In 2012, the fire with the highest loss in terms of direct property damage was a wildland fire. In fact, two of the three largest losses last year involved wildfires, reported at $453.7 million and $113.7 million, respectively. (The second-biggest large-loss fire in 2012 was a $400 million fire on a submarine.) Wildland events have produced fires resulting in the largest direct property damage in seven of the past 10 years.
The costliest fire of 2012 was the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado, which broke out at about noon on Saturday, June 23. It began in the Pike National Forest, three miles from Colorado Springs. The fire initially spread from the Waldo and Williams canyons west of Colorado Springs and moved east toward the city, fueled by brush, oak, grass mountain shrub, pinyon juniper, ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, spruce, and limber pine. By 12:20 p.m., the first air tanker was requested. Firefighting efforts, as well as a wind shift, prevented the fire from entering one residential neighborhood. But on the fourth day of the fire, winds of 65 miles per hour (105 kilomters per hour) pushed the fire into several other neighborhoods. As the fire grew, there were many voluntary and mandatory evacuations involving 26,000 homes, and more than 52,000 people were ordered out, including the staff, students, and tourists at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The fire burned 18,247 acres (7,384 hectares) as well as 346 structures (including homes and outbuildings) over 18 days and was not fully contained until July 10. It was the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history. There were two civilian deaths attributed to the Waldo Canyon Fire, and the cause of the fire is under investigation.
|THE 10 COSTLIEST LARGE-LOSS FIRES OF 2012
|Incident and location
|Wildfire / Colorado
|Submarine in dry dock / Maine
|Wildfire / Colorado
|Printing plant / Pennsylvania
|Paper mill / Minnesota
|Vehicle parts manufacturer / Georgia
|Metal product galvanizing plant / Illinois
|Single-family residence / Pennsylvania
|Party supply store / California
|Electrical transformers / Massachusetts
NFPA reports annually on large-loss fires and explosions that occurred in the United States the year before. Such fires and explosions are defined as any event that results in property damage of at least $10 million. Last year, according to the “Fire Loss in the United States During 2012” report that appeared in the September/October issue of NFPA Journal, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 1,375,000 structure and non-structure fires, which caused an estimated loss of $12.4 billion. Many of these fires were small or resulted in little or no reported property damage. However, 23 of them resulted in losses of $10 million or more each, for a total of slightly more than $1.4 billion in direct property losses. Although these fires accounted for only 0.002 percent of the estimated number of fires in 2012, they accounted for 11.3 percent of the total estimated dollar loss.
The number of large-loss fires annually has ranged from 16 to 45 over the past 10 years, with an average of approximately 24 fires per year. When adjusted for inflation to 2003 dollars, the number of fires in 2012 that could be categorized as large-loss fires — that is, fires resulting in a loss of $10 million in 2003 dollars — drops to 14, with an adjusted loss of $1.2 billion.
In 2012, 10 fires resulted in more than $20 million each in property damage. These fires, which included seven structure fires, two wildfires, and a fire aboard a submarine in dry dock, resulted in a combined property loss of nearly $1.2 billion, which represents 88.6 percent of the total loss in large-loss fires and 10 percent of the total fire losses in the United States for 2012.
Where fires occurred
Eighteen of the 23 large-loss fires last year occurred in structures, resulting in a total property loss of $411.9 million. The other five fires — the submarine fire and four wildfires — resulted in combined losses of $993.7 million, or more than double the combined losses of the large-loss structure fires.
Of the 18 large-loss structure fires, seven occurred in manufacturing properties. These included a vehicle parts plant, a paper mill, a paper products plant, a saw mill, a metal products manufacturing plant, a paraffin plant, and a printing plant. These seven fires resulted in total losses of $255 million.
Of the five non-structure large-loss fires, the submarine (which was undergoing rehabilitation in dry dock) fire had a loss of $400 million and the four wildland fires had a combined loss of $593.7 million. The wildland fires destroyed almost 700 structures. The Waldo Canyon Fire alone resulted in a loss of $453.7 million, or 32.3 percent of the large-loss fire losses in 2012.
Three fires occurred in residential properties. Two of those were in apartment buildings, one with 150 units and the other with 68. The third fire took place in a 30-room single-family home. The combined losses for these fires totalled $49.9 million.
Two fires occurred in stores: a party goods store and an automobile dealership, resulting in a combined loss of $35 million. Two fires also occurred in industrial properties — an installation of electrical transformers and a power generation storage facility — resulting in a combined loss of $32 million. Two fires in storage properties — a food storage warehouse and a flammable fluid storage tank — caused $20 million in losses. Two fires also occurred in the category of “special properties”; both were apartment buildings under construction, with a combined loss of $20 million.
