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

Neighbors watch firefighters try to bring a fire that started on the wooden deck of a beach house under control. (Photo: AP/Wide World Photo)

NFPA Journal®, September/October 2012


Hot coals start multimillion-dollar fire
CALIFORNIA - An early morning fire that started on the wooden deck of a waterfront house destroyed the home and severely damaged three others.



July - August 2011
Exterior fire spreads into house, killing occupant

May - June 2012
Cutting torch fire destroys mill 

March - April 2012
Overloaded power strip starts fatal fire

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

The single-family, three-story, wood-frame house covered approximately 2,700 square feet (250 square meters). Smoke alarms on each level operated. There were no sprinklers.

On the afternoon of the fire, the occupants of the house used a charcoal barbeque grill to cook food on their rear-facing wooden deck. Once they were finished, they went inside and left the grill unattended. As the coals continued to burn, they eventually became small enough to fall onto the wooden deck through rust holes in the grill. The deck ignited, and strong winds helped spread the fire to three neighboring houses.

Passersby saw the fire and called 911 at 4:50 p.m.

No one was injured, but the buildings, valued at $4.5 million, and their contents, valued at $450,000, were destroyed. The occupants, who were renting the house, were not aware that there were holes in the grill.

Boys start house fire with fireworks
COLORADO - Three boys, about 11 years of age, were playing with consumer fireworks outside a multi-family house when the dry vegetation around the home caught fire. The blaze spread to the house, which covered an area of approximately 3,600 square feet (334 square meters), and two nearby sheds.

Firefighters received a 911 call reporting the fire at 2:34 p.m. When they arrived at the scene, they noted that the blaze had spread to two sides of the house. They deployed a 1 3/4-inch hose line and extinguished the fire on the porch, allowing a ladder company to enter the house to search for anyone who might be trapped. As they did, the fire breached the windows on the first floor, and crews used hose lines to knock down fire and protect the ladder company. The incident commander ordered a second alarm.

Investigators spoke with the three boys, who reported that they were in front of the house lighting fireworks, one of which landed under a bush. Shortly afterward, they noticed white smoke coming from the bush, followed by flames. The three went into the house and told the woman inside about the fire. She called 911, and they left the house.

The home, valued at $176,000, and its contents, valued at $30,000, sustained a combined loss of $135,000. Two nearby sheds also sustained losses estimated at $3,500. There were no injuries. 

Kitchen fire kills two-year-old
ARIZONA - A two-year-old boy died of smoke inhalation and burns in a fire that began in the kitchen of his single-family house. His parents managed to escape by climbing out a bedroom window and then tried unsuccessfully to rescue their son.  

The double-wide manufactured home, produced in the early 1980s, had a living room, dining room, and kitchen in the center, with a master bedroom at one end and two other bedrooms at the opposite end. The boy’s mother said that smoke alarms were present and that she had changed the batteries just weeks earlier. When she tested the alarm and found that they did not function, she told the management company. There were no sprinklers.

The mother had arrived home late in the evening and stayed up to watch television. Her husband woke her at about 3:30 a.m. and made her dinner, and she then fell asleep on the living room couch. She woke around 5 a.m. to get her nine-year-old daughter up early to finish some school work. The girl woke her father to say good-by before leaving for school about an hour and a half later, and her mother went back to sleep in the master bedroom with her husband. The little boy was also asleep in his bedroom with the door closed.

The father awoke to a crashing sound and saw smoke coming from the edges of the closed master bedroom door and filling the room. When he touched the doorknob, he found it hot to the touch, so he and his wife left the home through a bedroom window. As they went around the house to the end where their son slept, they saw the living and dining area on fire. After breaking their son’s window, they heard him whimpering and coughing in the smoke-filled bedroom and begged him to come to the window. His mother told investigators that the window was too high for her climb through herself. His father broke the glass in the sliding doors of the living area, but the intense fire and smoke made it impossible for him to go back in. 

The fire department received the call at 7:38 a.m. and arrived seven minutes later to find the home involved in flames. The parents told the emergency crews that their two children were still in the home, although it was later confirmed that their daughter was safe at school. When firefighters finally gained control of the fire, they found the boy on the floor of his bedroom, covered with debris.
Investigators determined that the fire started in the kitchen and spread throughout the open-plan home, but they never discovered the exact cause.

