Author(s): Ken Tremblay. Published on November 1, 2011.

Firefighters battle a blaze on the roof of an apartment building in North Dakota. The building, valued at more than $6 million, was destroyed.(Photo: AP/Wide World Photos)

NFPA Journal®, November/December 2011


Fire spreads from balcony into concealed spaces
NORTH DAKOTA — Firefighters raced to extinguish a fast-moving fire that was spreading along the exterior of a multi-unit apartment building, trapping an occupant on an upper-floor balcony.



September - October 2011
Kitchen fire damages restaurant

July - August 2011
Gas explosion kills two

May - June 2011
Torch starts roof fire at lumber and hardware store

March - April 2011
 Oil-fired boiler causes fatal fire

January - February 2011
Leaking natural gas ignites

November - December 2010
Two dead in space heater fire

The three-story apartment building was 400 feet (121.9 meters) long and 60 feet (18.2 meters) wide. The building’s construction was not reported, but it had hardwired smoke detectors with battery backup that operated, alerting the occupants. The building also had a wet-pipe sprinkler system, but its coverage and effectiveness were not reported.

The fire was first reported as smoke showing at 5:44 p.m. Several subsequent calls confirmed an exterior working fire, and firefighters saw heavy smoke as they approached. They arrived to find the blaze spreading from a first-floor balcony up the outside of the building and heavy smoke coming from the roof, with lighter smoke coming from the eaves.

The incident commander ordered a second and third alarm while firefighters attacked the exterior fire and stretched hose lines into the apartment building. A 35-foot (10.6-meter) ground ladder was raised to a third-floor balcony to rescue one occupant and was later repositioned to rescue a firefighter who was trapped by a ceiling collapse.

An occupant of a first-floor unit told firefighters that the fire started on her balcony, but the fire report did not detail the origin or cause. The undivided attic contributed to the fire’s spread.

The fire destroyed the building, valued at more than $6 million, and its contents, valued at $750,000.

Smoking fire death in manufactured home
INDIANA — A 51-year-old man impaired by pain medication and alcohol died in a fire in his manufactured home that started when he fell asleep while smoking.

The single-family dwelling, which was 60 feet (18 meters) long and 14 feet (4 meters) wide, was located in a development of similar homes all sited very close together. It had a single sprinkler in the furnace room, but it was not in the area of origin and did not operate until the fire had spread. There were no smoke detectors.

A neighbor called 911 at 8:30 a.m. Police officers, who arrived first, reported that the home was well involved in flames, which were spreading to other manufactured homes, and that someone was injured. The incident commander, who was still en route to the scene, ordered additional fire apparatus and EMS to respond. First-arriving units found flames coming out of the home’s front and side windows and spreading to an adjacent manufactured home and a vehicle parked nearby. After forcing their way through the front door, fire crews knocked the fire down with a 2.5-inch hose line.

When EMS personnel arrived, they found that the victim, who had awoken to find the room on fire and jumped out a window, was breathing on his own. They treated him and transported him to the hospital, where he died of smoke inhalation and burns. 

Investigators determined that the fire started in the living room, where family members said the victim often slept. They also learned that he had a history falling asleep while smoking. Contributing to his death was his impairment from prescription medication and alcohol.

The manufactured home, valued at $5,000, and its contents, valued at $3,500, were destroyed.

Improper disposal of smoking materials leads to fatal fire
CALIFORNIA — An intoxicated 58-year-old woman died in a fire that was started by a cigarette she unintentionally dropped on the upholstered couch in her two-family home. Excessive amounts of paper, videos, records, and books provided additional fuel for the spreading flames.
Each unit of the one-story, wood-frame house was 35 feet (11 meters) wide and 30 feet (9 meters) long. The exterior walls of the house were made of stucco, and the roof was covered with asphalt shingles. The remains of a smoke detector mounting bracket were found in the hallway, but investigators could not determine whether the detector was mounted or operational at the time of the fire. There were no sprinklers.

A neighbor discovered the fire and called 911 at 5:20 a.m. By the time firefighters arrived, smoke and flames were venting out the windows, and the living room and kitchen were filled with fire.

After extinguishing the blaze, fire crews found the woman lying on the bed in a bedroom in which there were more than 50 empty beer cans. It appeared she had not tried to escape.

