Author(s): Ken Tremblay. Published on March 1, 2012.


Firewatch March/April 2012
A 55-year-old man died in his home in a fire that began when an overloaded power strip ignited combustibles covering it. (Photo: ©David Benda/The Record Searchlight )

NFPA Journal®, March/April 2012


Overloaded power strip starts fatal fire
CALIFORNIA — A 55-year-old man who had several disabilities, including blindness, died of exposure to heat and smoke in a fire that started in the bedroom where he was sleeping.


January - February 2012
Woman, two children die
in home fire

November - December 2011
Fire spreads from balcony into concealed spaces

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

The man lived alone in a 900-square-foot (84-square-meter), single-story, wood-frame house. The house was equipped with a battery-operated smoke alarm, but the battery was reported to have been removed on the evening of the fire, when smoke from cooking set it off. The house had no fire sprinklers.

A neighbor heard banging and other activity about an hour before the fire was reported. This was not uncommon, but when it continued, the neighbor investigated, saw the fire, and called 911 around 4 a.m.

Investigators determined that several electrical appliances with large-diameter power cords were plugged into a power strip that was covered by clothes and books. The overloaded strip eventually generated enough heat to ignite the items covering it, and the fire spread to other combustibles in the room. A home oxygen generator and a spare oxygen bottle became involved and contributed to the fire’s intensity.

The house and its contents, valued at $100,000 and $40,000, respectively, were destroyed. In addition to the victim’s disabilities, blood tests revealed that he was both intoxicated and had both legal and illicit drugs in his blood stream when he died.

Cigarette starts house fire
PENNSYLVANIA — A 56-year-old woman, whom neighbors claimed never left the house, suffered a heart attack while smoking, causing her to drop the lit cigarette. Heat from the cigarette ignited her clothing and bedding, and the fire spread to other combustibles in her second-floor bedroom.

The woman’s three-story, single-family house had a brick veneer exterior and an asphalt-shingled roof. It had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.

The fire smoldered for some time until a neighbor saw smoke and called the fire department at 7:15 a.m. Although the house appeared normal to arriving firefighters, they found it filled with heavy black smoke when they entered it. They discovered the victim on the floor of her room, suffering from severe burns.

Crews broke out windows to vent the room and carried the woman to the first floor. When they found no signs of life, they covered her body and waited for the coroner to arrive.

Investigators learned that the woman had suffered a heart attack before the fire but noted that smoke inhalation was also a factor in her death, as was alcohol intoxication.

The house, which was valued at $120,000, sustained damage estimated at $60,000. Its contents, valued at $40,000, sustained a $20,000 loss.

Two cats also died in the fire. Firefighters found two more cats in the basement and closed the basement door to keep them safe. 
Victim dies in bed in house fire
MARYLAND — Firefighters extinguishing a fire in the first-floor living room of a single-family house found the body of a man in his second-floor bedroom. Another occupant of the home called the fire department to report the fire at 5:30 a.m.

The two-story, wood-frame home, which was 40 feet (12 meters) long and 25 feet (8 meters) wide, had a brick exterior and an asphalt-shingled roof. There were no smoke alarms or fire sprinklers.

Investigators determined that an electric, radiator-type space heater placed too close to combustibles on the first floor ignited them. Heavy smoke and heat spread to the second floor where the victim was found. He died of smoke inhalation; alcohol intoxication may have been a contributing factor.

Loss figures were not reported. 
Unattended cooking fire kills one
NEW YORK — A woman died of smoke inhalation as a result of a fire that started when she placed a pan of oil on the stove, went into the living room, and fell asleep.

The two-story, three-family, wood-frame house had a flat roof covered by rolled roofing. There were wall-mounted smoke alarms in the apartment’s hall, bedroom, and living room. There were no sprinklers.

A first-floor tenant heard smoke alarms operating in the upstairs apartment and went to investigate. When he found the door locked and hot to the touch, he called 911 at 9:40 a.m.

A police officer was first to arrive and forced his way in, only to be driven back by smoke and heat. Shortly afterward, responding firefighters entered the building and found the victim lying on her living room floor.

While one team of firefighters carried the woman out of the house and began cardio pulmonary resuscitation, a second team used a hose line to extinguish the blaze.