The home, valued at $85,000, sustained an estimated loss of $55,000. Its contents, valued at $40,000, sustained losses estimated at $20,000.
Hot ashes in trash can ignite
CALIFORNIA - A single sprinkler activated to control a fire that began when ashes in a plastic trash can ignited other combustibles in the can, which was stored in a residential garage. The neighbors heard the alarm and called 911.

The single story, wood-frame detached garage, which was 20 feet (6 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide, had a concrete floor and a basement. The home fire sprinkler system was a wet-pipe NFPA 13D system that provided coverage for about 600 square feet (55 square meters).

The 911 call came in at 12:13 p.m., and firefighters arrived eight minutes later to find the alarm still operating, smoke showing, and water coming from under the garage door. Once inside, they discovered that the sprinkler had nearly extinguished the fire.

The owner told investigators that friends who were staying over had inadvertently disposed of the ashes in the trash. The area around the trashcan and one side of a vehicle parked in the garage suffered some heat damage. Damage to the structure and its contents was estimated at $2,000 and $3,000, respectively. The fire department report noted that, “no doubt the sprinkler played a key role in limiting what would have been a much more extensive fire.”

Children playing with matches start deadly fire
TEXAS - A four-year-old girl died of smoke inhalation and burns in a fire that started when she and her brother lit a pretend “camp fire” in the bedroom they shared in their manufactured home.

The single-family home, which was 65 feet (19 meters) long and 12 feet (3 meters) wide, had no smoke alarms and no sprinklers.
After failing to extinguish the fire, the little girl’s brother ran outside to tell his mother what had happened. One of the home’s occupants called 911 at 6:12 p.m. Responding firefighters advanced two hose lines into the home and found the child, but their efforts to revive her failed.

Investigators questioned the boy, who told them that he and his sister had built a tent in their bedroom using a blanket supported by toys. They then started a camp fire with matches. After trying to put the fire out with water from the bathroom, the boy went to tell his mother what was happening, while his sister fled to the mother’s bedroom. Firefighters found her in a fetal position by the bedroom door.

An operating air conditioner in the children’s bedroom contributed to the spread of the fire by feeding fresh air into the room. In addition, a well-intentioned relative broke several windows around the home, giving the fire more oxygen and allowing the fire to quickly spread.

The fire destroyed the structure and its contents. The children’s mother received minor burns when she tried to enter the burning home to rescue her daughter. 

Overheated generator exhaust pipe ignites roof decking
RHODE ISLAND - An emergency generator being used to provide power to a housing complex for the elderly in the aftermath of a hurricane ignited the structure’s roof decking and roofing materials. 

The four-story building, a former mill complex that had been converted into apartments, had 97 independent living units for older adults and 92 units of assisted living space. The building, which covered 110,000 square feet (10,220 square meters) and was divided into three sections, was constructed of heavy timber with a brick exterior and a heavy wood plank roof deck covered by asphalt and gravel. The building was protected by a wet-pipe sprinkler system and a monitored fire alarm system.

Employees of the facility detected the fire in a chase that ran from the first-floor generator room to the roof and called 911 at 2:15 p.m. The fire alarm system also activated, and the fire department received the alarm through a municipal radio master box.

When firefighters arrived about three minutes after the alarm, they found smoke coming from the roof of the independent living section. The two independent living sections were completely evacuated, and the occupants of the assisted living units were sheltered in place.

Fire crews advanced to the top floor and roof, and used high-rise packs connected to the fire department standpipe connection to operate two lines. They exposed the wall and ceiling of a community room to determine the extent of fire spread, and roof companies pulled back burning sections of the roof to expose the blaze. Because the fire was burning in a concealed wall and roof void, the sprinkler did not operate during the fire.

Investigators determined that sustained heat from the generator exhaust pipe ignited the roof decking and burned until detected.

The value of the building and its contents was not reported. Nor were the estimated losses. No one was hurt.

Propane explosion suspected in fatal house fire
MINNESOTA - A 63-year-old man died of smoke inhalation when leaking propane ignited, starting a fire that engulfed his home.