The adjacent unit was damaged by pressurized smoke coming from the common attic space above, but there was no fire damage. The building, valued at $750,000, and its contents, valued at $100,000, sustained damage estimated at $300,000 and $50,000, respectively.

Space heater starts fatal fire
OREGON — A 48-year-old woman died of smoke inhalation in her single-family home when a portable space heater placed too close to bedding started a fire.

The interior walls of the two-story, wood-frame house, which covered an area of approximately 2,100 square feet (195 square meters), were covered by gypsum board, and the framed roof was covered with asphalt shingles. The home had been built in 1998. Hardwired, interconnected smoke detectors with battery backup were located in each bedroom, outside each bedroom, and in the hallways and common areas. There were no sprinklers.

When the owner of the house discovered the fire, she called 911 twice on her cell phone but hung up both times. However, an off-duty firefighter from another community was passing by and saw the fire. He and a neighbor called both called and reported the fire to 911 at 9:44 a.m.

Responding firefighters arrived to find smoke coming from the house and flames showing from a side window on the second floor.

Advancing a hose line into the building, they quickly extinguished the blaze before it had time to spread far. They found the victim in the bathroom off a bedroom, where the fire started. EMS treated on the scene and transported her to the hospital, where she died.

Investigators determined that, sometime after the portable space heater ignited the woman’s bedding, she awoke and fled to the bathroom, where she was overcome by smoke. The coroner found high levels of alcohol and carbon monoxide in her blood stream.

Damage to the home valued at $264,000 was estimated at $180,000.

FYI  NFPA statistics show that during 2005–2009, portable and stationary space heaters were involved in roughly 450 home fire deaths per year. More than half of these deaths resulted from fires that started when the heater was too close to something that could catch fire. All heaters need space. Keep anything that can burn at least 3 feet (1 meter) away from heating equipment. Please see for more information.

Combustible left on stove ignites
CONNECTICUT —  A 31-year-old security guard suffered smoke inhalation when he responded to a smoke alarm in an apartment building in which he worked and extinguished a small fire that started when a plastic teapot placed on an electric stove ignited when the wrong burner was turned on.

The four-story, 118-unit apartment building was constructed of steel framing and concrete. Each apartment was separated by rated construction and had local smoke alarms in all the bedrooms, hallways, and living spaces that notified the occupants and the building’s security officers when activated. Smoke detectors located in the building’s common areas were monitored by an alarm company, as was a wet-pipe sprinkler system that the fire was too small to activate.

The smoke alarm alerted the guard and the occupant. The hallway detector caused the building’s fire alarm system to activate, alerting the alarm company, which notified the fire department.

Heat from the stove melted the pot and scorched the control panel at the back of the stove, while smoke stained the bottom of an overhead microwave.

Damage to the unit was estimated at $250. The occupant was not injured.

Man’s clothing ignites while cooking
VERMONT — A 66-year-old man died of burns he suffered when his clothing ignited after coming in contact with an operating element of his electrical stove. He managed to pull off his burning sweatshirt and was trying to extinguish his other clothes in the kitchen sink when he fell to the floor, his clothing still burning when firefighters arrived.

The two-story, 61-unit, L-shaped steel-frame apartment building was constructed of concrete and masonry. Each floor had three separate fire compartments with rated fire barriers and doors with automatic closures. Local hardwired combination photoelectric smoke and carbon monoxide alarms were located in each unit and interconnected with a smoke alarm inside the bedroom. A fire detection system that included smoke detectors in common spaces and heat detectors in living units was connected directly to the fire department. A fire sprinkler system only provided coverage in the basement.

The fire department received a municipal radio master box alarm at 8:08 p.m. and arrived five minutes later to find that a heat detector had activated in the man’s second-floor unit. Using a master key, firefighters entered the building, where they encountered an older woman complaining about the fire alarm and demanding they immediately turn it off. The panel indicated that an alarm in a second-floor unit had activated, and fire doors had closed.

Firefighters entered the apartment on the second try with the master electronic key and found cool, light-grey-to-white smoke from floor to ceiling. The apartment smoke alarms were sounding and water was running. They discovered the victim on the kitchen floor with a metal bowl by his hip and used the bowl to pour tap water on the burning man. Because of his severe burns, firefighters had to struggle to move the victim to the hallway, where a neighbor offered a jug of water to help them put out the fire and cool the victim. Fire spread was limited to the man and his clothing.

