Author(s): Ken Tremblay Published on November 1, 2012


Police investigate a fire at a two-story office building in Vermont that was intentionally set. Sprinklers prevented the fire from spreading. (Photo: AP/Wide World Photo)

NFPA Journal®, November/December 2012

OFFICE BUILDING

Sprinklers control arson fire
VERMONT — A fire intentionally set in a two-story office building that was closed for the night damaged an office and some adjacent space until sprinklers operated and prevented it from spreading from the area of origin.

 

FROM THE ARCHIVES

September - October 2012
Hot coals start multimillion-dollar fire

July - August 2012
Exterior fire spreads into house, killing occupant

May - June 2012
Cutting torch fire destroys mill 

March - April 2012
Overloaded power strip starts fatal fire

January - February 2012
Woman, two children die
in home fire

November - December 2011
Fire spreads from balcony into concealed spaces

The office building, which was 150 feet (45 meters) long and 70 feet (21 meters) wide, was of ordinary construction. It had smoke detectors and a wet-pipe sprinkler system.

The fire department received the municipal fire alarm at 3:03 a.m. when the smoke detection system activated. When firefighters arrived, they could not see any smoke or fire coming from the building. Upon investigation, however, they noticed light smoke in the foyer.

When they entered the building, they smelled fuel and initially suspected a furnace problem. They then saw water coming down the stairs and heavier smoke. Eventually, fire crews found a small fire burning in an office cubicle. The incident commander ordered a full first alarm and later asked for a second alarm. After firefighters extinguished the blaze, they shut down the sprinkler system and began their investigation.

When the investigators found signs of forced entry at the back of the building and were told by the first-in officer that he had noticed a fuel-like smell, they brought in resources from other jurisdictions and an arson dog. They determined that the fire started in two separate areas, near which the dog detected hydrocarbons. A review of the security tape showed an indivdual carrying something in each hand near the point of origin. A flash occurred while the individual was outside of camera range, and the camera caught the person hastily moving toward the exit. Estimates of damage to the building, which was valued at $1.6 million, were not reported. There were no injuries.

RESIDENTIAL

Exterior fire spreads into apartment building, killing one
LOUISIANA — A woman died of smoke inhalation as a result of a fire in her apartment building.

The two-story, wood-frame building was one of several in a complex, all of which had patios and balconies. The report did not say whether smoke detectors or sprinklers were present.

The woman and her adult son were awake and watching television in the first-floor apartment when they smelled something burning. They investigated their unit and went to the second floor to see if their neighbors smelled anything. Finding nothing, they returned to their unit.

As they continued watching television, the son noticed an orange glow on the patio. He alerted his mother, who had gone into her bedroom, and told her to leave the apartment with him. She said that she would be right behind him, then called 911 on her cell phone to report the fire at 10:39 p.m. She never left the apartment.

Firefighters arrived eight minutes after the alarm and reported smoke and flames coming from three sides of the building. The roof had also partially collapsed. The incident commander ordered a second alarm as the first-in crews set up a water supply for the elevated and master streams to knock down the fire and protect nearby buildings.

When they were told that someone might be trapped in a first-floor apartment, they started search and rescue operations. Firefighters found the woman’s body in the doorway to the bathroom of her apartment.

Investigators were unable to determine the cause of the blaze, which began on a patio near a wall containing mail slots.

The value of the building and its contents was not reported, but they were destroyed. In addition, three vehicles sustained heat damage.

Fire heavily damages apartment building
PENNSYLVANIA — A 22-unit apartment building sustained significant damage when a fire spread from an unoccupied apartment to other units in the building.

The three-story building, which was 150 feet (45 meters) long and 50 feet (15 meters) wide, had masonry block walls covered with a brick veneer and a wood joist roof covered with asphalt shingles. Smoke alarms were present in the apartments and the interior hallways, but the type of system was not reported. The building was not equipped with sprinklers.

The day before the fire, the occupant of the second-floor unit of origin noted nothing unusual in the apartment before leaving for a few days. Just after 1 p.m. the following day, the occupant of the apartment directly above the second-floor unit saw smoke drifting by her window. She went to investigate but could only see smoke coming from around the corner of the building and assumed someone was grilling.

Soon, however, her son reported that someone was banging on their apartment door. When she opened it, she was told that the building was on fire, and she evacuated with her son. Once outside, she saw smoke and flames coming from a front-facing, third-floor window.