The fire appeared to have consumed only the cabinets over the stove and some of their contents before it began to burn itself out. Firefighters found the electric element on the stove still glowing red.

Fire investigators determined that the woman, who was intoxicated, started to cook something, but left the pan unattended and went into the living room, where she fell asleep. She did not respond to the sounding smoke alarm.

Although damage estimates were not reported, the unit sustained heavy smoke damage. Fire damage was limited to the kitchen.

One dead in manufactured home fire
SOUTH CAROLINA — A 41-year-old woman died when she tried to extinguish an early morning fire in her home rather than evacuate and call the fire department.

The manufactured home had wood-frame walls and a wood-frame roof covered by lightweight metal. There were no smoke alarms or sprinklers.

The home’s three occupants were sleeping in the living room on the night of the fire. The woman’s husband awoke to the smell of smoke and woke up his wife and daughter. The parents tried unsuccessfully to smother the flames with blankets before the man and his daughter escaped and called 911 at 4:35 a.m. They last saw the woman going towards a bedroom and assumed she was trying to find more blankets.

Firefighters arrived to find the home nearly engulfed in flames. When told the woman was still inside, they placed hose lines into the room where she was thought to be located. When they entered the house, however, they found her in the hallway leading to the bedroom, overcome by smoke and flames. Investigators could not determine the cause of the fire.

The house, which was valued at $60,000, and its contents, valued at $15,000, were destroyed.


Unattended candle ignites dorm room curtains
MASSACHUSETTS — A single sprinkler controlled a fire in a bedroom of a college dorm that began when a candle left burning on the window sill ignited bedding.

The five-story dormitory was of fire-resistive construction and covered 18,000 square feet (1,700 square meters). The room had a hardwired smoke alarm on the wall. The building was also protected by a wet-pipe sprinkler system and standpipes on each level.

The college police department received a 911 call at 7:44 p.m. and sent an engine to investigate. While firefighters were en route, the department began receiving reports of smoke in the building and dispatched more resources.

Seven minutes after receiving the alarm, firefighters arrived at the scene to find a car parked in the fire lane blocking access to one area. They entered the building at another area and advanced a hose line to the fourth-floor lobby, where fire and smoke doors had automatically closed. After crews connected the lines to the standpipe, they made their way to a dorm room at the end of the hallway.

They found the room filled with heavy smoke, but there was little heat, as the sprinkler had already controlled the blaze. Because the hose line was too short, firefighters had to shut down and add another 50 feet (15 meters) of hose from a high-rise pack.

Investigators determined that a candle left burning on the room’s window sill ignited bedding. The room was unoccupied at the time of the fire, and there may have been a delay in detection, as a baseball cap was found hanging from the wall-mounted smoke detector.

The room sustained approximately $5,000 in smoke and water damage. The building did not suffer any structural damage. There were no injuries.

One dead in apartment fire
CONNECTICUT — A 61-year-old man died of burns in an apartment building fire when he became confused while trying to escape from the building.

The three-story, wood-frame apartment building was 20 feet (6 meters) long and 35 feet (11 meters) wide. The building’s fire alarm system, which was designed and installed according to NFPA 72©, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, included smoke detectors in common areas, manual pull stations, and heat detectors. Local smoke alarms were located in each apartment. There were no sprinklers.

The fire started on the first floor when a faulty electric space heater cord ignited an upholstered couch. The tenant had bought the second-hand heater with the damaged cord, which a friend had repaired with electrical tape. At some point, the cord, which had been run under the couch, overheated and ignited the couch.

The first-floor tenant detected the fire in his apartment and tried unsuccessfully to control it before opening the door to the stairway and corridor, which filled with smoke that set off the fire alarm system. The fire department also received 911 calls at 11:43 a.m.

At some point, the victim, who lived on the second floor, responded to the fire alarm by opening the door to the second floor and the stairwell to try to leave the building. Firefighters found him sitting on a step in the hot, smoky stairwell, where he apparently collapsed after becoming confused by exposure to the smoke.

The building, which was valued at $234,000, sustained $200,000 in damage. Damage to its contents, which were valued at $50,000, was estimated at $35,000.

FYI  Close the door on fire and keep it closed. This advice applies to fires in ovens and clothes dryers, as well as fires in rooms, apartments, and buildings. An open door provides a clear path for fire and smoke to spread. Remember, fire needs oxygen to burn, and a closed door limits the amount of oxygen available to the fire.