Cause of ignition was reported for 11 of the fires, including eight of the 18 structure fires and three of the non-structure fires. Four of the structure fires resulted from mechanical or part failures, including two electrical malfunctions of unknown type, one overheated compressor, and one conveyor belt malfunction. Of the other four structure fires with known cause, one each was the result of welding too close, misuse of heat of ignition (leaving hot material where it shouldn’t have been), a punctured natural gas pipe, and an electrical short circuit.
Cause of ignition was reported for three of the five non-structure fires. The submarine fire was the only reported arson fire in the study this year. One of the four wildfires resulted from a lightning strike, and another wildfire resulted from high winds spreading a contained fire outside the containment lines.
The operating status of the structure was reported for 15 of the structure fires. In 10 cases, the facility was in full operation. In three, operations were closed and the property was unoccupied. And in two, only security personnel were present. Seven of the fires in structures broke out between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.
Detection and suppression systems
Information about automatic fire or smoke detection equipment was reported for 11 of the 18 large-loss structure fires. Five occurred in properties that had no automatic detection equipment. Of the other six structures with information reported, three had smoke detection equipment: one each with complete coverage, partial coverage, and unreported coverage. Two structures had heat and smoke detection systems — one with complete coverage and one with unreported coverage — and one structure had a smoke detection system and manual pull stations with unreported coverage. All of the systems operated effectively.
Information about automatic suppression equipment was reported for 16 of the 18 structure fires. Six of the structures had no suppression equipment. Of the remaining 10, four had wet-pipe sprinklers, three of which provided complete coverage and one had unknown coverage. Six systems were of an unreported type; two were partial coverage and four did not have the coverage reported.
Five of the 10 suppression systems operated, and three did not. The other two had unknown operation. Of the systems that operated, one was effective and helped contain the fire; two systems operated as designed, with no additional information reported on their effectiveness; and two systems were ineffective, with one not being located in the area of origin and one that operated but was damaged by a structural collapse.
Complete information on both detection and suppression equipment was reported for 11 of the 18 large-loss structure fires. Three of the structures had neither a detection nor a suppression system. Both types of systems were present in four structures. Two structures had just detection equipment, and two had just suppression equipment.
What we can learn
The number of large-loss fires in 2012 was the same as in 2011, but the associated property losses increased by more than $585 million, or 71.4 percent. This is mostly due to a single incident, the $400 million submarine fire (in the category of “vehicle fires”) in Maine. By comparison, the largest vehicle fire in 2011 resulted in a $10 million loss.
In eight of the past 10 years, at least one fire has resulted in a loss of more than $100 million. In 2012 there were three such fires: the submarine fire and two wildland fires. Over the past 10 years, there have been 22 fires with more than $100 million in losses, including two with more than $1 billion in losses. Of these largest losses, 11 were wildland fires, nine were structure fires, and two were vehicle fires.
Adhering to the fire protection principles reflected in NFPA’s codes and standards is essential if we are to reduce the occurrence of large-loss fires and explosions in the United States. Proper construction, proper use of equipment, and proper procedures in chemical processes, storage, and housekeeping will make fires less likely to occur and help limit fire spread should a fire occur. Proper design, maintenance, and operation of fire protection systems and features can keep a fire that does occur from becoming a large-loss fire.
Where we get our data
NFPA identifies potential large-loss incidents by reviewing national and local news media, including fire service publications. A clipping service reads all U.S. daily newspapers and notifies NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division of major large-loss fires. NFPA’s annual survey of the U.S. fire experience is an additional data source, although not the principal one.
Once a fire has been identified, we request information about it from the fire department or agency having jurisdiction. We also contact federal agencies that have participated in investigations, as well as state fire marshals’ offices and military sources. The diversity and redundancy of these data sources enable NFPA to collect the most complete data available on large-loss fires.
NFPA would like to thank the U.S. fire service for its contributions of data, without which this report would not be possible. In some cases, the fire department, forestry officials, or government officials were unable to contribute complete details to NFPA because legal action is pending or ongoing, the incident was of a sensitive nature, the size of the situation was overwhelming, or there was no response from officials. The author also wishes to thank Norma Candeloro and the staff of the Fire Analysis and Research Division for providing the support this study requires.
Stephen G. Badger is a fire data assistant in NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division and a retired firefighter from the Quincy, Massachusetts, Fire Department.