Firefighters in Washington state douse the burned-out second floor of an office building. The structure had no fire alarms or sprinklers. (Photo: Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2013
Fire heavily damages office building
WASHINGTON — A two-story office building covering an area of approximately 16,000 square feet (1,486 square meters) was heavily damaged by a fire that began in a concealed roof void and spread undetected until it was discovered by a passerby.
The wood-frame building, which had a flat, wood truss roof covered with a built-up surface, had no fire alarms or sprinklers.
The passerby reported smoke coming from the building at 5:31 a.m., and firefighters arriving five minutes later found low-hanging smoke covering the roadway near the building. During his initial size-up, the officer reported smoke coming from the roof and visible through the glass on the second floor. Using a thermal imaging camera, he also noted significant heat build-up near the ceiling and roof.
Crews advanced a hose line up a stairwell in the atrium to the second floor, where they encountered heavy smoke and an orange glow near the floor. A quick blast of water knocked the fire down, but visibility dropped sharply as the smoke increased. When firefighters heard what sounded like a collapsing roof, they retreated and called for ventilation.
Using a positive-pressure fan to clear away the smoke, firefighters laid additional hose lines and pulled down the ceiling in an attempt to locate the seat of the fire. As they moved toward a corner of the building, they found fire at the ceiling. A glued, laminated ceiling beam had partially collapsed, and fire consumed an office. Fire-fighters’ attempts to knock the office fire down were unsuccessful.
Crews had just changed their air cylinders and returned to the building with larger hose lines when the incident commander ordered everyone from the building. Once all personnel were accounted for, the commander ordered all hose lines to be positioned defensively. By the time the fire was finally brought under control several hours later, nearly the entire roof had burned off or collapsed into the second floor. Only a small section remained undamaged near the atrium. Portions of the second floor also collapsed into the first floor.
Investigators discovered that the fire began in the ceiling above an office, but they couldn’t determine the cause of the fire due to the extent of damage.
The building, valued at $2 million, and its contents, valued at $750,000, were destroyed. One firefighter suffered a minor injury.
Overloaded wiring starts fire in store
ARIZONA — An appliance store in a strip mall sustained fire and smoke damage when an overloaded extension cord used to power a portable electric space heater that was left on after the store had closed ignited nearby combustibles. However, a sprinkler controlled the fire until firefighters arrived to extinguish it, significantly limiting fire damage.
The wood-frame store was located in a single-story mall and covered an area of 2,100 square feet (195 square meters). A wet-pipe sprinkler system was monitored by a central station alarm company.
Firefighters responding to the 1:18 a.m. alarm arrived five minutes later to find neither smoke nor flames coming from the mall’s main property, so began to check the other stores for problems. When they reached the appliance store and saw light smoke, the incident commander ordered a full first-alarm assignment.
Crews forced the store’s front door and advanced a 1 3/4-inch hose line to extinguish the fire, which was being held in check by a sprinkler in an office area in the showroom. Excessive stock and housekeeping issues impeded firefighters’ access to the store’s interior. Because they could not reach the rear door, they cut a roof ventilation hole to remove smoke so the building could be searched.
Investigators determined that the fire started in an area beneath a desk where a number of electrical cords were found. A space heater, left on high when the business closed for the night, had been plugged into an 18-gauge extension cord that, along with several other items, was plugged into a power strip. A circuit breaker had also tripped. The investigators determined that the overloaded extension cord ignited wood and paper nearby.
The building, valued at $2.6 million, and its contents, valued at $1 million, sustained a combined loss of $30,000. There were no injuries.
Sprinkler saves townhouse
MASSACHUSETTS — A single sprinkler extinguished a fire in a townhouse-style condominium that began when smoking materials ignited a blanket that had been draped over a living room couch.
The two-story, four-unit, wood-frame condominium building, which was 100 feet (30 meters) long by 50 feet (15 meters) wide, had hardwired smoke detectors providing a local alarm on each level. A wet-pipe residential sprinkler system was installed in living areas. The water flow was not monitored, but it did provide internal and external horn/strobe notification.
A passerby heard the horn/strobe operating and called 911 at 9:11 a.m. Told that a sprinkler had activated and that the fire appeared to be under control, responding firefighters forced the front door and completed extinguishment. Searches for victims were negative, as the unit of origin and all the other condos in the building were unoccupied at the time.
Investigators found that a match or a pipe started the fire at the end of a couch in the first-floor living room of a unit. A Christmas tree was nearby.
