Author(s): John Hall, Jr., Marty Ahrens, Ben Evarts Published on January 1, 2012

Home Fires Involving Heating Equipment

NFPA Journal®, January/February 2012

By John R. Hall, Jr.

In 2009, heating equipment was involved in an estimated 58,900 reported home structure fires in the United States, which resulted in 480 civilian deaths, 1,520 civilian injuries, and $1.1 billion in direct property damage. The total number of estimated home heating fires was down 11 percent from the previous year and 75 percent from 1980. Associated deaths were up 1 percent from 2008 but down 53 percent from 1980. Associated civilian injuries were down by 8 percent from 2008 and by 57 percent from 1980. Direct property damage adjusted for inflation was down by 3 percent from 2008 and by 47 percent from 1980.

Overall, these incidents accounted for 18 percent of all reported home fires, the second highest after cooking; 22 percent of home fire deaths, the second highest after smoking; 13 percent of home civilian injuries, the second highest after cooking; and 12 percent of the direct property damage, the highest share, resulting from home fires in 2009.

Stationary and portable space heaters, excluding fireplaces, chimneys, and chimney connectors, but including wood stoves, accounted for 32 percent of reported 2005–2009 U.S. home heating fires, 79 percent of associated civilian deaths, 66 percent of associated civilian injuries, and 52 percent of associated direct property damage.

Creosote, a sticky, oily, combustible substance created when wood does not burn completely, rises into the chimney as a liquid and is deposited on the chimney wall. A conservative best estimate of creosote fires would combine failure-to-clean fires that were confined to chimney or flue, or involved solid-fueled space heaters, fireplaces, chimneys, and chimney connectors. This produces estimates of 14,190 reported creosote fires, or 22 percent of all home heating fires, per year resulting in 4 civilian deaths, 11 civilian injuries, and $35 million in direct property damage annually.

The leading factors contributing to ignition in home heating equipment fires were failure to clean, responsible for 26 percent; a heat source too close to combustibles, responsible for 14 percent; and unclassified mechanical failure or malfunction, responsible for 12 percent. Heat sources too close to combustibles accounted for 53 percent of associated deaths.

The leading items first ignited in home heating equipment fires were unclassified items, at 16 percent; flammable or combustible gases or liquids, at 15 percent; structural members or framing, at 8 percent; unclassified organic material, at 6 percent; and wire or cable insulation, also at 6 percent.

Space heaters result in far more fires and losses than central heating devices and have higher risks relative to usage.

Comparisons of different fuel or power options in central heating equipment do not show any specific type to be clearly and consistently better or worse for all types of loss. Among central heating equipment, liquid-fueled units show a higher rate of civilian fire deaths per user household. However, low usage of this equipment means that this rate is highly variable from year to year. In 2003–2007, liquid-fueled equipment had the lowest rate, but the highest risk of fires and civilian injuries.

Electric-powered units have the highest risk of direct property damage.

Among space heating equipment, risks are highest for liquid-fueled devices for all four measures of loss. However, usage of liquid-fueled space heaters is so low that the rates for such devices can and do vary substantially, even for five-year averages. Portable electric devices have higher risk than fixed electric devices.

Water heaters show very large differences, with gas-fueled equipment showing higher rates per million population than electric-powered equipment for fires (68 vs. 60), civilian fire deaths (0.6 vs. 0.0), and civilian fire injuries (3.8 vs. 1.1), and a higher rate per person for direct property damage ($1.7 vs. $0.5).

Home heating fires peak from late afternoon to late evening and are less common from midnight to 6 a.m. This could reflect the practice in many homes of turning down the heat overnight, allowing blankets and bedding to compensate, and of relying less on heating equipment in the middle of the day, when temperatures are at their daily highs and occupants are least likely to be at home. It also reflects the fact that sleeping occupants are not interacting with the equipment, which is how most fires begin.

Gas-fueled heating devices, particularly space heaters, pose a higher risk of death due to non-fire carbon monoxide poisoning, accounting for 59 of 68 deaths per year involving carbon monoxide poisoning by home heating equipment in 2003 – 2007. Heating equipment accounted for 61,930 injuries reported to hospital emergency rooms in 2010.

