A house on fire

Most home fires result from five general causes

It may be hard to believe, but NFPA's latest report on Home Structure Fires shows that during the years 2014-2018, five general fire causes accounted for 86% of reported home fires, 95% of home fire deaths, and 83% of home fire injuries.

Cooking was, by far, the leading cause of home fires and fire injuries, and was the second leading cause of home fire deaths. Because cooking is such a routine part of our lives, it’s easy to forget the high temperatures and dangers involved.

Heating equipment is the second leading cause of home fires and the third leading cause of home fire deaths. Creosote build-up in chimneys was the most common cause of these fires, while fires involving fixed and portable space heaters caused most of the heating fire deaths.

Electrical distribution or lighting equipment was the third leading cause of home fires and the fourth leading cause of home fire deaths. Conditions that make these fires possible can occur long before a fire presents – largely as a result of wiring being installed or repaired incorrectly, or when receptacles, power strips or cords are overloaded, etc.

Intentional fire-setting was the fourth leading cause of home fires and the fifth highest reason for home fire deaths. According to death certificate data from all intentional fire deaths (not just home fires), nearly two-thirds of intentional fire deaths were suicides.

Although smoking materials ranked fifth in terms of home fires, they caused the most amount of home fire deaths during this time period. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 17 percent of adults smoked combustible tobacco products in 2017.

Leading causes of home fires - 2020 reportWe know what causes fires. We know how to prevent most of them. We have made progress. Reported home fires and home fire deaths have been cut roughly in half since 1980. The 2019 rate of 8.4 home fire deaths per million population was 63 percent lower than the 22.9 deaths per million population in 1980. Even so, home fires still kill approximately 2,600 people per year. That's an average of seven people dying in home fires every day! Far too many by all accounts.

While almost all homes have at least one smoke alarm, roughly three out of five home fire deaths in 2014-2018 resulted from fires in homes which lacked any  smoke alarms (41 percent) or that featured at least one alarm that was inoperable (16 percent). Ensuring that every home has working smoke alarms is critical – a message that NFPA has been sharing far and wide for years.

Furthermore, fire sprinklers were present in only 7 percent of reported home fires. Home fire sprinklers can control well before the fire department gets there, as communicated by the NFPA Fire Sprinkler Initiative which offers a wide array of resource materials to support local sprinkler advocacy efforts.

As the author of NFPA's Home Structure Fires report, I want to personally thank the firefighters, life safety educators, and others who work so hard to prevent fires and to protect people from the fires that do occur. I hope that this report can be one weapon in the fight against fire. For more specific information about the fire causes mentioned in the beginning of this piece, please check out the statistical reports under US Fire Problem on our website. 

And please -- help us, help you. What types of fire experience statistics would help you in your work? Those of us who work in offices want to learn from those of you working in the field.

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Marty Ahrens
Fire Analysis Research Manager

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