The fire department received a 911 call reporting the fire at 1:14 p.m. Firefighters arrived two minutes later to find heavy smoke coming from the building and immediately called for a second and third alarm. As crews placed ground ladders around the building, they saw a third-floor window fail, causing a window air conditioner to fall to the ground, and the room flash over. Shortly afterwards, a second-floor apartment flashed over.

Ladder companies were ordered to the roof to vent the building and begin a trench cut to stop the fire from spreading in the attic. When the third floor and parts of the roof partially collapsed into the second floor, firefighters who had entered the building were called outside. The fire was brought under control several hours later.

Investigators had difficulty getting into the second-floor apartment due to the collapse, but they were able to determine that the fire began in a bedroom near an air conditioning unit.

The building, valued at $2.5 million, sustained $1.5 million in damage, and its contents, valued at $1 million, sustained $500,000 in damage. There were no injuries.

Cigarette starts fatal fire
TENNESSEE — Firefighters pulled a 47-year-old man, who was a heavy smoker and had a history of starting small fires when he smoked, from his burning home and tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate him.

The single-story, two-family, wood-frame duplex had no working smoke alarms, and no information was avaliable as to the presence or absence of fire sprinklers.

A neighbor down the street saw smoke coming from the duplex and ran to alert the occupants of both units. The people living in one side of the house managed to escape, but the neighbor could not wake the victim. Nor could he enter the house because all the doors were locked and there were burglar bars on the windows.

The fire department received the 911 call at 11:21 a.m. and arrived to find fire and heavy smoke coming from the duplex windows. Forcing open the front door, they saw a small fire on a living room sofa. However, the rush of fresh air caused the fire to increase in size and roll over the firefighters’ heads.

After controlling the fire in the living room, which took about fifteen minutes, crews found the victim on his bed in the bedroom where he had been taking a nap.

Investigators determined that a discarded cigarette had smoldered between sofa cushions. Because heavy smoke built up in the kitchen, bathroom, and rear bedroom, investigators believe that the fire had smoldered for a considerable time. The victim had been seen smoking on the front porch about an hour before the blaze.

The fire did $11,000 in structural damage and $10,000 in damage to the building’s contents.

Man found dead in fire in his home
WASHINGTON — A 61-year-old man died of smoke inhalation suffered during a fire that started in the kitchen of his single-family home.

The two-story, wood-frame house covered approximately 1,200 square feet (111 square meters), with the living room, kitchen, and bedrooms on the upper floor. A hardwired smoke detector had been installed in the hallway outside the bedroom, but firefighters did not report hearing the alarm when they entered the house. The house had no sprinklers.

A newspaper delivery person called 911 at 6:04 a.m. to report a fire at what he believed was a vacant house. Firefighters arriving six minutes later found smoke coming from the roof. A neighbor told them that the house was, in fact, occupied, but he did not know whether anyone was home.

Fire crews advanced a hose line through the unlocked front door and found a fire burning to the left of a stove in the kitchen. After extinguishing the fire, which was confined to the kitchen, and opening a patio door for ventilation, firefighters discovered the victim sitting unresponsive on the floor. They removed him from the house and began emergency medical resuscitation efforts, to no avail.

The house had little furniture, but it was filled with trash, boxes, and other items, as was the garage. The exterior and the yard had not been maintained.  

The fire destroyed the $90,000 house, and its contents, valued at $10,000.

Child dies in house fire
ILLINOIS — A five-year-old boy died and his 45-year old mother was injured in a house fire that investigators believe was intentionally set.

The exterior walls of the three-story, wood-frame, single-family house, which was 40 feet (12 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide, were covered with vinyl siding. A smoke alarm had been installed in the basement near the stairway to the first floor. There were no sprinklers.

The home’s occupants called 911 at 9:59 p.m. to report the fire, and firefighters arrived at the scene a minute later. By the time they extinguished the fire, it had done significant property damage. Although investigators could not determine the exact ignition scenario, they believe it was intentionally set on the rear porch and spread into the home from there.

The boy died of smoke inhalation, and his mother, who suffered from burns and smoke inhalation, sustained additional injuries when she fell or rolled off the front porch.

Damage to the house, valued at $75,000, was estimated at $60,000. Damage to its contents, valued at $40,000, was estimated at $30,000.

One killed, two injured in house fire
MINNESOTA — One person died of smoke inhalation and two others were injured in a fire in their home.

The two-family, wood-frame house, which was 40 feet (12 meters) long and 26 feet (8 meters) wide, had front porches on both floors. It had battery-operated smoke alarms, but there were no sprinklers.

When the occupant of the first-floor apartment heard a smoke alarm sounding in the unit above his, he tried to go out the front door to investigate but was stopped by burning debris falling from the second-floor porch. He ran out the back door instead and called 911 to report the fire at 5:10 a.m.