The single-family, wood-frame house, which measured 24 feet (7 meters) by 16 feet (4 meters), had a smoke alarm in the bedroom, but due to the extent of damage, fire investigators were unable to determine whether it had operated as designed. There were no sprinklers.

A passerby called 911 at 11:30 a.m. to report the fire, and responding firefighters arrived to find the house fully engulfed in flames. Initial attack teams knocked down the heavy fire and entered the house to search for the occupant, whom they found under a window in his bedroom.

Investigators believe that propane leaking from a heater in the living room filled the home until it reached an ignition source. Glass from a large window on the front of the house was found 35 feet (10 meters) away without smoke staining, suggesting an explosion before the fire began.

The fire destroyed the house, valued at $20,000, and its contents, also valued at $20,000.

Candle starts fatal fire during power outage
MINNESOTA - A 61-year-old man with a physical disability died in a fire in his manufactured home that started when heat from a burning candle ignited papers on which the candle was sitting.

The manufactured home, which was approximately 60 feet (18 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide, sat on a wooden foundation over a basement, creating a two-story, split-level home. There were no sprinklers, and the presence of smoke alarms or detectors was not determined.

An electrical power company employee working in the area saw the house on fire and called 911 at 1:06 a.m. Firefighters arrived 21 minutes later to find the home engulfed in flames and concentrated on preventing the fire from spreading to other homes. They discovered the victim near a rear door opening onto a deck.

Investigators determined that the man had been using candles for illumination because the area had lost power that evening, and he had left a candle burning on top of some papers. They also found evidence that a number of candles were being used throughout the manufactured home to light the interior.

Damage to the structure, valued at $110,000, was estimated at $75,000. The amount of damage to its contents was not reported.

Woman on home oxygen dies while smoking
MICHIGAN - A 50-year-old woman weighing more than 400 pounds (181 kilograms) died of smoke inhalation in a fire that started while she was smoking while on home oxygen. Two other occupants of the single-family house, one of whom was also on home oxygen, managed to escape but were unable to help the victim.

The one-story, wood-frame house, which was 48 feet (14 meters) long and 27 feet (8 meters) wide, had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
One of the occupants called 911 at 9:25 a.m., and responding firefighters found the interior of the home filled with heavy smoke. Several oxygen cylinders ruptured during the blaze.

Investigators determined that the victim was lighting a cigarette while using medical oxygen when the plastic oxygen tubing melted and ignited. She pulled the tubing from her nose and dropped it on the couch, which caught fire, too. Another occupant, also using medical oxygen, immediately shut off her own cylinder, but the victim’s was left on. When the victim tried to stand, she fell to the floor. The two other occupants tried unsuccessfully to help her up.

The house, valued at $80,000, and its contents, valued at $20,000, were completely destroyed.

Sprinkler controls sofa fire
FLORIDA - A 50-year-old woman who used a wheelchair suffered severe burns when discarded smoking materials ignited a sofa in her apartment in a low-income, high-rise building.

The 13-story apartment building, which had concrete block walls and concrete floors, had a monitored fire alarm system that included smoke detectors and a waterflow alarm. A wet-pipe sprinkler system, standpipes, and hose cabinets with cotton-jacketed hose had also been installed. The 150-unit building provided housing for older adults.

The fire department received the alarm from the central station company at 8 a.m. When responding firefighters arrived at the apartment of origin, they found that a single sprinkler had controled the blaze. They quickly extinguished the remains of the fire that were still burning behind the couch and on the wood paneling on the wall.

Investigators determined that the woman discarded a cigarette, which ignited the sofa. Flames spread from the sofa to the wood paneling on the walls, but the sprinkler kept it from going any further.

The building, valued at $3,676,000, sustained an estimated $1,000 worth of damage. Damage to the apartment’s contents, valued at $2,000, was estimated at $250.

Woman dies in fire involving medical oxygem
MISSOURI - Despite the help of a neighbor, a 73-year-old woman who had recently returned home after surgery and used medical oxygen died in a fire in her single-family home. She and her husband, who managed to escape, both had difficulty walking. She used a walker, and he used an electric scooter.  

The two-story, wood-frame house, which was 66 feet (20 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide, had smoke alarms, but they were not operational. There were no sprinklers.

