Firefighters clean up after a three-alarm house fire in California that killed one resident and injured another. (Photo: AP/Wide World)
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2013
Hoarding contributes to death of two
CALIFORNIA — A fire in a single-family home filled with items piled 3 to 4 feet (0.9 to 1 meter) high took the lives of a 78-year-old woman and her 81-year-old husband.
The single-story, wood-frame house, which covered 1,600 square feet (149 square meters), had stucco walls and a pitched roof covered with asphalt shingles. There were no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
A neighbor called 911 to report the fire at 1:28 a.m., and fire crews arrived six minutes later to find heavy fire and smoke coming from the front of the house. Bystanders told firefighters that the couple was still in the home, and crews immediately tried to drag hose lines into position for a rescue. However, the hose lines became hung up on items stored outside the home, and the rescue attempt was delayed. Once inside, firefighters’ movements were hampered by hoarding conditions.
Eventually, firefighters found the woman in a kneeling position in the living room, with her torso leaning over a stack of boxes against a bookcase. As they began to remove her, they found her husband in the living room, where he normally slept in a recliner. Firefighters passed both victims out windows to waiting crews, who tried to resuscitate them before taking them to the hospital. Once the rescue team reported the state of the home’s interior, the incident commander ordered everyone from the house and started a defensive attack.
Investigators concluded that the fire started in the area of two operating refrigerators that had been pushed up against an outside wall of the house. However, they could not determine the exact cause of ignition. Items stored on top of and behind the refrigerators allowed the fire to spread up the wood siding, through the soffits, and into the attic. The fire also burned through windows and the front door.
The hoarded materials, which family members and municipal authorities had been working with the couple to reduce, contributed to the fire and prevented the victims from escaping. The house and its contents, which were estimated at $450,000, were destroyed.
Combustibles on stove start fire
INDIANA — A 78-year-old woman died of smoke inhalation as the result of a fire in the kitchen of her single-family house.
The single-story, wood-frame house, which covered an area of 1,150 square feet (107 square meters), had a battery-operated smoke alarm in the living room but no sprinklers. The smoke alarm was destroyed in the blaze, so firefighters were unable to tell whether it was working at the time of the fire.
Investigators determined that the woman had stored polystyrene plates, plastic cutlery, and napkins on the electric stove in preparation for a holiday gathering and that an electrical failure caused a rear burner to operate, igniting the stored items. When the woman became aware of the fire, she called her daughter rather than 911.The daughter called the fire department at 9:12 a.m.
The house, valued at $80,000, sustained an estimated $15,000 in damage, with an additional $40,000 in damages to its contents.
Suicide by fire
OHIO — A man suffering from mental illness committed suicide by scattering paper around his rented single-family house and setting it on fire.
The two-story, wood-frame house had a battery-operated smoke alarm in the basement but no sprinklers.
The victim, who had started a fire in the house on a previous occasion, had stopped taking his medication and was reported to be delusional. When police officers who had been asked to check on the man’s welfare knocked on the door, he confronted them with a hedge trimmer and quickly slammed the door shut. However, the officers managed to see wads of toilet paper and unrolled toilet paper strewn about the floor. While the police were still outside, the man set the paper on fire.
The officers kicked the door in when they smelled smoke and were met by flames. Fire crews called to the scene found the victim in the dining room, overcome by smoke and heat.
The fire destroyed the house, which was valued at $95,000, and its contents, valued at $7,000.
Woman dies in cooking fire
WISCONSIN — An 88-year-old woman died after her clothing caught fire while she tried to control a cooking fire in her single-family home.
The one-story, wood-frame house, which was 50 feet (15 meters) long and 20 feet (6 meters) wide, had no sprinklers. It did have a battery-operated smoke alarm in the hallway, but the battery was dead.
A passerby saw the smoke and called 911 at 6:15 p.m. Arriving firefighters found a small smoldering fire and discovered the woman’s body in the kitchen.
Investigators determined that her clothes ignited when she tried to carry a burning pan to the kitchen sink.
The house, valued at $140,000, sustained damage estimated at $4,000. Its contents, valued at $10,000, were not damaged.
Million-dollar sorority house fire
COLORADO — A fire that began in the attic of a sorority house burned for hours before anyone detected it, resulting in a million-dollar loss.
The three-story, wood-frame house had no fire detection system. An NFPA 13R sprinkler system covered the living spaces but not the attic.
The fire began when an electric fan motor was left on and ignited recently installed blown-in cellulose insulation. The house was closed for a holiday at the time of the fire.