Firefighters arrived three minutes later to find the entire front of the building engulfed in flames. Crews knocked the heavy fire down using hose lines and deployed additional hose lines to protect the homes on either side of the burning building. A ladder crew entered the house on the second floor and found the three victims, one of whom was dead.

Investigators could not determine where the fire started, and the amount of destruction prevented them from discovering how it began.

The fire department report stated that the second-floor occupants had come home late at night and that alcohol may have been a contributing factor. One firefighter was injured during fire suppression operations.

The house, valued at $280,000, sustained $225,000 in damage, and its contents, valued at $25,000, were destroyed. The building was eventually demolished.

Woman dies as mattress fire engulfs apartment
OHIO — A 58-year-old woman died of smoke inhalation and burns in a fire that another occupant of the apartment started unintentionally when he tried to burn a tag off a sofa-bed mattress with a lighter. The flames spread to the foam rubber mattress pad, which ignited, and the fire then quickly engulfed the apartment, producing a significant amount of smoke.

The 20-unit, L-shaped apartment building, which was 200 feet (61 meters) long and 40 feet (12 meters) wide, was unsprinklered. Each apartment had local smoke alarms, but investigators were not able to find one in the apartment of origin. However, they could see where a smoke alarm had been mounted on the ceiling outside the victim’s bedroom.

The fire department received a report of fire at 1:28 a.m., and firefighters arrived to find flames coming from the first-floor apartment’s windows and door and threatening the apartments on either side and above it. As crews advanced pre-connected hose lines into the building, the heavy, rolling flames filled the apartment with extreme heat and smoke.

While extinguishing the blaze, firefighters found the victim’s body in her bedroom. Three other occupants of the apartment suffered smoke-related injuries but recovered.

The building, which was valued at $560,000, and the contents of the unit of origin, which were valued at $5,000, sustained damage estimated at $55,000. The nearby apartments were spared fire damage, but most had varying degrees of smoke damage.

Girl dies in fire started by mother’s cigarette
KANSAS — A 16-year-old girl died of smoke inhalation and burns as a result of a fire started in her single-family home by a cigarette her mother had carelessly discarded.

The two-story, wood-frame house had a battery-operated smoke alarm, but its battery was missing. There were no sprinklers.

The girl’s 20-year-old brother had awoken early and left the house to go to the store with a friend. When it started raining heavily, his mother called him to offer a ride home. She finished a cigarette as she sat on the corner of her bed to dress. When she finished, she thought she put the cigarette out in an ashtray on the nightstand, but investigators determined that hot ashes from the cigarette had fallen onto the foam mattress.

When the woman was ready to leave, she called to her daughter, who was asleep on the second floor. Getting no answer, she left the house.

While they were at the store, the mother, her son, and his friend saw fire trucks go by and headed home, only to find the fire trucks parked in front of their house. Their next-door neighbor had called 911 to report the fire at 6:17 a.m.

The woman and her son told firefighters that the girl was still in the house, and crews immediately placed ladders against the building and entered her bedroom. They found her in a bathroom and transported her to the hospital. While en route in the ambulance, EMTs managed to get a pulse, but the girl had been burned over 86 percent of her body, and she soon died.

Investigators determined that the fire started in the mother’s first-floor bedroom and spread to other rooms on the first floor.

Radiant heat and smoke spread to the second floor, but direct flame damage was limited to the first story.

The lack of a working smoke alarm may have contributed to the victim’s death, as fire officials speculated that a smoke alarm could have woken her before the fire reached the second floor, allowing her to escape out a window onto a sloping roof.

The house, which was valued at $54,000, sustained damage estimated at $50,000. Its contents, valued at $20,000, sustained an estimated $10,000 worth of damage.

Man dies in fire after falling asleep while smoking
VIRGINIA — The sole occupant of a single-family home died in a fire that started when he fell asleep while smoking and drinking in his bedroom.

The single-story, wood-frame house covered an area of approximately 1,200 square feet (111 square meters). Investigators discovered two smoke alarms in the house, but neither had a battery. There were no sprinklers.

A neighbor noticed flames coming from the house’s windows and called 911 at 8:42 p.m. By the time firefighters arrived, fire was venting from three front-facing windows, and the police had forced open the front door.

Crews advanced a hose line through the front door and dragged it to the hallway and bedroom, where they extinguished the fire. They found the victim’s body on the bedroom floor between the bed and a closet, and left it in situ for investigators.