The fire was reported by a neighbor, who had gone to his kitchen to get a drink of water and noticed smoke and flames coming from the victims’ front door. After calling 911 at 12:15 a.m., he ran over and found the woman’s husband sitting on a lawn chair behind the home. When he asked him where his wife was, he said that she was still inside.

The neighbor entered the house, got to his knees because of the intense heat and smoke, and called out to the woman. She answered and told him she was in a living room chair. He crawled through the living room until he found her and dragged her along the floor and out the door.

Arriving firefighters found flames enveloping the entire front door, and a captain advised that the structure was fully involved. The engine and ladder crews worked together to deploy hose lines to knock down the fire and enter the house, while additional companies arrived to help the two occupants, first moving them farther away from the burning home. Although neither initially reported any problems, the woman said she had difficulty breathing and was taken to the hospital. While en route, she told the EMS crew that she had lit a cigarette while using medical oxygen and had seen a flash. 

Her husband told the fire investigators that the oxygen concentrator, which was found at the point of fire origin, was plugged in at the time of the blaze. The investigators determined that the fire was caused by smoking while using medical oxygen, which intensified the fire.

The fire did $70,000 worth of damage to the house, which was valued at $140,000. Its contents, valued at $90,000, also sustained an estimated $70,000 in damage.


Teacher injured in science lab explosion
MINNESOTA - A high school science teacher was burned when an experiment he was preparing exploded, forcing the evacuation of the school until hazardous materials teams determined it was safe to reenter.

The high school, which was of unprotected, noncombustible construction, had sprinklers installed throughout, although the explosion did not create enough heat to activate them. The fire alarm system, which included manual pull stations and notification devices, operated as designed.

When the explosion occurred, the teacher was mixing acetone and hydrogen peroxide on a table, which the force of the blast shoved down toward the floor, damaging a tray and a chair. The explosion’s pressure wave displaced furniture, ceiling tiles, and glass on a chemical fume hood and forced open the 20-minute fire door, allowing debris to spread into a corridor. A staff member responding to the explosion found the disoriented teacher slumped over a sink, trying to wash his face and clean up. Staff called 911 to report the blast.

Firefighters transported the teacher to the hospital, where he was treated for burns and ruptured eardrums. The hazardous materials response crews ordered the building emptied, and the staff used the manual pull station and intercom to evacuate the school until they could determine what had happened. Once crews stabilized the scene, the school reopened.

The value of the school and its contents was not reported. Nor were damage estimates. However, the damage was isolated to the room of origin.


Hospital staff extinguishes fire in computer
PENNSYLVANIA - Staff members noticed smoke coming from a mobile computer in a third-floor corridor at a hospital and called security, which called 911 at 11:21 a.m. to report a fire on the third floor. Shortly afterwards, the automatic alarm sounded.

The fire occurred in a four-story, steel-frame addition, which had concrete block walls and floors. It also had a fire detection system and a wet-pipe sprinkler system.

The computer, which was connected to a 120-volt receptacle outlet, was usually moved between rooms to log in patient data. Staff noticed smoke coming from the computer, but flames appeared before anyone could unplug it.

By the time firefighters arrived, staffers had extinguished the blaze. A ladder crew sent to the roof opened stairwell scuttles and used positive-pressure ventilation to evacuate the smoke from the floor.

There were no injuries, and the fire did not spread. Damage estimates were not reported.

Sprinkler controls hospital fire
TEXAS - A single sprinkler controlled a fire that began in a hospital linen closet when a malfunctioning heating unit ignited the linen.

The 10-story, steel-frame building, which measured 200 feet (60 meters) by 500 feet (152 meters), had concrete walls and floors and a flat roof covered by a built-up roof surface. It was protected by a wet-pipe sprinkler system and a fire alarm system, both of which operated as designed.

The sixth-floor linen closet, which had previously been used as a shower room, contained a three-shelf metal cart with plastic sides. An older heating unit overhead had been inadvertently turned on, and investigators, who discovered that a piece of the heating element was missing, concluded that it had broken off and fallen into the cart. The linen in the cart subsequently ignited and burned until the single sprinkler in the closet activated and controlled it.