Because the electronic key had fallen into the apartment when they were moving the victim, firefighters had to force the door open again while others provided patient care. The smoldering wood in front of the sink was pulled off and extinguished in the kitchen sink.

Investigators determined that the only source of ignition was the electric burner. Instead of using the “stop, drop, and roll” technique, the man had backed into the sink area to try to put out the fire. The victim, who was still breathing on his own when firefighters found him, was given first aid at the scene and taken to the hospital, where he later succumbed to serious burns.

Fire causes major damage during renovations
COLORADO — A seasonal, single-family home undergoing a substantial renovation was heavily damaged by a fire that is believed to have started after contractors installed wood siding around a flue pipe and exterior vent cap.

The two-story, wood-frame house, which was 62 feet (19 meters) long and 44 feet (13 meters) wide, had a wooden roof covered with asphalt shingles and wooden siding. It had no automatic sprinklers, and the monitored fire detection system was shut off during the renovation.

A neighbor noticed the fire in the home’s kitchen and called 911 at 7:47 p.m. Firefighters responding to the alarm saw flames coming from the building before they arrived at the scene. By the time they got there, the fire had involved almost the entire interior of the house and was threatening an exposure 15 feet (5 meters) away. The firefighters also heard several explosions inside the house. When the incident commander ordered a defensive attack on the fire and the neighboring structure, firefighters used two elevated master streams and three hose lines to bring the blaze under control.

Investigators noted a freestanding, natural-gas-fired stove in the area where the neighbor first noticed the fire. The owner reported that the stove had been in place for 15 years and that contractors reported it had been used continuously for at least two weeks before the fire. No previous issues had been noted. The investigators determined that some adjustments were made to the flue and cap when the siding was installed and that the siding was in direct contact with the flue. When the stove was used during the day, it heated the siding until ignited. The fire then spread throughout the open-plan house.

The home and contents, together valued at almost $2 million, sustained more than $1 million in damage. There were no injuries.

FYI  Listed gas vents must be installed with clearances to combustibles as required by the manufacturer’s instructions. Unlisted metal chimneys must be installed with clearances to combustibles in accordance with NFPA 211, Chimneys, Fireplaces, Vents, and Solid Fuel-Burning Appliances.

Sprinklers confine fire to trash chute
ILLINOIS — Sprinklers operated in the trash chute of a five-story apartment building and kept a fire in the trash room on the ground floor from spreading. The building, which was constructed of protected, noncombustible construction, had a fire detection and sprinkler system.

Firefighters responding to an 8:14 p.m. call that reported smoke on the fourth floor of the apartment building found the residents evacuating the structure. As they went up the stairs, they found the first, second, and third floors clear of smoke and flames. When they reached the fourth floor, however, they found moderate smoke but no obvious signs of fire. On the fifth floor, the smoke was heavier. Halfway down the hallway, they saw a puddle of water on the floor and found a sprinkler operating in the trash chute.The incident commander ordered the engine company to evacuate the fifth floor and sent a ladder company to help ventilate it. Another engine company went to the basement trash room, where they found a fire in a plastic dumpster being held in check by another sprinkler.

Investigators found that a piece of wire was keeping a fire damper in the trash chute above the dumpster open, compromising the fusible link that would have closed the damper when the fire started. Smoke and heat from the burning trash rose up the chute and filled the upper floors with smoke. Sprinklers on the fourth and fifth floor and over the dumpster operated to contain and extinguish the blaze.

Investigators determined that the fire was intentionally set but could not determine whether the ignition source had been dropped down the chute or placed in the dumpster. Flame damage was confined to the dumpster and its contents. 

There were no injuries, and the property sustained only $2,000 in damage.

Use of extension cords ignites deadly fire
NEW MEXICO — A 70-year-old man and a 65-year-old woman died of smoke inhalation when heavy smoke filled their single-story home during a fire started by an overloaded electrical power strip in a converted garage at the end of the house.

A neighbor across the street saw the fire in the wood-frame house and called 911 at 4:30 a.m. As the fire spread up into the attic and breached the walls, heavy smoke filled the house, killing the couple, who were asleep in separate bedrooms at the other end of the home. Firefighters found a single smoke detector outside the victims’ bedrooms, but it had no battery.