The investigators learned that the victim, who died of burns and smoke inhalation, had a history of alcohol dependence and smoking in bed. The toxicology report indicated an “intoxicating” blood alcohol level and a therapeutic dose of an anti-depressant. 

The house, which was valued at $175,000, sustained damage estimated at $100,000. Its contents, which were valued at $25,000, sustained an estimated $10,000 worth of damage.

Two die in house fire
OHIO — A three-year-old boy died of smoke inhalation when he used a lighter to ignite trash in a second-floor bedroom of his single-family home. His 43-year-old grandfather also died trying to save him.

The two-story, wood-frame house, which was 30 feet (9 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide, had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.

Someone from the house used a cell phone to call 911 to report the fire at 3 p.m., and firefighters arrived shortly afterward to find heavy smoke and flames coming from the second floor. Told that three occupants were still inside, fire crews used three hose lines to control the blaze and began an interior attack, trying to get to the second floor. Once they contained the fire, they found the two victims in a bedroom. A third individual had managed to escape. 

Firefighters were told that the boy’s grandfather had gone into the burning house to find his grandson, but he was overcome by the smoke before he could escape.

The amount of property damage was not reported.

Man burns down home, commits suicide
WASHINGTON — A man committed suicide after deliberately setting his home on fire, as he had told relatives he would.

The single-story, wood-frame house, which was 40 feet (12 meters) long and 24 feet (7 meters) wide, was unsprinklered, and investigators were unable to determine whether it had any smoke alarms.

The fire department received two 911 calls reporting an explosion and fire at 2:34 a.m., and firefighters arrived four minutes later to find heavy fire coming from the front and rear of the house. The incident commander ordered a defensive attack to prevent the fire from spreading, and firefighters used three large-diameter hose lines to knock the fire down.

During his size-up, the incident commander found the victim’s body sitting in a chair on a patio at the rear of the house with a gasoline container by his feet. His head injuries were consistent with a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and a gun was found on the ground under the victim’s chair. After the fire was extinguished, the area around the home and the house itself became a crime scene. 

Based on the degree of damage and evidence collected at the scene, investigators determined that the victim had poured an accelerant throughout the house and introduced a competent ignition source in the kitchen, which was the point of origin. The sudden ignition of flammable vapors caused a pressure wave that blew glass and building debris some 86 feet (26 meters) from the front of the house and 40 feet (12 meters) from the rear. 

A family member told investigators that the man, whose age was not reported, had sent an e-mail stating he was going to burn down the house and take his life.

The house, valued at $75,000, and its contents, valued at $15,000, were completely destroyed.

Man dies in home when leaking gas ignites
WEST VIRGINIA — A 45-year-old man died of second- and third-degree burns to his upper body, which he sustained when leaking LP-gas ignited in his single-family home.

The one-story, wood-frame house, which was 40 feet (12 meters) long and 50 feet (15 meters) wide, had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.

A neighbor saw the fire and called 911 around 9 p.m. By the time firefighters arrived, the blaze had spread through the entire living space and into the attic.

Investigators determined that the victim failed to shut off the gas line supplying the LP-gas heater on which he was working. When he used a lighter, the gas ignited.

The house, which was valued at $60,000, and its contents, valued at $10,000, were destroyed.

Cigarette starts fatal fire
VIRGINIA — A 79-year-old woman died as a result of a fire started by her 83-year-old husband’s cigarette. The husband suffered a fatal heart attack.  

The 12-unit, three-story, wood-frame apartment building in which they lived had exterior siding that was a mix of brick veneer and wood. There were hardwired smoke alarms in the unit’s hallway, and a neighbor told investigators she heard them operating. The building had no sprinklers.

A neighbor heard a crackling sound, and her daughter saw smoke in the building’s hallway. Failing to get an answer when she banged on the door of the unit from which the smoke was coming, the daughter called 911 shortly after 8 a.m.

Firefighters arriving eight minutes later initially saw no smoke or flames, but on size-up, they found the patio door to the first-floor apartment blackened and cracked. They ventilated the unit and advanced hose lines inside, where the found only a 6-inch (15-centimeter) flame coming from the burning chair. However, visibility in the apartment was near zero.

While searching the apartment, crews discovered the woman, still breathing, in the bedroom and her husband’s body on the living room floor. Both were transported to the hospital, where the man, who used home oxygen and had some mobility issues, was found to have died of cardiac-related injuries just before or after the fire started.

His wife, who also used home oxygen, appeared to have been awake at the time of the fire and overcome by the smoke. She initially survived the blaze but died of her injuries about a week later. Two home oxygen generators, one of which was operating, were found in the apartment.