Home Fires Involving Cooking Equipment

By Marty Ahrens

Cooking is, and has long been, the leading cause of home structure fires and civilian home fire injuries. This is true for both fires reported to fire departments and those handled without fire department assistance.

During the five-year period of 2005 – 2009, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 155,400 home structure fires in which cooking equipment was involved in the ignition or in which the fire department used an incident type that identified a cooking fire that did not spread beyond the cooking vessel. These fires caused an average of 390 civilian deaths, 4,800 reported civilian fire injuries, and $771 million in direct property damage. Overall, these incidents accounted for 42 percent of reported home fires, 37 percent of reported home fire injuries, 15 percent of home fire deaths, and 11 percent of the direct property damage resulting from home fires.

Less progress has been made in reducing deaths from home cooking fires than deaths from other fire causes. The average of 390 deaths per year in 2005 – 2009 was only 22 percent lower than the 500 per year in 1980–1984. Total home fire deaths fell 45 percent from an annual average of 4,830 in 1980 – 1984 to 2,650 per year in 2005 – 2009.

Home fires involving cooking peak on major U.S. holidays with traditions of cooking, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Christmas Eve. The average number of reported home structure fires involving cooking equipment occurred on Thanksgiving.

Ranges or cook tops were involved in 58 percent of reported home fires involving cooking equipment, 84 percent of associated civilian deaths, 77 percent of the reported cooking fire civilian injuries, and 71 percent of the associated direct property damages.

Unattended equipment was a factor in 34 percent of reported home cooking fires, in 10 percent of which abandoned or discarded material was a factor; this may be related to unattended equipment. An additional 10 percent occurred when something that could catch fire was placed too close to the cooking equipment. Nine percent were caused by an unclassified misuse of material, and 8 percent occurred when the cooking equipment was unintentionally turned on or not turned off.

In households that use electric ranges, there is a higher risk of cooking fires and associated losses than in those using gas ranges.

The vast majority of reported cooking fires were small. Four out of five were confined to the object or vessel of origin. However, 9 percent of the cooking fire deaths and 42 percent of the cooking fire injuries resulted from these small fires. Thirty-three percent of home cooking equipment fire deaths and 86 percent of home cooking equipment fire injuries resulted from the 96 percent of fires that were confined to the room where the fire began.

Clothing was the item first ignited in less than 1 percent of these fires, but clothing ignitions resulted in 14 percent of the home cooking equipment fire deaths.

Not surprisingly, 66 percent of home structure fires involving cooking equipment began with the ignition of cooking materials, including food. More than half of the losses resulting from these incidents involved fats, cooking oil, or related substances.

Fat, grease, cooking oil, and related substances were first ignited in 52 percent of the home cooking fires that began with cooking materials, including food. Fifty-seven percent of the deaths, 77 percent of the injuries, and 72 percent of the property damage associated with cooking material or food ignition resulted from these fires.

Several studies, including the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC’s) 1999 study of range fires and the 1998 New Zealand Fire Service Bay-Waikato Region Kitchen Fire Research found that frying dominated the cooking fire problem. Frying accounted for 63 percent of 218 range top cooking material ignitions in the CPSC study, 83 percent of which occurred during the first 15 minutes of cooking. Because frying involves heating oil or grease in an open container from which fire can quickly spread, constant supervision is required.

Boiling and simmering involve heating water or foods with a lot of water. Water boil-overs can be messy and may cause scalds, but the liquid will not ignite. If the liquid boils away, however, a fire may result. Baking and roasting are generally done in a closed oven, which will typically delay fire spread.

Smoke alarms were more likely to have been present and sounded in cooking fires — 67 percent — than in other reported home fires — 51 percent.

The statistics on fires involving cooking equipment reported to local fire departments represent a tiny fraction of all home fires involving home cooking equipment. An analysis of CPSC’s 2004 – 2005 survey of residential fires found that U.S. households handled an average of 4.7 million home fires involving cooking equipment per year without calling the fire department. Roughly one out of every 23 occupied households had a cooking fire.

The study also found that 102,000 injuries resulted from cooking equipment fires with no fire department presence. This is 31 times the average number of civilian injuries per year in reported home cooking structure fires during 2005 – 2009.

