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Reporter's Guide: The consequences of fire

Fire in the United States
Every 24 seconds, a fire department responds to a fire somewhere in the United States. Once a minute, a fire occurs in a structure. Although fire's toll has declined steadily over the past two decades, fire continues to cause major losses.

When people fear death by fire, they typically imagine the cry of “fire!” in a place crowded with strangers, perhaps a movie theater or restaurant. But of the 10 deadliest fires through 1999, only two were in such settings: the Iroquois Theater in Chicago in 1903 (PDF) and the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston in 1942 (PDF). Throughout history the big fires have more commonly engulfed cities or forests, or have involved steamships, airplanes, and industrial settings such as mines or chemical plans.

And those conflagrations have become less common. From 1900-1954, there were 44 fires with death tolls of 100 or more. But from 1955 to present, there have been just five:

  • a Southgate, KY, restaurant fire in 1977
  • the Oklahoma City office building bombing in 1995
  • the Florida in-flight fire in 1996
  • the World Trade Center attack in 2001
  • the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island in 2003

Today, people who die in fires typically die in ones and twos, in their own homes and vehicles.

Fire in the home
Home is the place where you feel safest. But your home is also where you are most likely to die in a fire. Four out of five fire-related deaths among civilians occur in the home. Although homes fires and deaths have been declining since 1977, much work remains to be done. The death toll of home fires can be reduced through:

These are some areas of particular concern in home fires.

  • Smoking materials. Lighted tobacco products — almost always cigarettes — are the leading cause of fatal fires in the home, causing 700 to 900 deaths each year. They are the leading cause of fire deaths in any location, in the United States and every other country where sufficient data is collected. Typically, abandoned or carelessly discarded smoking materials ignite trash, bedding or upholstered furniture. Most fatal smoking-related fires start in the living room, family room or den, rather than the bedroom. The adoption of standards that require mattresses and upholstery to resist going up flames from a cigarette has reduced the death toll significantly.
  • Cooking. Cooking fires happen because people walk away from the stove. They get distracted by children, pets or visitors, sometimes forgetting they left food cooking. There is no safe period of time to leave cooking unattended. Cooking equipment is leading cause of home fires and of injuries in home fires (and the fourth leading cause of home-fire deaths). At least two-thirds of these fires involve the range, especially the cooktop. Typically, cooking oil or other flammable liquids, or fat or grease, is what first catches fire. And two-thirds of home cooking fires started within the first 15 minutes of cooking.
  • Heating equipment. Heating equipment is the second leading cause of home fires, and third leading cause of home fire deaths. Two out of three heating-related fires can be traced to improperly used space heaters—a category that includes fireplaces and chimneys; and fixed and portable space heaters, including wood stoves. Space heaters (excluding fireplaces and chimney) most often caused fires when something combustible was left too close. Most fireplace and chimney fires were caused by creosote buildup, and could be prevented by regular cleaning.
  • Arson. Arson, the crime of maliciously and intentionally, or recklessly, starting a fire or causing an explosion, is the leading cause of property damage in the United States. But only about 1 in 20 of the intentionally set fires results in an arrest and only 1 in 50 results in a conviction. Two-thirds of intentionally set fires are never even reported to police, and only rarely do such reports lead to an arrest.Arson fires have been dropping steadily since 1985. Most fire-setters are either youngsters or pyromaniacs; more than half those arrested for arson are younger than 18.
The killing fumes

Most fire deaths are not caused by burns, but by smoke inhalation. Often smoke incapacitates so quickly that people are overcome and can’t make it to an otherwise accessible exit. The synthetic materials commonplace in today’s homes produce especially dangerous substances. As a fire grows inside a building, it will often consume most of the available oxygen, slowing the burning process. This “incomplete combustion” results in toxic gases.

Smoke is made of components that can each be lethal in its own way:

particles: Unburned, partially burned, and completely burned substances can be so small they penetrate the respiratory system’s protective filters, and lodge in the lungs. Some are actively toxic; others are irritating to the eyes and digestive system.

vapors: Foglike droplets of liquid can poison if inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

toxic gases: The most common, carbon monoxide (CO), can be deadly, even in small quantities, as it replaced oxygen in the bloodstream. Hydrogen cyanide results from the burning of plastics, such as PVC pipe, and interferes with cellular respiration. Phosgene is formed when household products, such as vinyl materials, are burned. At low levels, phosgene can cause itchy eyes and a sore throat; at higher levels it can cause pulmonary edema and death.

In addition to producing smoke, fire can incapacitate or kill by reducing oxygen levels, either by consuming the oxygen, or by displacing it with other gases. Heat is also a respiratory hazard, as superheated gases burn the respiratory tract. When the air is hot enough, one breath can kill.

When oxygen levels are at...

...a person experiences:

21 percent

Normal outside air

17 percent

Impaired judgment and coordination

12 percent

Headache, dizziness, nausea, fatigue

9 percent


6 percent

Respiratory arrest, cardiac arrest, death



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