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

An Ohio restaurant sustained $1.5 million in damage as the result of a fire started by a malfunctioning deep fat fryer.(Photo: AP/Wide World Photos)

NFPA Journal®, September/October 2011


Kitchen fire damages restaurant
OHIO — A restaurant suffered significant structural damage when a pressurized deep fat fryer malfunctioned and ignited cooking oil, starting a fire that caused more than a million dollars in property damage.



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

September - October 2010
Fire damage to hotel
exceeds $3 million

The single-story, wood-frame building covered an area of 16,625 square feet (1,545 square meters) and had a wood-frame roof covered in asphalt shingles. Smoke and heat detectors throughout the building were connected to a monitored fire alarm panel. A kitchen hood fire suppression system was installed in the kitchen, but it did not operate. There were no sprinklers.

Employees detected the fire and tried unsuccessfully to control it using portable fire extinguishers before the restaurant manager called the fire department at 9:17 a.m. The monitoring company did not report the alarm to the fire department until 20 minutes into the incident.

Firefighters arrived within four minutes of the manager’s 911 call to find heavy smoke pouring from the back of the building and flames coming out the roof. First-in crews found flames from floor to ceiling at the end of the cooking line and abandoned their initial efforts to control the fire from inside, undertaking a defensive fire attack instead.

The building, valued at $2.1 million, and its contents, valued at $500,000, sustained damage estimated at $1.25 million and $250,000, respectively. There were no injuries.

Sprinkler controls fire in large shopping mall
MISSOURI — A single sprinkler controlled an early morning fire in a small storage room in a children’s theater in a shopping mall. 

The mall’s construction type, dimensions, and height were not reported, but it advertised more than 100 stores, a food court, and several restaurants. The building was protected by a fire detection and suppression system.

Firefighters received the alarm at 5:51 a.m. and arrived seven minutes later to find nothing showing from the outside and no exterior water flow alarm was sounding. They later learned that maintenance had been directed to turn it off so staff could better communicate with the firefighters when they arrived.

Because the fire alarm panel did not provide the fire’s exact location, one crew searched the interior, while others went to the roof looking for problems with the HVAC equipment. The interior crew discovered smoke in the mall’s large, open common area, and those leaving the roof found water coming from beneath the door to the children’s theater.

When they forced the door, they saw that the theater was filled with smoke. Trying to find its source, the firefighters opened a storage room behind the stage, where they found a fire smoldering at the base of a shelving unit, held in check by a single sprinkler. They put the fire out it with a portable extinguisher.

Investigators were unable to determine the cause of the fire, which destroyed a wooden box and several plastic tubs used to store sound and lighting equipment, costumes, and props. A number of other plastic tubs that had been exposed to the fire’s heat had melted.
Combined fire, water, and smoke damage was estimated at $2,500. There were no injuries.


No smoke alarm present in fatal house fire
LOUISIANA — A dog barking alerted a neighbor who discovered a house on fire and called 911 at 12:48 a.m. Firefighters arriving eight minutes later found the home fully involved in a fire that threatened to spread to adjacent structures and vehicles on either side of the house.

The two-story, wood-frame, single-family home was 70 feet (21 meters) long by 30 feet (nine meters) wide, and had a metal roof. There were no smoke detectors or sprinklers.

After sizing up the blaze, firefighters used hose lines to protect the exposures, then began a defensive attack on the house. They also found a 59-year-old woman lying on a grassy area in front of the building. She told them she had jumped from a second-floor window and that her husband, 61, and two grandchildren, a three-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy, were still inside.

When firefighters finally entered the structure, they found the woman’s husband in the front center of the house and both children in a front bedroom that had fallen into the first floor. All three were dead. The woman lived for three weeks before she died of burns and smoke inhalation.

Investigators determined that the fire started in the first-floor kitchen, but they did not discover the cause.

The house, which was valued at $200,000, and its contents, valued at $100,000, were destroyed.

Illegal drug lab found during fire suppression
ILLINOIS — Firefighters responded to a fire in a single-family house at 1:40 a.m., arriving five minutes later to find smoke coming from the upper floor. The two-story, wood-frame house was not reported to have had smoke alarms or sprinklers.