Sprinkler controls fire in laundry room dryer
WISCONSIN — A fire in the laundry room of an eight-unit residential board and care facility resulted in water and smoke damage. However, a sprinkler prevented significant losses when it kept the fire under control until firefighters arrived.

The single-story, wood-frame facility was built on a concrete slab and had a wooden roof covered with metal. The automatic fire detection system was monitored by a central station alarm company, and the wet-pipe sprinkler system had monitored water flow alarms.

The fire began in the removable lint trap of a gas-powered clothes dryer. As the flames spread to the dryer’s contents and its plastic parts, the smoke and heat activated the detection and suppression systems at 8:31 p.m. This alerted the fire department, as well as the residents and the staff, who immediately began their evacuation procedures.

Upon arrival, firefighters found light smoke by the open front door and discovered that the fire in the laundry room was being held in check by the sprinkler. One crew closed the door to the laundry room until they positioned a hose line, which they used to extinguish the blaze. Other crews helped the staff move residents to the north end of the building until the fire was brought under control.
The combined damage to the building, which was valued at $804,000, and its contents was estimated at $13,000. One woman was treated during the incident and later transported to the hospital.


Sprinklers prevent major loss at vacant property
UTAH — A single sprinkler extinguished a fire started unintentionally by a homeless person who was using a loading dock at a vacant retail store as a living space.

The building, which had once housed an electronics store, had concrete block walls covered by brick veneer and a steel- and wood-framed roof. A wet-pipe sprinkler system protected the building, and a dry-pipe sprinkler covered the loading dock.

By the time firefighters responded to a 911 call from a passerby, the sprinkler had already brought the fire under control.

Upon investigation, they found that a transient had set up camp under the loading dock’s stairs. Evidently, the mattress he was using ignited, and the fire spread to truck bumper pads installed around the loading dock door. Heat collecting under the canopy fused the dry-pipe sprinkler, which extinguished the fire in the bumper pads and confined the remainder to the area below the stairs

The building, valued at $500,000, sustained $500 in damage. There were no injuries.


Sprinklers shut off prematurely
NORTH CAROLINA — An employee of a medical research lab unintentionally started a fire when he opened a 1-gallon (4-liter) can of ether and the fumes ignited.

The four-story building, which covered an area of 80,000 square feet (7,400 square meters), had a fire detection system and a wet-pipe sprinkler system, both of which operated.

The fire department received an automatic alarm at 2:44 p.m. and arrived almost seven minutes later to find heavy smoke coming from the building’s second floor. As the incident commander ordered additional resources, firefighters connected hose lines to the standpipe and hauled it up to the second floor. There, they found a bookshelf on fire and flames spreading across the ceiling.

After they extinguished the blaze, they discovered that the sprinklers had operated to control the fire. However, the building’s maintenance staff had shut them off before the firefighters arrived, allowing the fire to continue to burn.

The building, the value of which was not reported, sustained $10,000 in damage. Damage to its contents was estimated at $3,000. There were no injuries.


Sprinklers control fire at manufacturing plant
ILLINOIS — A manufacturer of wood products and laminates sustained minor losses when two sprinklers controlled a fire that started spontaneously in a chemical mixing vat.

The single-story commercial manufacturing building, which measured 150 feet (46 meters) by 95 feet (29 meters), was protected by an automatic fire detection system and a wet-pipe sprinkler system.

The fire department received the alarm at 5:53 a.m., and firefighters arrived seven minutes later to find smoke showing from one side of the building. They entered the structure, proceeded through the closed fire doors, and advanced to the production area, where two sprinklers were controlling the spread of the fire. When the company’s staff advised the incident commander that the adhesive should be extinguished with dry chemical fire extinguishers, firefighters used several to put out the flames. Investigators determined that the product in the vat ignited spontaneously.

The building, which was valued at $2 million, and its contents, also valued at $2 million, sustained a combined loss of only $10,000. There were no injuries.

Smoldering sawdust ignites in processing facility
WISCONSIN — A pile of sawdust in a plant that manufactured sawdust, shavings, and pellets for commercial application smoldered for hours after the business closed for the night before eventually bursting into flame.