In a press release about the fire, an official noted that, “Opponents to residential sprinklers often say that newer buildings don’t have fires or that smoke alarms are adequate fire protection. This building was built in the 1980s, and the fire would have progressed significantly and quickly without sprinklers, impacting the people in the other condos and their homes and possessions and pets.”
“As fast as we were able to get there,” said the local fire chief, “the fire sprinkler was faster and had the fire under control, frankly before we even left the station. It is absolutely amazing that the Christmas tree was never involved in this fire and that everyone got out safely. What is even more amazing is that everyone can sleep here tonight.” The chief also said that the fire demonstrated the need for residential fire sprinklers in every new home.
The building, valued at $1 million, and its contents, valued at $160,000, sustained a combined loss of $27,000.
Combustibles on stove ignite
ALASKA — A 92-year-old-woman who lived in the basement apartment of a two-family house died of smoke inhalation in a fire that started when the heating element of her electric stove ignited a cookbook.
The basement of the wood-frame house, which was 60 feet (18 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide, had been converted to a separate living unit with access to the outside from a door next to the garage. A battery-operated smoke alarm had been installed in the hallway on the first floor, but there were none in the basement. There were no sprinklers.
A neighbor called 911 at 1:28 p.m., and firefighters arrived shortly thereafter. As they began advancing a hose line into the apartment, they were told that the woman might be inside. They found her face-up by the door and took her outside the house before quickly extinguishing the fire.
Investigators determined that the woman was heating water for a cup of tea when the cookbook ignited, and the fire spread to cabinets and other combustibles in the kitchen. Wall voids allowed the fire to spread vertically to a kitchen cabinet in the first-floor unit directly above the point of origin. In addition, fire travelled through the voids and into the roof truss, where it burned through.
Drywall kept the fire from breaking through into the living area. The victim, who had a history of limited mobility and dementia, was overcome by the smoke.
The house and its contents, together valued at $229,600, sustained a combined loss of $90,000. The first-floor unit had minor smoke and fire damage in the kitchen.
Cigarette starts deadly fire
WASHINGTON — A 71-year-old man and a 70-year-old woman died of smoke inhalation in their single-family manufactured home in a fire caused by smoking materials.
The wood-frame home, manufactured off-site in two pieces, was approximately 55 feet (16 meters) long and 27 feet (8 meters) wide. The fire department report stated there was an electrical circuit breaker for the smoke detectors but did not specify the type of detectors or where they were located. There were no sprinklers.
The elderly man, who was on home oxygen therapy and unable to walk, typically spent his days and nights on a sofa in the living room. An oxygen concentrator at one end of the house provided supplemental oxygen through plastic tubing. Both the victims smoked heavily.
A passerby called 911 at 4:44 a.m. to report smoke coming from the house and flames in a window. Responding firefighters entered through the front door, which was locked, and advanced a hose line into the house, where they quickly found the woman on a sofa near the front door. Crews removed her and performed CPR on her without success. As they continued further into the home, firefighters found the second victim, obviously dead, in the fire area.
Investigators determined that one of the man’s cigarettes started the fire in a sofa in the den. Even though flames did not spread beyond the room of origin, heat and smoke heavily damaged the structure.
The house and its contents sustained $105,000 worth of damage.
Unattended cooking fire damages apartment building
CALIFORNIA — When the occupant of a second-floor apartment left a pan of French fries cooking in oil unattended on the stove, the oil ignited, and the resulting fire spread to nearby combustibles, then throughout the apartment to the roof above.
The two-story, wood-frame apartment building, which contained 16 units, was equipped with smoke detectors but had no sprinklers.
The smoke alarms operated as designed, alerting the occupant, who called 911 at 5:54 p.m. Police and firefighters evacuated other building occupants when they arrived seven minutes later.
As smoke and flames poured out a second-floor window, firefighters positioned a 2½-inch hose line to the left side of the building to protect exposures and brought additional hose lines into the structure. When they encountered heavy fire in the ventilation holes made in the roof, a second alarm was called. After part of the roof collapsed and all personnel were accounted for, the incident commander requested a third alarm.
The building sustained an estimated $1,750,000 in damages, while damage to contents was estimated at $500,000. There were no injuries.
Woman dies when smoking while on home oxygen
OREGON — A 70-year-old woman died of smoke inhalation when home oxygen therapy tubing ignited while she smoked a cigarette.
The fire occurred in a single-family, manufactured home, which covered about 900 square feet (84 square meters). The house had a battery-operated smoke alarm, but the fire was too small to activate it.
The victim’s husband arrived home to find his wife lying face down on the living room floor, unresponsive, with blood around her mouth. He called 911 at 10:25 p.m., and firefighters arrived three minutes later to find him on the floor next to his wife.