Police were already at the scene when firefighters arrived and informed them that the home might contain an illegal methamphetamine lab.

As a result, the incident commander pulled the initial entry team back, and fire crews fought the blaze from the exterior. They managed to knock the fire down within two hours. Once the site was safe, investigators entered the house and found evidence of drug-making items.

The cause of the fire was not determined. There were no injuries.

Smoking fire kills one
IOWA — A 62-year-old man on home oxygen died of smoke inhalation in a fire in his second-floor studio apartment that started when a cigarette he was smoking ignited his bed and a chair.

The fire occurred in a group of four connected three-story apartment buildings 500 feet (152 meters) long and 30 feet (nine meters) wide. The buildings were constructed of heavy timber floor framing, with brick walls and an asphalt-shingled wood roof.

A monitored smoke detection system had been installed in the building’s common areas, and the apartments were equipped with local alarms. Many of the apartments had smoke alarms that were not functional. The building was not equipped with sprinklers.

A passerby called 911 to report the fire at 7:34 p.m., and the fire department received the fire alarm from the monitoring station a minute later. Responding firefighters found the victim in a doorway. When they extinguished the fire, which was confined to the room, they found five oxygen cylinders and an oxygen accumulator in the room.

Damages were not reported.

Sprinkler controls fire on deck
IDAHO — A residential sprinkler system that protected a second-floor deck prevented a fire from spreading along the exterior of a multi-unit apartment building and into concealed spaces. Firefighters responding to the alarm saw water spray coming from a sidewall sprinkler on the second floor exterior deck.The wood-frame apartment building, which had exterior vinyl siding and a wooden roof deck covered with asphalt shingles, was equipped with an NFPA 13R wet-pipe sprinkler system.

Investigators determined that embers from cigarettes ignited the combustible container in which they had been discarded and the resulting fire spread to the wooden decking and vinyl siding. The sprinkler extinguished the fire before it could travel any further.

Damage was estimated at $1,000. There were no injuries.

Unattended cooking starts apartment fire
WASHINGTON —  A fire that started as a result of unattended cooking damaged 27 of the 36 units in a four-story apartment building.

The wood-frame building, which was 168 feet (51 meters) long and 38 feet (12 meters) wide, had a flat roof covered with tar. Heat detectors had been installed in all the structure’s occupied areas, and the building was reportedly equipped with sprinklers, as well as smoke alarms.

An occupant using a deep fat fryer on a kitchen stove left it unattended, and the cooking oil ignited. The flames spread to the kitchen cabinets and through combustible construction and open windows and doors, along the interior and exterior of the structure. The cook discovered the blaze and used her cell phone to call the fire department at 4:31 p.m. Shortly afterward, the heat detectors activated, resulting in an additional alarm from the monitoring company.

Responding firefighters saw a large column of smoke before they even reached the apartment, but power lines at the rear of the building hindered the ladder company’s ability to set up in that location, and a lack of hydrants on site made the job even more difficult.

Eventually, fire crews were able to gain access and began to fight the blaze offensively until the incident commander ordered a defensive attack. They fought the fire defensively for a period before switching again to an offensive attack.

The building, valued at $3 million, and its contents, valued at $250,000, were destroyed. There were no injuries.

Smoking in bed ignites deadly fire
WASHINGTON — A 43-year-old man’s habit of smoking in bed led to his death when a cigarette ignited his bed and bedding shortly after midnight. The man had a disability that made walking difficult and caused him to fall often.

The one-story, wood-frame, single-family ranch-style house had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.

The victim managed to wake his parents, who were asleep in an adjoining room. Upon seeing flames and black smoke in his son’s bedroom, the man’s father ran outside to get a garden hose to douse the blaze. He reentered the house through the utility room, but the hose was not long enough to reach the bedroom. He ran outside again and sprayed water into an open window in his son’s bedroom in an unsuccessful attempt to extinguish the blaze. When he went back inside the house, he found his son on the floor of the bathroom, but he was unable to move him.

The man’s father left the house again and called 911 at 12:37 a.m. He then joined his wife, who had self-evacuated, to wait for firefighters to arrive. Investigators believe the delay in alarm was about five minutes.