Occupant dies after entering burning home
MAINE — A 74-year-old man who arrived home to find his house on fire died when he went inside after first asking a neighbor to call for help.
The single-story, single-family house had no sprinklers and no smoke alarms.
Firefighters arrived three minutes after the neighbor’s 9:01 p.m. 911 call to find the home’s attached garage well involved in flames, which were spreading into the house. They initially used two hose lines to knock down the heavy fire in the garage, but one line was redirected into the house when the fire crews spotted flames inside. Fire crews extinguished the fire in about 35 minutes.
During a secondary search, fire crews found the victim in the house by a door leading to the garage, where he had been overcome by the fire. He died of burns and smoke inhalation. Due to the extent of damage, investigators were unable to determine the cause of the fire.
The house and its contents were heavily damaged, but the damage estimates were not reported.
One dead in garage fire
INDIANA — A 23-year-old man died in a fire in a two-car garage that had been converted into an entertainment center and gathering place for friends. Some of the space was also used for small engine repair.
The unsprinklered wood-frame garage, which was 24 feet (7 meters) long and 20 feet (6 meters) wide, had no smoke alarms.
A passerby discovered the fire and called 911 at 10:15 p.m. By the time firefighters arrived, the interior of the garage was totally involved in flames.
When firefighters entered it, they found the victim’s body by the side door, where he had died of burns and smoke inhalation.
Due to the destruction and numerous possible ignition sources, investigators could not determine how the fire started.
The fire destroyed the building, valued at $12,460, and its contents, valued at $87,220.
Using accelerants with wood stove leads to deadly fire
WISCONSIN — An 87-year-old man died of smoke inhalation in a fire that engulfed his home before a neighbor noticed it and called the fire department at 8:29 p.m.
The two-story, wood-frame house was 40 feet (12 meters) long and 24 feet (7 meters) wide. It had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
Responding firefighters extinguished the fire and found the body of the victim, who used a walker, between a wood-burning stove in the kitchen and the nearest exit.
Investigators determined that the blaze started near the stove, next to which they found a container of diesel fuel or a similar liquid.
They learned that the victim had a history of using accelerants to start fires in the stove.
The house, which was valued at $39,000, and its contents, valued at $21,000, were destroyed.
Unattended cooking leads to two fire deaths
KANSAS — A 21-year-old woman and a 23-year-old man died of smoke inhalation and burns in an apartment fire that began in their kitchen when the contents of a pan left unattended ignited while the victims slept. The fire triggered an automatic fire alarm in the building’s hallways, and the alarm company called the fire department, as did a passerby, who dialled 911.
The fire occurred in a 2½ story, 24-unit, wood-frame apartment building that was 200 feet (61 meters) long and 60 feet (18 meters) wide. A fire alarm system monitored by a central station alarm company provided coverage in the common spaces, including hallways, and each apartment had local battery-operated smoke alarms. There were no sprinklers.
The fire department received the alarm at 5:33 a.m. and arrived four minutes later to find no signs of fire showing from the exterior of the building. However, firefighters entering the structure found smoke in the hallway and began forcing apartment doors open to search for the location of the fire and for occupants.
When they found the apartment of origin, they encountered black smoke and moderate heat. Stretching a hose line to the door, they crawled with it into the unit until they saw the fire in the kitchen. Using a thermal imaging camera, they scanned the living room and initially found no victims. As they moved around, though, they felt the young woman’s body lying halfway out of a bedroom door and removed her from the apartment. A secondary search revealed the young man’s body in the living room. Firefighters placed him on a backboard and removed him through a window.
Although the fire had been burning for some time, it was confined to the kitchen. Investigators concluded that it started when the contents of a pan left cooking unattended on the electric stove ignited and that the fire spread to other combustibles in the room. The lack of a battery in the apartment’s smoke alarm prevented early warning. In addition, one of the victims was described as possibly being intoxicated.
The building, which was valued at $1 million, sustained damage estimated at $150,000. Damage to its contents was estimated at $50,000. One firefighter suffered minor injuries.
Smoking in bed leads to death
TEXAS — A man who fell asleep while smoking in bed died when his mattress ignited and set fire to the travel trailer in which he was living. Investigators believe that he tripped over a lit propane heater in an adjacent area after being awakened by the heat and was overcome by smoke.
The steel-frame travel trailer, which was 28 feet (8 meters) long and 8 feet (2 meters) wide, had a metal roof and metal floors and walls covered on the inside with wood. The trailer had no smoke alarms or sprinklers, and the interior was cluttered with clothes, books, paper, and other materials.
A passerby called 911 to report the fire at 11:15 p.m., and firefighters found the victim’s body after they extinguished the blaze.