Total direct property damage from unreported home fires involving cooking equipment was estimated at $328 million, with an average loss of $70 per fire. Unreported cooking equipment fires fell 63 percent from the 12.3 million such incidents in the 1984 survey of unreported residential fires done for the CPSC.

Fifty-eight percent of civilians who were non-fatally injured in reported home structure fires involving cooking equipment were hurt while trying to fight the fire, compared to 37 percent of injuries suffered in overall home structure fires. Almost three-quarters of non-fatal reported home cooking fire injuries were minor. The ratio of 50 unreported home cooking fires found by the CPSC in their 2004 – 2005 study of reported home cooking fires shows that the overwhelming majority of home cooking fires are handled safely by individuals without fire department assistance.

Compared to their share of the population, children under five and adults 65 or older faced the highest risk of death from home fires involving cooking equipment. Young children were at much lower risk of a non-fatal fire injury from cooking equipment. These patterns are consistent with findings from overall home fires. However, children under five face a much higher risk of non-fire burn injuries from cooking equipment, tableware, and cookware. Children under five account for only 7 percent of the U.S. population, but according to 2009 data from the CPSC, they suffered an estimated 3,510, or 57 percent, of the scald burns associated with tableware such as coffee cups and soup bowls; 5,600, or 36 percent, of the thermal non-fire burns associated with range or ovens, with most caused by contact with the equipment; 1,040, or 36 percent, of the scald burns associated with ranges or ovens; 2,080, or 34 percent, of the thermal non-fire burns associated with grills or barbecues; 1,230, or 31 percent, of the scald burns associated with microwave ovens; 1,000, or 11 percent, of the scald burns from cookware such as pots and pans; and 910, or 10 percent, of the burns from contact with hot cookware.

Home Structure Fires that Began with Mattresses and Bedding

By Ben Evarts

NFPA estimates that during 2005 – 2009, a mattress or bedding was the item first ignited in an average of 10,260 reported home structure fires per year. These fires caused an estimated annual average of 371 civilian deaths, 1,340 civilian injuries, and $382 million in direct property damage. They also accounted for 3 percent of all home structure fires, 14 percent of deaths, 10 percent of injuries, and 5 percent of property damage.

In 2009, there were 85 percent fewer fires that started with a mattress or bedding than there were in 1980, and deaths associated with these fires were 61 percent lower. Some of the decrease in reported fires may be due to changes in reporting in the late 1990s.

Seventy-eight percent of these fires began in the bedroom. Fires beginning in the bedroom were associated with 84 percent of civilian deaths, 83 percent of injuries, and 80 percent of property damage. The 5 percent of fires that started in the living room, family room, or den caused 12 percent of the associated deaths.

Smoking materials are the leading cause of mattress and bedding fires and deaths — 20 percent of fires and 51 percent of deaths. Playing with a heat source caused 18 percent of fires and 8 percent of deaths. Candles started 12 percent of fires, and heating equipment caused 8 percent of fires, but 21 percent of deaths. Thirty-five percent of fires were started with lighters, candles, or matches.

A heat source placed too close to the mattress or bedding was a factor in 27 percent of mattress or bedding fires and 34 percent of the civilian deaths. Abandoned or discarded materials, a phrase often used to describe discarded cigarettes, contributed to 16 percent of fires and 38 percent of civilian deaths.

Existing and proposed flammability requirements for mattresses and bedding focus on fires started by either smoking materials or small open flames, so those two categories are singled out for additional analysis. Mattress and bedding fires started by smoking materials fell 92 percent from 1980 to 2009, and deaths fell 67 percent. Drops in fires and deaths caused by lighters, candles, or matches were not as pronounced.

Fires started by lighters, candles, and matches were less common from midnight to 9 a.m.; fires caused by smoking materials were more common during this period than all fires started with a mattress or bedding.

Age was more likely to be a factor in deaths and injuries caused by mattress and bedding fires where a lighter, candle, or match was the heat source, while sleeping was more likely to be a factor in smoking material fire deaths and injuries.

Unsurprisingly, younger people were more likely to be the victims of fires with a lighter, candle, or match as the heat source, while people aged 55 and older were more likely to be victims of fires started by smoking materials.

NFPA (National Fire Protection Association)
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