The single-story, steel-frame building, which had metal siding and a metal roof, was L-shaped. The long portion of the building was approximately 345 feet long (105 meters) and 82 feet (25 meters) wide. The shorter section, which included offices, was 108 feet (33 meters) long and 154 feet (47 meters) wide. Both were protected by a dry-pipe sprinkler system, although the exterior water flow alarm was not monitored.

A passerby saw smoke coming from the building and called 911 at 5:29 a.m. Firefighters arrived seven minutes later to find the smoke coming from the front portion of the structure and one of the loading docks. When they entered the building, they found a pile of sawdust 20 feet (6 meters) by 20 feet (6 meters) and 6 feet (2 meters) high burning on the loading dock. The pile had been in the process of being loaded into a tractor-trailer truck, which was also on fire.

As two sprinklers held the flames in check, firefighters moved the trailer away from the building and extinguished its contents. They then used heavy equipment to move the sawdust pile around and extinguish the fire.

Investigators determined that the fire started unintentionally in the sawdust pile, although they could not determine the exact ignition scenario. Once the smoldering heat reached the top of the pile, it burned freely until the sprinklers operated.

Loss estimates were not reported, but the building sustained smoke damage, and its floor was scorched.

FYI  NFPA 664, Prevention of Fires and Explosions in Wood Processing and Woodworking Facilities, provides guidance on how facilities can handle dust from woodworking operations in the safest possible manner.

Lighting ignites clothing in warehouse
NEBRASKA — Sprinklers controlled a fire in a warehouse of a large clothing distribution and screen-printing company, limiting structural damage. However, the damage to its contents was estimated at $1 million.

The single-story warehouse contained manufacturing and storage areas that covered approximately 35,000 square feet (3,252 square meters). A fire alarm system and a dry-pipe sprinkler system protected the property.

The fire department responded to the automatic fire alarm at 6:22 p.m. Nothing was visible when firefighters first approached, but they found smoke coming from the left side of the building during size-up. Shortly afterward, the sprinkler system’s water motor gong sounded, alerting them that the sprinklers had begun to operate. Companies were directed to support the sprinkler system using the fire department connection.

The ladder company divided into two teams, one of which raised the aerial ladder to the roof and forced open two skylights to ventilate smoke. The other used a circular saw to open an overhead door on the side of the building from which the smoke was coming and entered with an engine crew. Inside, they faced thick smoke.

Using a thermal imaging camera, the ladder company led the engine company to the fire in boxes of clothing stored in a three-level storage rack system. The fire was being held in check by sprinklers at the top of the rack system.

Investigators determined that the boxes had been placed against a halogen emergency light. The owner of the business reported earlier that the warehouse’s emergency lighting would flicker on and off. The fire was deemed unintentional.

The building, which was valued at $1.2 million, sustained $10,000 in damage. Damage to its contents, also valued at $1.2 million, was estimated at $1 million. There were no injuries.

Hot die ignites combustibles
MICHIGAN — A delay in notifying the fire department contributed to the losses a die and casting company suffered when a hot die fell onto a pile of wooden pallets and ignited them.

The single-story, steel-frame building, which was 250 feet (76 meters) long and 110 feet (34 meters) wide, had a manual fire alarm system that had no detection capabilities because of the company’s particular manufacturing processes. Smoke detection was in the office area only.

A fork lift operator was moving a container of recently cast dies when, unknown to the driver, one fell out and landed in the pallets. The die ignited them, and the fire burned unnoticed until an employee saw it about five minutes later.

The employees tried to control the blaze for about 10 minutes before they called 911 and activated the manual fire alarm.
Firefighters arrived and extinguished the fire.

Estimates of damage were not reported, and there were no injuries.


Hot slag starts fire in retail store
MINNESOTA — A large retail store undergoing renovation lost $500,000 worth of its contents when hot slag from a welding operation on the roof dripped into the building and ignited combustibles below.

The single-story structure was 200 feet (61 meters) long and 300 feet (91 meters) wide. A wet-pipe sprinkler system had been installed.

The fire department received the call about the water flow alarm at 8:14 a.m. and responded with two engines, a ladder, a rescue vehicle, a truck, and a tanker. When they arrived four minutes later, they used a thermal imaging camera to find the fire, which two sprinklers had confined to several boxes stored on the top shelf of a rack in a rear storage area.