Investigators found only one outlet in the converted garage where the fire started. Numerous appliances were plugged into one power strip, and family members confirmed that the couple had used extension cords and power strips in the past. The investigators determined that the overloaded power strip ignited carpeting and flooring.

The house, valued at $80,000, and its contents, valued at $40,000, were destroyed.

FYI  Extension cords are for temporary use only. Have a qualified electrician determine if additional circuits or outlets are needed. Major appliances, such as refrigerators, stoves, washers, and dryers, should be plugged directly into a wall outlet. Never use an extension cord with a major appliance, as the appliance can easily overload the cord.  


Sprinkler controls nursing home fire
TENNESSEE — A sprinkler activated and alerted the staff of a nursing home to a fire in a patient’s room, allowing them to remove him before he was seriously injured.

The four-story building held 150 patients and staff. Its monitored fire detection system included hardwired smoke alarms, and a wet-pipe sprinkler system provided coverage throughout.

Firefighters, who responded within two minutes of the 4:10 p.m. alarm, were met by staffers, who confirmed a fire in a patient’s room on the third floor. Fire doors on the floor were closed. When they entered the section of the building in which the fire started, they found light smoke some 4 feet (1.2 meters) off the floor. The officer then ordered staff members to evacuate all patients whose doors had been open and whose rooms had filled with smoke to an area of refuge. All other patients remained in their rooms behind closed doors and sheltered in place.

When they entered the third-floor room of origin, firefighters found that a single sprinkler had already extinguished the fire.

Once the staff and patients were accounted for, three staffers were taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation. None of the patients required transport to the hospital. The electric power and the sprinkler in the fire room were shut down. Firefighters completed salvage and overhaul and restored the sprinkler and alarm systems before they left.

Investigators determined that the fire started when electrical wiring in the room arced, overheated, and ignited plastic common covering.

Damage to the structure and its contents was estimated at $2,000.


Sprinklers limit fire loss to restaurant
NEW HAMPSHIRE — A single sprinkler controlled an early morning fire in the kitchen of a restaurant until firefighters arrived, limiting both fire and water damage.

The single-story building, which contained the restaurant and another occupancy, had a brick façade and a flat wooden roof covered with tar and gravel over rubber. It was protected by a wet-pipe sprinkler system with a monitored water flow alarm.

Firefighters responded to the 3:40 a.m. water flow alarm and arrived within four minutes to find smoke in the restaurant. After entering the building, they determined that the water flow was coming from the kitchen, where a sprinkler had nearly extinguished the blaze. Crews stopped the water from flowing from the sprinkler with a wooden wedge and used a portable fire extinguisher to put out items still burning on a shelving unit that had blocked the spray from the sprinkler.

Investigators determined that the fire started on a shelf containing cardboard take-out containers and metal serving dishes. They believe that the fire was unintentional but were unable to identify how it started. 

The building, valued at more than $1 million, sustained approximately $5,000 in damage. Its contents sustained $10,000 in damage. There were no injuries.


Sprinkler controls fire caused by spontaneous ignition
MINNESOTA — A single sprinkler controlled a fire at an industrial laundry until firefighters arrived to complete extinguishment, limiting fire damage.

The two-story, steel-frame building, which was 500 feet (152 meters) long and 100 feet (30 meters) wide, had concrete panel walls and a flat concrete roof. It was protected by a wet-pipe sprinkler system with a monitored water flow. The business was closed for the night.

Firefighters responded to the alarm at 8:52 p.m. and arrived five minutes later to find nothing out of the ordinary from the outside.

Using keys from a key safe, they entered the facility where they heard the alarms sounding and saw light smoke and flames some 200 feet (61 meters) into the building. Advancing the hose line, they noticed a sprinkler controlling a fire in several wheeled laundry carts that had been pushed close together in an area where rugs were cleaned. They quickly extinguished the blaze and, with the help of the facility’s staff who had returned to the site, shut off the sprinkler.

Investigators determined that the fire started in a laundry cart filled with mop heads and towels. They had been cleaned and dried earlier in the day, and folded and packed together in the cart. Five hours after employees left the building, heat from the drying process caused the mops and towels to ignite spontaneously.