The fire destroyed the trailer, which was valued at $6,000, and its contents, valued at $1,800.
One dead, one injured in kitchen fire
WISCONSIN — A fire in an apartment above a tavern claimed the life of a physically disabled man and injured his roommate, who was pulled to safety by tavern patrons.
The unsprinklered, two-story building, which had a brick veneer exterior, was 36 feet (11 meters) long and 29 feet (8 meters) wide. The second floor was divided into two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room, and a bathroom. Investigators found two smoke alarms in two closets, but neither was functional.
A passerby called 911 to report the fire at 1:32 a.m., and firefighters arriving six minutes noted heavy smoke coming from the roof and flames shooting from a kitchen window. The man rescued by the tavern patrons was outside with burns to his hands.
Firefighters, who were told that a second tenant was trapped inside the apartment, advanced a 1 34-inch hose line to the second floor, which was filled with heavy smoke and moderate heat. While one crew began controlling the fire, others started searching for the missing man, whom they found on the edge of a bed. Firefighters administered CPR before carrying him outside and transferring care to a medical crew. Both victims were transported to the hospital, where the trapped man was pronounced dead. The tenant rescued by tavern patrons was subsequently transferred to a burn center.
Fire officials believe that the fire started after one of the tenants started to heat cooking oil on the kitchen stove and then fell asleep, awakening to find the stove on fire. He was injured while trying to move the flaming pan from the apartment and collapsed near the exit door after suffering smoke inhalation and burns to the top of his hands.
The building, valued at $86,500, sustained damage estimated at $15,000. Its contents, valued at $60,000, sustained a $20,000 loss.
Sprinkler controls fire in school
VIRGINIA — A student intentionally ignited paper towels and toilet paper in the boys’ bathroom at his middle school, starting a fire that
activated a single sprinkler, which limited fire damage to $1,000.
The two-story, steel-frame school had concrete block walls and a steel truss roof covered with a metal deck and a built-up roof surface. A monitored fire detection system and dry-pipe sprinkler system protected the entire property.
Smoke from the fire activated smoke detectors, and the waterflow alarm was tripped shortly after noon. Responding firefighters were met at the front door by the assistant principal, who reported smoke in the building. Crews found a fire smoldering in the first-floor bathroom and used a water can to extinguish the still-burning paper towel dispenser.
Investigators determined that the boy deliberately used smoking materials to set fire to the paper towels and toilet paper.
The school, valued at almost $24 million dollars, sustained less than $1,000 damage.
Fire spreads above sprinklers in manufacturing plant
OHIO — A fire in a plant that manufactured garage doors began near the ceiling and ignited the building’s rubber roofing material as it spread across the ceiling above the sprinklers.
The wood-frame building, which was 600 feet (183 meters) long and 75 feet (23 meters) wide, was protected by a dry-pipe sprinkler system with a monitored waterflow alarm that was damaged during the fire.
An employee in the plant’s office smelled smoke and looked outside to find flames at the rear of the building. She called 911 at 7:07 p.m., and firefighters arriving three minutes later saw smoke and flames coming from the warehouse roof. The officer immediately struck a second alarm.
As fire crews deployed several hose lines in the facility to knock down the fire on the roof, ladder companies tried to open several large overhead doors so that additional hose lines could be deployed to keep the fire from spreading to another section of the property. When part of the roof collapsed, firefighters relocated to the unburned sections of the building and advanced from there to control the fire.
Their actions limited fire spread to one section of the main warehouse, saving two other buildings.
Investigators could not determine the cause of the fire.
The building, which was valued at $5 million, sustained damage estimated at just over $1 million. Damage to its contents, valued at $400,000, was estimated at $200,000. One firefighter sprained his foot during suppression operations.
Sprinkler extinguishes manufacturing plant fire
CONNECTICUT — Two sprinklers extinguished a fire in a secure machine room at an engine manufacturing plant, limiting damage to the machinery involved.
The fire occurred in a concrete block room measuring 50 feet (15 meters) by 30 feet (9 meters) located in a single-story, 20,000-square-foot (1,858-square-meter) manufacturing building. The steel-frame plant, built on a concrete slab, had a metal deck roof with a built-up surface. The property had a monitored wet-pipe sprinkler system.
The fire began when cooling oil that was sprayed over metal as it was cut by a laser ignited in the protective bellows surrounding the laser’s control arm. The machine operator saw the fire and alerted others, as two sprinklers in the cutting room activated. When the plant fire brigade responded, it found the sprinklers operating.
