Playing with fire

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Report: NFPA's "Playing With Fire" (PDF, 1 MB)
Author: Richard Campbell

Issued: March 2014

The subject of this report is fires caused by playing with fire. Most of these fires are started by children involved with fireplay. This report addresses the size of the problem (overall and by property class) and examines how, when, and where these fires occurred, the primary heat sources involved in these fires, the items ignited, age characteristics of involved persons, and loss data (deaths, injuries, and property damage).

Executive Summary

Between 2007 and 2011, an average of 49,300 fires involving playing with fire were reported to U.S. municipal fire departments per year. These fires caused annual averages of 80 civilian deaths, 860 civilian injuries, and $235 million in property damage. Structure fires accounted for 23% of fires, but 98% of civilian deaths, 93% of civilian injuries, and 91% of property damage. Outside or unclassified fires accounted for three-quarters (76%) of the fires, and vehicle fires for 2%.

Two-thirds (67%) of structure fires involving play occurred in residential properties, with 64% in homes. Eleven percent began in outside or special properties (these include tunnels, bridges, vacant lots, etc.), and 7% began in educational properties.

Most deaths, injuries, and damage from child playing fires occur in home structure fires. An average of 7,100 home structure fires per year caused by play were reported between 2007 and 2011, causing annual averages of 77 civilian deaths, 750 civilian injuries, and $172 million in property damage. They are more common during the month of July, and peak between the hours of 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Half of home playing structure fires (52%) had a lighter as their heat source, and matches were the heat source in 18% of fires. Fires started by lighters or matches caused 82% of civilian deaths.

Thirty-nine percent of these fires began in the bedroom, 8% in the kitchen and 6% in a living room, family room or den. A mattress or bedding was the item first ignited in 23% of these fires, while 10% began with magazines, newspapers, or writing paper and 9% began with rubbish, trash, or waste.

The majority of structure fires in homes caused by play were started by males (83%). Forty-three percent of the fires were started by a child under age 6. Older children were more likely to start outside fires, with two of five (38%) of all outside or unclassified fires started by a child between the ages of 10 and 12.

Outside or unclassified playing fires (excluding trash or rubbish fires) peak during the afternoon hours, between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Nearly one-quarter of these fires (24%) were started during the month of July, likely influenced by fires during the July 4th holiday. Fireworks were the heat source in 30% of all non-trash outside or unclassified fires caused by fireplay, with lighters the heat source in 29% of the fires and matches the heat source in 20%.

Males were even more likely to be responsible for these fires than in home playing structure fires, as 94% of outside or unclassified (trash or non-trash combined) fires involving play were started by males (when age was coded as a human factor contributing to ignition).