Investigators discovered that the construction crew on the roof had earlier spotted a fire on the roof and extinguished it with snow. They were unaware that hot slag had entered the building below the area they were working on and started a fire until two sprinklers activated and the water flow alarm sounded.

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

Fire above sprinklers causes significant loss
CALIFORNIA — A fire that started when a gas-fired ceiling heater near a loading dock malfunctioned severely damaged a retail food store.

The single-story, wood-frame building, which was 300 feet (91 meters) long and 150 feet (46 meters) wide, had wooden walls, a flat roof, and a wet-pipe sprinkler system.  

An occupant of the store discovered the fire and called 911 at 2:30 p.m. On arrival, the incident command ordered additional resources, including two ladder trucks. Only when the roof was properly vented were firefighters able to extinguish the blaze.

Investigators determined that the ceiling heater ignited the store’s roof rafters and insulation. Although the building was sprinklered, the flames burned above the sprinklers, allowing the fire to spread over a 30-square-foot (3-square-meter) area.

The building, which was valued at $397,000, sustained $350,000 in structural damage. Its contents, valued at $300,000, were destroyed. There were no injuries.


Sprinkler controls fire in stored recreational vehicle
OREGON — Firefighters responding to a 12:45 a.m. alarm at a vehicle paint shop and storage facility found that six sprinklers had activated and controlled the fire, limiting flame damage to a 28-foot (8-meter), fifth-wheel travel trailer parked inside.

The single-story, steel-frame building, which was 200 feet (61 meters) long and 50 feet (15 meters) wide, had metal walls and a metal roof. A central station alarm company monitored the structure’s dry-pipe sprinkler system water flow alarm. 

After firefighters extinguished the blaze, the business’s owner told investigators that he had plugged an extension cord into a “shore power” cord that was tightly coiled in the recreational vehicle’s storage compartment. He had run the cord from the trailer to an electrical outlet in the building. It was being used to operate a portable electric heater inside the vehicle, which was set on low.

The owner told the investigators that he had smelled something “hot” before he closed the building for the night, but he did not investigate the source.

Investigators noted that the lowest burn level was inside the shore power compartment and that the fire had vented around the refrigerator located above it. When they examined the cord, they found heat indicators on the cord blades. They determined that resistant heating ignited the cord, and the fire spread into the vehicle but not the structure.

Property damage was later estimated at $4,000.


Sprinkler controls fire in bathroom of bus garage
NEW JERSEY — Staffers working the evening shift at a municipal bus garage discovered a fire in the building and called 911 at 9:42 p.m.
The two-story, wood-frame garage, which covered 188,000 square feet (1,750 square meters), had brick exterior walls and a flat, built-up roof. A wet-pipe sprinkler system protected the property.

An engine and ladder arrived two minutes after the police notified the fire department of the problem, and found heavy smoke in the second-floor office area obscuring their vision. They were unable to find the fire until they noticed water coming from under the locked door of a women’s rest room.

When they forced their way into the rest room, they discovered that a single sprinkler had confined the fire to a vanity, a wall-mounted heating unit, and combustible construction.

Investigators could not determine the cause of the blaze but said it appeared to have started on the vanity. They also noted that the fire department received only a telephone alarm about the fire, although the sprinkler was monitored by a central station.

Although the fire was confined to the room of origin, the first-floor office area sustained water damage. The garage itself was allowed to continue operating once the sprinkler system was restored.

The fire department report did not include damage estimates.

Sprinklers control fire in paper warehouse
MICHIGAN — At least 20 sprinklers operated to control a fire in a paper mill warehouse until firefighters arrived to extinguish it.

The walls and roof of the single-story, steel-frame building, which covered 415 square feet (38 square meters), consisted of corrugated metal panels. It was protected by a dry-pipe sprinkler system.

Firefighters responding to a 911 call at 7:07 a.m. arrived at the mill three minutes later to find at least 20 sprinklers controlling a fire in stored paper rolls at one end of the mill’s warehouse. Mill employees had to use fork lift trucks to remove material in order to give the firefighters access to hot spots.

Investigators determined that the heat source was a large light fixture with a high-pressure, sodium-type bulb. However, they could not identify the specific ignition scenario.

The building, which was valued at $2.8 million, sustained an estimated loss of $150,000. Its contents, which were valued at $480,000, sustained an estimated $200,000 in damage. There were no injuries.