Municipal firefighters secured power to the machine and ventilated the building using the HVAC system. Investigators learned that there had been several smaller fires in the same equipment in the past.
The value of the building and its contents were not reported. Nor was an estimate of the damage. There were no injuries.
Fire damages office building
SOUTH CAROLINA — A passerby who heard glass breaking and saw flames in a second-floor window of a multitenant office building called 911 to report the blaze at 2:36 a.m.
The unsprinklered two-story building had brick veneer exterior walls on two sides, fiber cement on the other two sides, and a wood truss roof covered with a metal deck. There were two medical offices on the first floor and four professional offices on the second. Smoke detectors on each floor near the elevator provided recall, but the type of the fire alarm system was not reported. The detectors were not near the area of origin and operated only after the fire had spread.
Firefighters arrived four minutes after receiving the alarm to find a portion of the second floor involved in fire. The first-due engine company stretched a hose line into the building and made it to the second floor without encountering much smoke. As they tried to force the door to the office of origin open, however, conditions outside deteriorated, and the incident commander ordered all interior companies out of the building.
As other engines companies began to arrive, firefighters established a water supply and deployed several small- and large-diameter hose lines around the building. They fought the fire defensively in a collapse zone away from the building.
Although investigators could not determine the fire’s cause, they established that it started in the office of a company that assembled drug carts used in the biotech and medical fields.
The top floor of the building sustained significant fire and smoke damage, the roof partially collapsed, and the first floor sustained smoke and water damage. Estimates of loss were not provided. There were no injuries.
Rags ignite spontaneously
NEW HAMPSHIRE — Urethane-soaked rags left on the floor when construction workers left for the day after a renovation project ignited spontaneously starting a fire in the basement of a multitenant office and retail building.
The three-story structure, which was 122 feet (37 meters) long and 127 feet (38 meters) wide, had exterior walls of brick and a flat, wood roof deck covered by a rubber membrane. Fire detection and suppression systems were installed throughout, and the fire alarm panel tripped a master box that notified the fire department.
Firefighters responded to the 6:22 a.m. alarm and arrived to find moderate smoke in the basement about 24 inches (61 centimeters) above the floor. There was little heat. The firefighters could hear sprinklers operating and eventually found them and the remains of the fire in a maintenance workroom.
Investigators determined that the fire started near sawhorses on which plywood coated with urethane gloss had been placed. Near the sawhorses, they found several cans of the gloss. Although the cans were clearly labeled with instructions to place soaked waste and sanding residue into water-filled metal containers to prevent a fire, the two workers said they were not aware that the urethane gloss was capable of spontaneous combustion.
The sprinklers extinguished the fire, which did an estimated $1,000 damage to the building and $3,000 damage to its contents. There were no injuries.
Sprinklers control store fire
VIRGINIA — An electric heat gun left operating in an attempt to dry a paper air filter ignited the filter, starting a fire in the unsprinklered maintenance room of a large retail store. The fire consumed the contents of the room before it spread into an adjacent room, where it was brought under control by two sprinklers. Store employees also used several portable dry-chemical fire extinguishers to keep the fire in check until firefighters arrived.
The single-story, steel-frame building had concrete block walls covered with a brick veneer and a metal deck roof supported by steel bar joist roof trusses and covered by a rubber membrane. The 156,880-square-foot (14,575-square-meter) building had a monitored automatic fire detection system and sprinkler system.
Investigators determined that the heat gun ignited the filter and wall covering and that the fire spread into the room next door, where it activated a smoke detector and the sprinklers. They also noted that the separation of the maintenance room from the surrounding area initially impeded the sprinklers’ effectiveness. Employees used several extinguishers on the fire before the sprinklers operated.
Fire damage was limited to the area of origin, but smoke damage to the store was significant, although loss estimates were not reported.
Winds drive fire into subdivision
NEW MEXICO — Heat from a car’s catalytic converter sparked a grass fire that destroyed 13 homes in a housing subdivision before it was brought under control. The car was parked by the side of a road next to the subdivision and privately owned rangeland.
A passerby saw the fire and called 911 at 2:30 p.m. Firefighters began suppression activities seven minutes later. Within 30 minutes, however, winds of 65 miles (104 kilometers) per hour pushed the blaze into the subdivision. Within an hour and a half, the fire had spread across 1,300 acres (526 hectares) of the rangeland.
Investigators attributed the fire’s spread to the high winds and an abnormal grass fuel loading that resulted from an unusually wet rainy season.
The fire caused nearly $120,000 worth of damage to vehicles and $1.56 million in structural damage. The fire department’s suppression costs were estimated at $200,000.