The building, valued at $1 million, and its contents, valued at $50,000, sustained damage estimated at $5,000 and $15,000, respectively. There were no injuries.


Fire in conveyor system damages plant
OREGON — After firefighters used hose lines to extinguish a fire in the conveyor system of a millwork manufacturing plant, the facility’s dry-pipe sprinkler system activated. Investigators did not report the reason for the delayed operation.

The single-story, wood-frame building, which was 200 feet (61 meters) long and 100 feet (30 meters) wide, was covered with tin siding and had a metal roof. An older dry-pipe sprinkler system provided coverage, but it was not monitored, and the building had no fire detection equipment.

Firefighters received a 911 call at 12:25 p.m. from an employee who saw the fire while on his lunch break. Crews arrived six minutes later to find black smoke coming from each end of the building. A staff member directed firefighters to the manufacturing area, where the fire had spread to a joiner machine when the operating conveyor belt kept feeding wood into it.

Investigators determined that the origin of fire was an electric motor powering the conveyor belt. The motor failed and started a fire that spread to sawdust and wood stock.

The amount of damage to the building and its contents was not reported. There were no injuries.

Leaking chemical ignites fire below clean room
TEXAS — A single sprinkler extinguished a small fire in the interstitial space of a raised floor system below a clean room at a three-story plant that manufactured silicon wafers.

The building had concrete floors and walls, and a concrete roof deck covered with a built-up surface that included gravel. The property was protected by fire detection and sprinkler systems monitored by an alarm company.

The fire department received the alarm at 5:42 p.m. and arrived eight minutes later to find cold smoke inside the building. Building representatives led them to a production area on the second floor, where they found a single sprinkler operating in the raised floor system of a Class 10,000 clean room, under which ran piping and electrical cables. They confirmed that the fire was out and shut off the sprinkler.

Investigators determined that 30 percent hydrogen peroxide slowly dripping from a reducing elbow in the piping under the raised floor reacted with an accumulation of an adhesive to produce enough heat to start a fire. During the initial size-up and control, three firefighters were exposed to chemicals and had to decontaminated and taken to the hospital for follow-up.

The value of the building, its contents, and estimated losses were not reported.


Lightning strike destroys unprotected barn
OHIO — Firefighters facing a fully involved fire spreading from a barn to nearby buildings during a thunderstorm had to use relays to supply water 3,000 feet (914 meters) away from the barn.

The single-story, wood-frame barn, which was 520 feet (158 meters) long and 50 feet (15 meters) wide, had a metal-covered roof and metal walls. It had no fire detection or suppression systems.

A series of thunderstorms was passing through the area at the time of the fire, and at least two lightning strikes hit the farm buildings. Up to seven lightning strikes were documented at or near the property some 30 minutes before the fire alarm was called at 10:49 p.m.

Based on multiple reports of fire, firefighters struck a second and third alarm before they arrived nine minutes later to find one barn completely engulfed in flames, with its roof collapsing. As the fire threatened other buildings nearby, the incident commander ordered hose lines to protect exposures, and six fire engines were set up to relay water to the fire. As the heavy rain poured down and lightning continued to strike, 16 tankers and 18 fire departments worked together to prevent the fire from spreading further.

The barn, in which the farmer stored farm equipment, straw, hay, and recreational equipment totaling $2.5 million, was valued at $100,000. Both the barn and its contents were destroyed. There were no injuries.

Fire damages storage facility with no protection systems
VIRGINIA — An operating halogen lamp ignited rolled foam padding that had fallen onto it from a refrigerator in a public storage facility. The padding ignited, and the fire spread quickly to the contents of the unit. From there, smoke and flames spread to other units through an 8-inch (20-centimeter) gap at the top of the wall that was used for ventilation.

The two-story building, which covered 88,300 square feet (8,203 square meters), was constructed with masonry block walls with steel studs, drywall interior walls, and a wooden truss roof covered with asphalt shingles. It had no fire detection or suppression equipment.

There was a short delay in detection until the renter returned from another storage unit, noticed the fire, and called the fire department at approximately 11:40 a.m.

The facility, valued at $1.4 million, and its contents, valued at $719,000, sustained $1,078,000 and $539,000 in damage, respectively. There were no injuries.