FIRE ANALYSIS & RESEARCH
Home Candle Fires
By Marty Ahrens
From 2006 to 2010, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 11,640 home structure fires started by candles every year. These fires caused an annual average of 126 civilian deaths, 953 civilian fire injuries, and $438 million in property damage.
Candles caused 3 percent of the reported home fires, 5 percent of home fire deaths, 7 percent of home fire injuries, and 6 percent of direct property damage during this period. On average, 32 home candle fires were reported each day.
Roughly one-third of home candle fires started in bedrooms and caused 42 percent of the associated deaths and 45 percent of the associated injuries. The 16 percent of fires that started in living rooms, family rooms, or dens caused 20 percent of the deaths. Fourteen percent of these candle fires started in bathrooms, while 11 percent began in kitchens.
Candle fires start with a variety of burnable items. Eleven percent began with a mattress or bedding and caused 17 percent of the home candle fire deaths. Furniture or utensils were the item first ignited in 11 percent of these fires, and 9 percent started when a curtain, blinds, or drapery ignited. Cabinetry was first ignited in 8 percent of the fires and upholstered furniture in 6 percent of the fires, resulting in a quarter of the home candle fire deaths.
Twelve percent of the home candle fires occurred in December, 1.5 times the monthly average of 8 percent. December candle fires often involve seasonal decorations that are not present at other times of the year. From January to November, decorations were first ignited in only 4 percent of home candle fires. However, this jumped to 11 percent in December.
The top three days for home candle fires were Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Christmas Eve.
More than half of the home candle fires occurred when some form of combustible material was too close to the candle, which should be kept at least 12 inches (30 centimeters) from anything that can burn.
Unattended equipment or abandoned materials or products contributed to one of every five home candle fires, and four percent were started by people, usually children, playing with the candle. Two percent started when the candle was bumped into or knocked over. An improper container or storage was a factor in another 2 percent of the fires. In 11 percent of the home candle fires, the occupant fell asleep and left the candle burning unattended; these fires accounted for 43 percent of the associated deaths.
From 1980, the first year of available data, to 1990, the number of home candle fires fell. They then started climbing until they peaked in 2001. Home candle fires have fallen since then, but the estimate of 9,600 fires reported in 2010 is still 1.4 times the 6,800 reported in 1990, the previous low. The number of candle fires was stable from 2009 to 2010.
The share of home structure fires started by candles jumped from 1 percent in the early 1980s to 5 percent in 1999, 2001, and 2002, partly because the total number of home fires has declined since 1980 and partly because candle fires increased. The share fell to 4 percent from 2004 to 2006, inclusive. In 2007, the share dropped to 3 percent and has remained there.
Home Structure Fires Involving Kitchen Equipment
By John R. Hall, Jr.
From 2006 to 2010, an estimated 2,920 reported U.S. home structure fires involving kitchen equipment, but excluding cooking equipment, resulted in annual averages of 6 civilian deaths, 82 civilian injuries, and $75 million in direct property damage. Nearly all home fires involving kitchen equipment, but excluding cooking equipment, involved refrigerators and freezers or dishwashers.
Refrigerators, stand-alone freezers, and separate ice makers together were involved in 1,710 home structure fires reported to U.S. fire departments per year, resulting in 2 civilian deaths, 56 civilian injuries, and $50 million in direct property damage per year. Roughly three out of five of these fires began with ignition of appliance housing or casing or of wire or cable insulation, and one-third of them began in a room other than the kitchen, starting with the garage. These appliances were also involved in an estimated 49,660 injuries reported to hospital emergency rooms in 2011. Most of these injuries did not involve burns or fire but sprains or strains, contusions or abrasions, lacerations, and fractures.
Dishwashers were involved in 1,130 home structure fires that resulted in 2 civilian deaths, 19 civilian injuries, and $23 million in direct property damage per year. Roughly three-quarters of these fires also began with ignition of appliance housing or casing or of wire or cable insulation. Dishwashers were involved in 9,790 injuries reported to hospital emergency rooms in 2011.
The other equipment types in this group — garbage disposers, blenders, juicers, food processors, can openers, coffee grinders, and knife sharpeners — collectively were involved in 90 home structure fires during this period.
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. Between 2006 and 2010, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 157,300 home structure fires in which cooking equipment was involved in the ignition or in which the fire department identified a cooking fire that did not spread beyond the cooking vessel. These fires killed an average of 380 civilians, injured a reported 4,920 civilians, and did $794 million in direct property damage. Overall, these incidents accounted for two of every five reported home fires and 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 from other fire causes. The average of 380 deaths per year from 2006 to 2010 was only 24 percent lower than the 500 per year from 1980 to 1984. Total home fire deaths fell 45 percent from an annual average of 4,830 in the period between 1980 and 1984 to 2,590 in the period between 2006 to 2010.
