fire began when a cook heating 2.5 gallons (9.5 liters) of cooking oil went out of the room to prepare another ingredient. Upon his return, he saw that the oil was smoking heavily and watched as it burst into flames. When the fire alarm sounded, he left the kitchen.
Investigators examining the kitchen hood fire extinguishing system found that, although the system tripped, it did not control or extinguish the fire because the cylinders containing the agent had been disconnected from the distribution piping to the nozzles. The system was heavily damaged by the heat, which melted the exterior aluminum siding of the fan assembly, burned the fan blades off, and damaged the motor.
The mall, which was valued at $3 million, sustained structural damage estimated at $10,000. The value of the restaurant’s contents was not reported, but losses were estimated at $5,000. There were no injuries.
Sprinkler douses welding fire at manufacturing plant
TEXAS—A single sprinkler extinguished a fire at a heavy equipment and machine manufacturing plant before firefighters arrived. The fire started when a robotic welder ignited lubricants in a milling machine.
The one-story, steel-frame plant, which was 550 feet (168 meters) long and 300 feet (91 meters) wide, had concrete tilt-up walls and a metal-deck roof. The property was protected by a wet-pipe sprinkler system.
The plant’s staff was preparing to close the building for the night when they saw the fire and called 911 at 6:17 p.m. Firefighters arriving four minutes later found moderate smoke coming from the rear of the building and discovered that the sprinkler had already extinguished the blaze.
Investigators determined that the robotic welder near the milling machine had unintentionally been left operating, and the cooling and lubricating oil in the machine ignited. Plastic drums containing more lubricating oil and coolant stored near the point of origin failed, further fueling the fire. When the flames reached the ceiling, the sprinkler system activated.
The building was valued at $15 million, as were its contents. Damage to the building was estimated at $11,500, while damage to its contents was estimated at $56,000. There were no injuries.
Static discharge ignites vapors at pharmaceutical manufacturer
COLORADO — A single sprinkler controlled a fire in a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant that started when a static discharge ignited flammable vapors emanating from products being shrinkwrapped during a manufacturing process.
The two-story, steel-frame building, which was 955 feet (291 meters) long and 352 feet (107 meters) wide, had metal roof trusses and a lightweight concrete-and-metal deck roof covered with tar and gravel and topped with a rubber membrane. The property was protected by fire alarm and wet-pipe sprinkler systems that were monitored by a central station company.
The fire occurred in an area in which the pharmaceuticals, which contained roughly 27 percent alcohol, were manufactured. During the process, plastic covers were placed on product racks holding 18 perforated steel trays that were moved into the hallway when full. An employee shrinkwrapped the bottom of each rack before it was moved to a drying process.
As the employee unrolled some shrinkwrap and began to tie it off, alcohol vapors inside the rack ignited, and the whole rack quickly became involved in flames. The worker tried to put out the blaze with a fire extinguisher, but he was not successful. Fortunately, a sprinkler operated, controlling the fire and notifying the fire department at roughly 12:30 a.m.
Shortly after firefighters arrived eight minutes later, the incident commander ordered more resources as workers led fire crews to the room of origin. There, they found the sprinkler holding the fire in check. The commander ordered a hose line brought in to extinguish the blaze.
The fire caused approximately $1,000 in structural damage and $3,000 in damage to its contents. One civilian was injured.
The manufacturing company assembled an interdisciplinary team to determine the cause of the blaze and recommend preventive measures.
Static field measurements showed that unrolling 18 inches (46 centimeters) of shrinkwrap produced a static charge of more than 20 KV/inch, and the team concluded that static from this process was the primary ignition source. Team members recommended that the firm not use the wrap in areas in which materials that contain alcohol were present and that grounding stations be installed in areas in which materials that contained alcohol were processed.
Readings taken during rack cover removal and manipulation were 6–12 KV/inch, so the investigative team also recommended that grounding and bonding provisions be reviewed and new steps taken to reduce static when the rack covers were unrolled.
Sprinkler controls fire in county highway garage
ILLINOIS — Three sprinklers controlled a fire that began in the engine compartment of a dump truck parked in a secure county highway garage for the night until firefighters responding to a water flow alarm arrived to extinguish it.
The one-story garage had concrete block walls, a steel truss frame, and a metal-deck roof 30 feet (9 meters) from grade. The property was protected by a wet-pipe sprinkler system that was monitored by a central station alarm company.
Firefighters arrived five minutes after the 11:22 p.m. alarm and initially saw nothing coming from the building. Once they opened the locked gate and the secured garage doors, however, they found smoke about 10 feet (3 meters) from the floor in the vehicle storage area and saw flames coming from the dump truck. Crews advanced a hose line into the garage and extinguished the fire, which was being held in check by the sprinkler system.
Investigators determined that an electrical malfunction started the fire in the truck’s engine compartment and that the vehicle soon became fully involved in flames. Two vehicles parked nearby were also damaged, mostly by smoke.
The building, which was valued at $2 million, and its contents, which were valued at $1 million, sustained a combined loss of $175,000.
Sprinklers confine warehouse fire to area of origin
ILLINOIS — A warehouse that was subdivided into a number of different occupancies was spared significant damage when several sprinklers operated and confined to the area of origin a fire that had been set intentionally.
The single-story, steel-frame warehouse had a metal bar joist roof and steel decking covered by a tar and gravel roof 30 feet (9 meters) above grade. A wet-pipe sprinkler system provided full coverage, but the warehouse’s fire and water flow alarms, though operational, were not monitored by a central station company.
The business in which the fire started was closed for the night, but another portion of the building was occupied, and the workers there called 911 at 3:54 a.m. to report that they saw smoke in the structure. Police arrived before the fire department and reported heavy smoke showing from the building, as did the first-in engine company. Advancing a hose line through a door on the side of the building, fire crews tried to establish a water supply using a private hydrant. However, the water pressure was poor.
Five to eight minutes after the first engine arrived, the building’s exterior water motor gong sounded as the first sprinkler began operating. Firefighters made a trench cut in the roof to ventilate the warehouse as additional engine companies backed up the first engine, established a water supply, and supported the sprinkler system.
Investigators determined that a person or persons unknown intentionally set the fire in a section of the warehouse that was used by a company that sold palletized plastic bottles shrinkwrapped in plastic to food companies. The fire was started at the base of one pallet and spread to several others before the sprinklers operated and controlled the blaze.
Valued at $5 million, the warehouse sustained an estimated $500,000 in property damage. Its contents, valued at $3 million, sustained an estimated $1 million in damage. The fire department reported no injuries.
Propane torch ignites wall in nursing home
CALIFORNIA — A contractor using a propane torch to remove flooring in a nursing home unknowingly ignited a wood-framed wall. The fire smoldered inside the wall until staffers in an employee break room saw smoke coming from a wall-mounted air conditioner and called 911 at 5:09 p.m.
Firefighters arriving five minutes after the alarm saw nothing showing from the outside of the building and began an interior investigation. They had just started to examine the air conditioner, which the staff had unplugged, when a firefighter informed the incident commander of a small fire at the base of the wall opposite the air conditioning unit. Opening up the wall, the firefighters found a fire burning near the base of the wall channel and used a water extinguisher to put it out.
When the fire investigators questioned the construction contractors, they learned that one of them had used a propane torch to remove flooring in that area earlier in the day. When he left the area, he was unaware that he had ignited the wall of the break room.
Fire spread was limited to the area of origin. The building, which was valued at $5 million, sustained $5,000 in damage. No damage estimates were given for the nursing home’s contents. There were no injuries.