Investigators determined that the woman was smoking while wearing a nasal canula and that the canula and plastic tubing ignited, burning the area around her nose and mouth. She managed to pull the tubing off and put it in the kitchen sink, but she had already inhaled products of combustion. The toxic fumes, along with a history of decreased lung function, led to her death. No other evidence of burning was noted.
The home and its contents, valued at approximately $36,000, sustained $600 in damage.
Two-year-old dies in house fire
NORTH CAROLINA — An 83-year-old great-grandmother saved two children from a fire in a single-family home but was burned when she tried to rescue a third child, who died in the blaze.
The single-story, wood-frame house, which was 30 feet (9 meters) long and 40 feet (12 meters) wide, had smoke alarms, but investigators could not determine if they operated. There were no sprinklers.
The fire started in the living room, which contained a Christmas tree, presents, and a kerosene heater, as well as two 5-gallon (18-liter) containers of fuel. Investigators could not determine how the fire started but noted that the fuel allowed it to spread rapidly.
The value of the home and contents was not reported. The two-year-old boy died of smoke inhalation.
Sprinkler douses school fire
UTAH — A sprinkler extinguished a fire set by an elementary school student in a classroom recycling bin.
The two-story elementary school’s fire alarm system, which included smoke detectors and water flow alarm, was monitored by a central station alarm company, and a wet-pipe sprinkler system provided full coverage.
The student, who had just been reprimanded, was briefly left alone in a classroom. As he left the room, he dropped a lighted match into the recycling bin, igniting the contents. Heat and flames spread to coats and backpacks hung above it, and smoke traveled from the classroom to the hallway, activating a smoke detector that sounded an internal alarm and notified the fire department at 2:10 p.m.
Firefighters arrived to find smoke on the second floor and were investigating its source when the sprinkler activated and extinguished the fire. Investigators and the school staff spoke to the student, who confessed to starting the fire.
Neither the value of the building and its contents nor the amount of damage was reported.
Fire destroys sawmill
TENNESSEE — A large single-story building containing a sawmill burned for 2 hours before firefighters brought it under control, resulting in a multimillion dollar loss.
The exterior of the wood-frame building, which was 100 feet (30 meters) long by 200 feet (60 meters) wide, was metal, as was the roof. There were no sprinklers or fire detection system.
At 12:36 a.m., a passerby called 911 to report the fire, and firefighters arrived eight minutes later to find the mill fully involved. Due to the heavy fire and the fact that the building was known to contain hazardous contents, firefighters fought the blaze defensively and protected exposures rather than entering the building.
Investigators found the most significant fire damage in the area of the main electric panels. Although they could not determine the exact ignition scenario, they concluded that an electrical failure or malfunction led to the ignition of sawdust.
The building, valued at $750,000, and its contents, valued at $6.5 million, were destroyed.
Chemical reaction starts fire
CALIFORNIA — A sprinkler extinguished a fire in a multi-tenant building that contained a woodworking shop, a guitar manufacturer, an auto body shop, and several other small businesses, significantly limiting the amount of property damage.
The two-story, steel-frame building had metal exterior walls and a metal roof deck and roof. Interior wood-frame walls were covered by gypsum board and divided into five manufacturing spaces and one storage area. An NFPA 13 wet-pipe sprinkler system protected the property, and portable fire extinguishers were available, although they were not used.
The fire started when one of the occupants who was working after hours mixed auto-catalyzed resin in a paper cup and set it down, before leaving the area. When he returned, he saw that the cup was on fire and called 911 just minutes before the fire department received a water flow alarm for the building at 8:10 p.m. When they arrived, responding firefighters found that the single sprinkler, located directly above the fire, had already extinguished it.
The building, valued at $2 million, was not damaged. Its contents, valued at $1.5 million, sustained an estimated loss of $10,700.
Sprinkler douses courthouse fire
OKLAHOMA — Firefighters responding to a fire alarm at a courthouse, which was protected by a fire detection system and a wet-pipe sprinkler system, found that a sprinkler had already extinguished the blaze, which started when a battery charger for a floor-buffing unit malfunctioned.
Firefighters received the automatic alarm at 9:14 p.m., and the call was upgraded to a commercial alarm response while they were en route. The first-in engine company, which arrived two minutes after the alarm, stretched a hose line into the building. A second engine company provided a backup hose line, while a third engine company evacuated the building. A ladder truck set up for ventilation, and an additional engine hooked up to the fire department connection while the hazmat team was assigned as a rapid intervention team.
Damage to the building and its contents, valued at $54 million, was limited to $15,000.