Home fires involving cooking peak on major U.S. holidays with traditions of cooking, such as Thanksgiving. There were three times the average number of reported home structure fires involving cooking equipment on Thanksgiving.
Ranges or cooktops were involved in three of every five reported home fires involving cooking equipment, seven of every eight cooking fire deaths, three-quarters of the reported cooking fire civilian injuries, and nearly three-quarters of the associated property damage.
Unattended equipment was a factor in one-third of reported home cooking fires, and abandoned or discarded material, which may be related to unattended equipment, was a factor in 11 percent of these fires. An additional 10 percent occurred when something that could catch fire was too close to the cooking equipment. Nine percent were caused by an unclassified misuse of material, and eight percent occurred when the cooking equipment was unintentionally turned on or not turned off.
Households with electric ranges have a higher risk of cooking fires and associated losses than households using gas.
The vast majority of reported cooking fires were small. Four out of five were confined to the object or vessel of origin. However, 10 percent of the cooking fire deaths and 41 percent of the cooking fire injuries resulted from these small fires. Thirty-eight percent of home cooking equipment fire deaths and 85 percent of home cooking equipment fire injuries resulted from the 96 percent of fires that were confined to the room where the fire began.
Not surprisingly, two-thirds of home structure fires involving cooking equipment began with the ignition of cooking materials, including food. Fat, grease, cooking oil, and related substances were first ignited in half of these fires, which caused roughly three-quarters of the civilian deaths, injuries, and direct property damage associated with cooking material or food ignitions.
Although clothing was the item first ignited in less than 1 percent of these fires, clothing fires led to 16 percent of the home cooking equipment deaths.
Several studies have found that frying dominated the cooking fire problem. In a Consumer Product Safety Commission study, frying accounted for 63 percent of 218 range-top cooking material ignitions, and 83 percent of these food ignitions occurred during the first 15 minutes of cooking. Boiling and simmering may cause scalds, but the liquid will not ignite. If it 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 than in reported home fires overall.
Three of every five civilians who were non-fatally injured in reported home fires involving cooking equipment were hurt while trying to fight the fire, compared to roughly one-third of injuries suffered in overall home structure fires. More than two-thirds of non-fatal reported home cooking fire injuries were minor. 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 5 and adults 50 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 5 face a much higher risk of non-fire burn injuries from cooking equipment, tableware, and cookware. Children under 5 account for only 7 percent of the U.S. population, but they suffered an estimated 55 percent of the 7,000 scald burns associated with tableware such as coffee cups and soup bowls; 42 percent of the 15,900 thermal non-fire burns associated with ranges or ovens; 45 percent of the 4,500 thermal non-fire burns associated with grills or barbecues; 34 percent of the 4,400 scald burns associated with microwave ovens; 13 percent of the 9,700 scald burns from cookware such as pots and pans; and 16 percent of the 9,600 burns from contact with hot cookware.
U.S. Experience with Non-Water-Based Automatic Fire Extinguishing Equipment
By John R. Hall, Jr.
Non-water-based automatic extinguishing systems were present in 2 percent of reported structure fires in the United States between 2006 and 2010. The percentage was higher in places where commercial cooking is common, including eating or drinking establishments and grocery or convenience stores. Dry (or possibly wet) chemical systems were the specific type of system specified for most of these fires, and other special hazard systems were cited for most of the rest.
Fires involving carbon dioxide systems, halogen-type systems, foam systems, and, to a lesser extent, other special hazard systems are not reported primarily in the industrial locations where the first three systems are appropriate but are instead reported primarily in the properties with commercial kitchens, where most chemical systems are reported, or in residential properties, specifically homes.
This suggests that most of these fires involve either miscoded chemical systems or possibly portable fire extinguishers, which are not automatic and so should not be reported at all.
Dry (or possibly wet) chemical systems in the area of fire operated in 81 percent of reported structure fires large enough to activate equipment and failed to operate in 19 percent of these fires. For systems that operated, performance was effective in 69 percent of the cases. For fires large enough to activate systems, systems operated effectively 55 percent of the time.
Because the principal application of dry (and possibly wet) chemical systems is as area protection for commercial cooking operations, it may be more appropriate to limit the analysis to fires involving ranges. If this is done, the likelihood of operating increases from 81 percent to 96 percent, the likelihood of effectiveness if equipment operates increases from 69 percent to 90 percent, and the likelihood of effective operation increases from 55 percent to 86 percent.
Nearly half of dry (or possibly wet) chemical system failures were due to lack of maintenance. Other reasons cited were manual intervention that defeated the equipment, damaged components, the fact that the system had been shut off, and the fact that the system was inappropriate for the type of fire.
Home Fires Involving Air Conditioning, Fans, or Related Equipment
By John R. Hall, Jr.
In 2010, air conditioning, fans, or related equipment were involved in an estimated 7,400 reported home structure fires in the United States, which resulted in 29 civilian deaths, 249 civilian injuries, and $207 million in direct property damage. The number of these fires has varied up and down with no clear trend.