The parents told investigators that their son, who had recently moved in with them, was a pack-a-day smoker whom they only allowed to smoke outside the house. His mother said that she had noticed he was smoking in his bedroom at night while watching television and had spoken to him about it.

Investigators determined that a cigarette started the fire on the man’s motorized bed, which had a thick foam mattress.  

The home, valued at $225,000, and its contents, valued at $157,500, were destroyed. Neither parent was injured.

Child trapped in house fire 
ALABAMA — An eight-year-old girl died of smoke inhalation when she was trapped in a fire in her home. Her sister and mother also suffered smoke inhalation, but they survived.

The fire occurred on the second floor of two-story, wood-frame, multi-family house that measured 30 feet (nine meters) square. Hardwired smoke detectors with a battery back up were located on each floor and operated as designed.

The eight-year-old and her nine-year-old sister, who were playing in their bedroom, had placed a table lamp on the floor between the beds and covered it with a blanket to dim the light. When the bedding ignited, the flames trapped the two girls in the room. Their mother discovered the fire and managed to pull her nine-year-old daughter from the room, but she was unable to get to the younger child.
A neighbor called 911 to report the fire at 11:10 p.m.

The house, valued at $300,000, sustained structural losses of $30,000. Its contents, valued at $90,000, sustained $10,000 in damage.

Man dies in attempt to light water heater
MICHIGAN — A 58-year-old man suffered fatal burns and smoke inhalation when propane ignited and the fire spread to his clothing as he tried to fix a water heater in the basement of his single-family home.

The two-story, wood-frame, single-family house had no smoke alarms, although their absence was not a factor in the man’s death.

The home had two water heaters, one electric and the other fueled by LP-gas. The electric heater was the primary unit, but it had malfunctioned, and the victim was trying to connect the older LP-gas-fired heater to a fuel supply when the flash fire occurred. Flames ignited the man’s clothing and the basement’s insulation.

The victim called for his wife, who was upstairs, but she was unable to help and called 911 at 6:18 p.m. Arriving firefighters needed very little water to extinguish the fire. The victim was pronounced dead at the scene.

Investigators determined that the victim was trying to connect a 20-pound (9-kilogram) LP-gas tank to the fuel line of the unused LP-gas water heater, which had once been connected to a 500-gallon (1,893-liter) LP-gas tank in the back yard that had been disconnected and removed. They were unable to determine the ignition source, but firefighters found the tank half empty and covered with ice, indicating a rapid release of propane.

The house, valued at $120,000, sustained little or no damage, while its contents, valued at $80,000, sustained an estimated loss of $5,000.

Sprinkler extinguishes cooking fire
MICHIGAN — A sprinkler extinguished a fire that started when a pan of food or grease left cooking unattended on a stove in an apartment ignited, and the flames spread to overhead kitchen cabinets. The apartment occupant’s caretaker had forgotten about the pan, and the caretaker and the occupant had gone out.

The first-floor apartment was one of six in a two-story, wood-frame apartment building that was 155 feet (47 meters) long by 60 feet (18 meters) wide. The unit was equipped with single-station smoke alarms, and there was at least one detector in the hallway. The building also had a fire sprinkler system.

The fire department received the alarm from a neighbor, who saw smoke and called 911 at 5:54 p.m. Firefighters arrived seven minutes later to find light smoke showing and water coming from the unit.

Damage to the building was estimated at $5,000, and damage to its contents was estimated at $500. There were no injuries.


Sprinklers control industrial oven fire in manufacturing plant
ILLINOIS — Eight sprinklers activated and controlled a fire that started in an oven that was used to cure paint on automobile bumpers and spread to a paint spray booth. 

The two-and-a-half-story, steel-frame manufacturing building, which was 250 feet (76 meters) long by 500 feet (152 meters) wide, had metal walls and a metal-deck roof covered by a rubber membrane. Inside, there were two floors and a mezzanine. The property was protected by a monitored wet-pipe sprinkler system and a fire detection system.