Investigators determined that the husband had been smoking a cigarette while sitting in a motorized chair near the apartment’s entryway. The cigarette ignited either a blanket or the chair’s upholstery, generating flames and heavy smoke. Investigators also found several cigarette packages with the fire-safe cigarette label.

The building, which was valued at $652,000, sustained damage estimated at $25,000. Fire damage was limited to the apartment of origin’s living room.

Sprinkler controls microwave oven fire
SOUTH CAROLINA — A sprinkler contained a fire in an apartment in a four-unit building that began when a microwave oven exhaust over the kitchen range malfunctioned.

The single-story, wood-frame building sat on a concrete slab and had an asphalt-shingled roof. A wet-pipe residential sprinkler system provided coverage in living space, and hardwired smoke detectors were located in the apartments’ hallways by the bedrooms and kitchens.

The fire department was notified of the fire at 7:37 p.m. by an alarm company and received several phone calls, as well. When firefighters arrived, they initially saw nothing unusual on the building’s exterior. While conducting a perimeter size-up, however, they noted heavy black smoke blocking windows. When they entered the unit, they found that a sprinkler in the kitchen was operating and that the fire was nearly out. They quickly extinguished the remaining fire that was above the sprinkler line.

Investigators determined that the microwave’s exhaust had malfunctioned and ignited nearby combustibles.

The building, which was valued at $288,000, sustained $15,000 in damage. The unit’s contents,which were valued at $5,000, were destroyed. There were no injuries.

Woman dies of injuries suffered in house fire
TEXAS — A 72-year-old physically disabled woman died as a result of smoke inhalation injuries she suffered when her house caught fire.

The one-story, single-family house covered an area of approximately 1,036 square feet (96 square meters). The fire department report did not indicate whether the house was equipped with smoke alarms or residential sprinklers.

When firefighters arrived at the scene, they saw bystanders helping the injured woman, who was lying by her front door. Upon being told that another occupant might still be inside, fire crews searched the house but found no one. It was later discovered that the home’s other occupant was at work when the fire broke out.

Investigators determined that the fire started in a bedroom when a light bulb ignited a mattress or pillow.

The injured woman succumbed to her injuries 17 days after the fire. Her house, which was valued at $23,500, sustained $18,000 in damage. Its contents, which were valued at $2,500, were destroyed.

Sprinklers extinguish unattended cooking fire
FLORIDA — Two sprinklers controlled a fire in an apartment in a 24-unit building that started after its occupant left a pan of oil heating unattended on the stove.

The three-story, wood-frame building, which was 200 feet (61 meters) long and 50 feet (15 meters) wide, had a pitched roof covered with asphalt shingles. Local single-station smoke alarms had been installed in the apartments, and monitored smoke detectors protected the common areas. The property was protected by an NFPA 13R wet-pipe sprinkler system.

When the occupant of the apartment noticed the fire, she grabbed her child and left the building, before calling 911 at 7:53 p.m. Shortly afterward, the central station monitoring company also notified the fire department. Smoke from the fire activated the building fire alarm, alerting the other occupants, and the two sprinklers fused and extinguished the blaze. The smoke alarms in the unit of fire origin did not operate.

First-due firefighters found smoke coming from the second floor of the building and advanced a pre-connected hose line into the structure, only to find that the sprinklers had already extinguished the blaze.

The building, which was valued at $700,000, and its contents, which were valued at $650,000, each sustained an estimated loss of $15,000. There were no injuries.

Sprinkler controls fire in hotel laundry room
FLORIDA — A single sprinkler activated and controlled a fire in a hotel laundry room, preventing flames from spreading, although light smoke damaged the first floor directly above the laundry room.

The four-story, 100-room hotel was equipped with a wet-pipe sprinkler system and several types of fire detection equipment.
Firefighters arrived at the hotel at about 11:30 p.m. to find an evacuation in progress. They could see no obvious fire, although they heard the waterflow alarm sounding. Soon, however, they noticed light smoke and haze in the first-floor laundry room, hallway, adjacent rooms, and the room above the laundry room. In the laundry room, they found a small fire that the sprinkler had confined to a commercial, gas-fired dryer.

Investigators determined that towels laden with grease had been washed, dried, and left in the dryer without any ventilation. The heat from the dryer eventually ignited the residual grease, and the resulting fire spread to the toweling fabric. Once heat and flames spread from the dryer, a single sprinkler above the machine activated and controlled the blaze until firefighters extinguished it.
Damage was limited to $11,000, and no one was injured.

NFPA (National Fire Protection Association)
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