From 2006 to 2010, the 7,200 home structure fires reported annually involving air conditioning, fans, or related equipment included 2,500 involving central and room air conditioners and 3,900 involving fans. Heat pumps accounted for 500 fires per year. Air conditioners and fans also accounted for nearly all associated losses.
The leading factors contributing to ignition are mostly mechanical or electrical failures. One-third of fires involving air conditioning, fans, or related equipment began with ignition of wire or cable insulation. The leading areas of fire origin are bathrooms and bedrooms, and the leading areas of origin for fire deaths are the living room, the family room, or the den.
Air conditioners have a shorter usage season than fans, because fans help not only with cooling but ventilation. If fires occurred evenly throughout the year, however, 8.3 percent of the fires would occur every month. For all air conditioners, fans, or related equipment combined, the peak months of June, July, and August account for 36 percent of the fires. These months accounted for 49 percent of air conditioner fires and 32 percent of fires involving fans.
Air conditioners and heat pumps have comparable numbers of fires and losses relative to usage. Using a weighted average of usage in 2005 and 2009, an average of 79.1 million households had air conditioning without heat pumps between 2006 and 2010, with 55.5 million using central air conditioning and 23.6 million using room air conditioners. Heat pumps were used as central air conditioning equipment by 13.2 million households. This gives heat pumps a higher rate of fires and damages relative to usage but lower rates of deaths and injuries.
In 2011, an estimated 40,890 injuries were reported to emergency rooms as involving air conditioners, fans, humidifiers, dehumidifiers, air purifiers, and heat pumps. The leading injuries were lacerations, contusions or abrasions, and strains or sprains.
Home Fires Involving Clothes Dryers or Washing Machines
By John R. Hall, Jr.
In 2010, an estimated 16,800 reported non-confined or confined home structure fires in the United States involving clothes dryers or washing machines resulted in 51 civilian deaths, 380 civilian injuries, and $236 million in direct property damage. That year, clothes dryers and washing machines accounted for 4.5 percent of all reported home structure fires, 1.9 percent of associated civilian deaths, 2.8 percent of associated civilian injuries, and 3.1 percent of associated direct property damage.
Between 2006 and 2010, washers and dryers were involved in an estimated 1,600 home structure fires per year that were reported as confined fires. Flue fires make the most sense for this kind of equipment. Most of these fires involved lint or items that generate lint in a dryer. Those that did not involve lint could include examples of equipment not designed to dry clothes being used as a makeshift dryer.
The item first ignited in home clothes dryer structure fires from 2006 to 2010 was usually something being dried or a byproduct of such an item, such as lint. The first item ignited in home clothes washer structure fires was usually part of the appliance itself.
The leading items ignited by clothes dryers include dust, fiber, or lint, responsible for 29 percent of fires; clothing, responsible for 28 percent of fires; and unclassified soft goods or clothing, responsible for 9 percent of fires. The leading items for washers were wire or cable insulation, responsible for 26 percent of fires; appliance housing or casing, responsible for 21 percent of fires; and drive belts, responsible for 15 percent of fires.
Most home fires involving washers or dryers between 2006 and 2010 began in a laundry room or area. Other leading areas of origin included the garage, crawl spaces or substructure spaces, and the kitchen.
There is no direct statistical evidence of a home fire problem involving dryers and spontaneous heating of soft goods impregnated by flammable or combustible liquids. The fires of concern occur when flammable or combustible liquids absorbed by soft goods such as towels are not completely removed during washing and become part of a delayed ignition of goods heated by a clothes dryer. If the pile is large enough, and if the goods have certain physical properties, heat may build up inside the pile faster than it is lost to the surrounding air. The risk is associated with large piles of goods, more characteristic of a commercial or institutional laundry than of a home, and the risk is increased if the dryer cycle is interrupted before the cool-down portion of the cycle ends. Only 1 percent of home dryer fires began when flammable or combustible liquids ignited, and only 0.2 percent of such fires involved a chemical reaction or spontaneous heating.
The risk of fire is roughly equal for gas and electric clothes dryers. From 2006 to 2010, the risks relative to usage for gas dryers were 9 percent higher for fires, 8 percent higher for civilian deaths, 2 percent higher for civilian injuries, and 7 percent lower for direct property damage. Statistics for 2005, 2007, and 2009 show that the average number of households using electric dryers was higher than the average number for gas dryers by 3.5-to-1.
In 2011, an estimated 14,740 injuries involving clothes washers and dryers were reported to emergency rooms. These were more likely to involve washers than dryers. The leading types of injuries were strains and sprains, lacerations, and contusions and abrasions, which people might be expected to incur when trying to move the appliance, when they fall on the appliance, or when the appliance falls on them.
Failure to clean is the leading factor contributing to ignition involving washers or dryers. Other leading factors were mechanical or electrical failures or malfunctions.