The alarm company notified the fire department of the activated waterflow alarm at 3:07 p.m. When they arrived a few minutes later, firefighters were met by company representatives who guided them to an upper level. As they entered a third-level mezzanine, firefighters encountered heavy black smoke that, although cool, limited their visibility. When they finally reached the oven, they found the remains of a small fire being held in check by eight sprinklers. They put it out using a number of portable dry-chemical extinguishers.

Investigators determined that a heating unit in the oven malfunctioned and ignited paint residue and nearby combustibles.

The building, valued at $2 million, and its contents, valued at $10 million, had a combined loss of approximately $200,000. There were no injuries.

Sprinkler holds fire in check
MASSACHUSETTS — A sprinkler activated and held in check a fire that began when a malfunctioning tank heater ignited epoxy in a box truck parked near a commercial building that housed a company that relined piping with epoxy coating.

The steel-frame, concrete-block building had a metal deck roof. A fire detection system inside the structure provided heat and smoke detectors and a monitored water flow for the wet-pipe sprinkler system.

A neighbor heard an explosion and hissing coming from the rear of a building and called 911 at 1:39 a.m. Shortly afterward, the fire department received a call from a municipal fire alarm box from the same address.

On arrival, firefighters found that a fully involved fire in a truck parked next to a garage door had spread into the building when heat ignited combustibles on the other side of the door. The fire in the building activated the sprinkler, which controlled interior fire spread while firefighters used a

1 3/4-inch hose line to protect the exposure and extinguish the blaze. Inside the burned vehicle were a 55-gallon (208-liter) drum of epoxy additive and a 100-gallon (379-liter) container of epoxy base, both of which were compromised by the heat from the fire. A 275-gallon (1,041-liter) oil storage tank located inside the building was also damaged.

Investigators determined that the tank heater malfunctioned and ignited the epoxy in the truck.

Damage to the building, valued at $400,000, was estimated at $25,000. The building’s contents, valued at $150,000, sustained an estimated $20,000 in damage. The vehicle was destroyed. There were no injuries.

Fire in dust collection system flashes, killing one
KANSAS — A 46-year-old man was fatally burned when a smoldering fire in the dust collection system of a woodwork manufacturing plant flashed. A 48-year-old coworker suffered burns to his hands while trying to put out the flames on the victim.

The steel-frame commercial building had metal walls and a metal roof with a built-up roof surface. A sprinkler system provided protection in the building, but the fire occurred outside the structure.

Late on the morning of the fire, a large sanding belt broke, and the dust collection system was shut down. Employees took advantage of the lull to eat lunch, and when they returned, they turned the system back on. Shortly afterward, the employee assigned to empty the dust collection bin noticed smoke and a hot spot on the side of the bin. He told a coworker, then opened the bottom of the bin, allowing fresh air to enter. This caused a flash fire that engulfed him as he stood on the system’s elevated catwalk. He jumped to the ground, where his colleague tried to extinguish the flames.

On arrival, firefighters quickly extinguished the small fire in the collection bin and used a thermal imaging camera to locate hot spots in the duct-work, which they also extinguished. The victim was taken to the hospital, where he died.

The amount of damage to the building and its contents was not reported.

Fire spreads above sprinklers in manufacturing plant
NEBRASKA — A fire in a plant that manufactured plastic tanks began when a light fixture failed and burst into flames, igniting the plastic covering of the ceiling insulation.

The single-story, steel-frame building, which was 30 feet (9 meters) high and covered an area of nearly 30,000 square feet (2,800 square meters), had metal walls and a metal roof. It was protected by a monitored wet-pipe sprinkler system.

After a row of lights flickered, employees saw a light fixture ignite, starting a fire that spread along the ceiling above the sprinklers. They evacuated the structure, shutting off the electrical and gas utilities as they left, and called 911 at 8 a.m.

Firefighters arrived three minutes later and saw moderate smoke and flames spreading along the ceiling over an industrial oven. Advancing a 2 1/2-inch hose line, they entered the plant just as the sprinkler system began to operate.

Investigators determined that the ballast of a 400-watt metal halide light fixture failed, causing an arc that ignited the insulation. Fire spreading over the sprinklers caused a delay in activation, but once the sprinklers fused, the fire was quickly controlled.

The structure, valued at $922,000, and its contents, valued at $900,000, sustained a combined loss estimated at $30,000.


Historic building sustains multimillion dollar loss 
MICHIGAN — Sparks from a metal grinder that was being used to cut the heads off metal bolts ignited roofing material and wooden framing in the attic of a century-old municipal building. Sprinklers were located throughout the building, but the fire burned above them, preventing them from extinguishing the blaze.

The four-story, wood-frame building, which was 150 feet (46 meters) long and 200 feet (61 meters) wide, had heavy timber floors, brick walls, and a wooden roof that was covered with clay tiles. A monitored dry-pipe sprinkler system had been installed in the attic, and the remainder of the building was protected by a monitored wet-pipe sprinkler system. The structure was also equipped with a smoke detection system.

The building’s fourth-floor occupants discovered the fire when they smelled smoke. They notified the fire department, and arriving firefighters were informed that everyone in the buidling had safely evacuated when the building’s fire alarm sounded. A maintenance worker took them to the attic, where they noted that the smoke was almost down to the floor, and crews reached the end of the attic using planking before they could see the fire itself. Additional companies obtained a water supply and positioned an aerial ladder near the point of origin.

Seventeen sprinklers operated, but the fire burning above the sprinklers and under the roof tiles made extinguishment difficult. Additional engine and ladder companies were called to support on-site crews as the fire burned for about 90 minutes.

The building, valued at nearly $13 million, and its contents, valued at $1.8 million, sustained estimated damages of $6 million and $1 million, respectively. One firefighter suffered an injury handling a hose line.


Sprinklers limit fire damage in middle school 
SOUTH CAROLINA — A large middle school was spared major damage when a sprinkler activated and extinguished an early morning fire that started when a low-voltage, wall-mounted thermostat malfunctioned. The school was closed for the night.

The single-story, steel-frame building, which was 570 feet (174 meters) long and 420 feet (128 meters) wide, had concrete block walls and a metal deck roof with a built-up roof surface. It was protected by a wet-pipe sprinkler system and a fire alarm system that was monitored by a central station alarm company.

Firefighters responding to the 3:34 a.m. alarm saw no smoke or fire showing when they arrived. After they entered the building, they found an alarm sounding and noticed that a sprinkler tamper switch had activated. The single sprinkler had operated, as did a duct smoke detector, which activated the fire alarm panel.

Shortly afterward, the school principal and maintenance director arrived and helped firefighters silence the alarm and locate the operating sprinkler in a teacher’s storage area.

The thermostat, which ignited as the result of an electrical problem, had begun to melt and drip onto a moveable plastic cart located beneath it. The molten plastic, in turn, ignited audio-visual equipment stored on the cart.

Investigators could not determine what caused the thermostatic equipment to fail.

Firefighters shut down the sprinklers and ventilated the school, limiting the loss to $500. There were no injuries.

Fire heavily damages vocational high school
ARIZONA — A strip mall that had been converted into a vocational high school suffered significant damage when oily rags that were being used to refinish a floor ignited spontaneously.

The single-story building, which consisted of mixed types of construction including non-combustible and wood-framing, had a flat wooden roof covered by insulation and a rolled asphalt coating. A fire detection system had been installed throughout the school, providing a local alarm, and a wet-pipe sprinkler system provided some coverage.

Workers had just refinished the surface of a parquet floor they had installed in the building’s auditorium and left their rags, which were covered with linseed oil, on the stage, on which furniture had been stacked and covered with plastic sheeting. The room’s only ventilation was hot air that was blown into the auditorium from the outside, where the temperature was over 100oF (38oC).

When the fire detection system activated, the building’s occupants ignored the alarm, since they had recently experienced trouble with the system. This resulted in a delay of 10 to 15 minutes before the fire was reported at 6:34 p.m.

By the time firefighters arrived, the fire had spread to the furnishings stored on the stage, vented through auditorium windows, spread into concealed spaces above the room, and overwhelmed the sprinklers.

Nearly half of the building was damaged; a fire wall separating half of the building prevented a total loss. Structural damage was estimated at $750,000, while damage to the building’s contents was estimated at $250,000. There were no injuries.