Firefighters alerted to the fire by the waterflow alarm arrived and found the fire smoldering in the closet. They removed the cart and put the fire out, then controlled the flow of water from the sprinklers, which had already deposited 5 to 6 inches (12 to 15 centimeters) on the fire floor.  Using a nearby stairwell, the firefighters pushed the water down to the lowest level and kept it from spreading onto the other floors. 

None of the 11 patients on the floor was affected by the fire, which was confined to the linen closet. The building sustained $1,000 in damage, while the contents of the closet sustained an estimated $20,000 loss.


Sprinkler controls fire in thrift store
OREGON - An employee who was opening a thrift store for the day discovered a fire in a chair in the first-floor women’s lavatory. While removing the chair, he noticed flames and smoke in the second-floor employee break room. Fortunately, a single sprinkler had already operated and confined most of the fire to the room of origin.

The two-story, wood-frame building housed a retail store and a warehouse that was 85 feet (25 meters) long and 170 feet (51 meters) wide. The walls were made of concrete, the floor and roof framing were made of wood, and the roof was covered with a built-up roof surface. There was no fire alarm system, but the building was protected by a full-coverage dry-pipe sprinkler system with only a waterflow alarm.

The employee who discovered the fire called 911 at 7:40 a.m. to report it, and firefighters arrived five minutes later to find that the sprinkler had nearly extinguished the blaze. Investigators determined that the housing of a portable electric floor fan motor ignited after the motor overheated and that flames spread to a plastic trash barrel filled with combustibles and to the combustible wood flooring above the bathroom before the sprinkler activated. The fire breached the floor, allowing the fire to spread to the chair on the first floor.

The building, which was valued at $950,000, and its contents, valued at $250,000, sustained losses estimated at $4,000 and $1,000, respectively. There were no injuries.

Electrical fire spreads in store in strip mall
VIRGINIA - A beauty supply store in a strip mall was damaged by a fire that started when circuits feeding electrical junction boxes that did not have proper coverings arced and ignited walls and stored items. The business was not open on the day the fire occurred. 

The single-story mall, which covered approximately 640,000 square feet (59,457 square meters), had masonry walls, steel bar joist roof framing, and a metal deck roof covered with foam insulation topped by tar and gravel. The store in which the fire began was approximately 80 feet (24 meters) long and 64 feet (19 meters) wide, with adjoining occupancies on either side. There were no sprinklers or fire alarms in the building.

After receiving a 911 call reporting the fire at 5:33 p.m., firefighters arrived five minutes later to find moderate, grey smoke coming from the center of the store. They secured a hydrant for water supply and placed their hose lines before carefully breaking the store’s windows from a protected location. The engine and ladder crew then entered the store and tried to extinguish the blaze at the rear, until the incident commander pulled them back outside.

A ground monitor was placed directly in front of the store as crews checked the occupancies on either side of it for possible fire extension. Using a large-diameter monitor nozzle, firefighters knocked down the heavy fire and safely entered the store to conduct salvage and overhaul operations and to make the scene safe for investigators to do their work.

Along the rear wall separating the display and storage areas, the investigators discovered several electrical junction boxes that did not have proper coverings. A number of circuits feeding these boxes were tripped at the circuit panel, indicating the point of origin. The investigators believe that the electrical failure caused an arc that provided the initial source of heat and that the resulting fire spread from the rear wall to the ceiling of the store’s display area.

The fire burned undetected, since the store was closed for the weekend and had no suppression system. A security camera recorded the fire’s origin and development over six and a half hours until the blaze grew large enough to reach the camera.

Three firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion, and one cut his hand during suppression operations.

The mall, which was valued at $2 million, sustained $1 million in damage. Damage to its contents, which were valued at $7 million, came to an estimated $100,000.

Sprinklers control fire in large food store
ILLINOIS - The sprinkler system of a large food store activated and confined a fire to its area of origin, significantly limiting the amount of damage it did to the building.

The two-story, steel-frame building, which was 278 feet (84 meters) long and 192 feet (58 meters) wide, had metal roof trusses covered by a metal deck and a built-up roof surface. The exterior walls around the area of origin were made of metal studs covered with plywood and a lightweight metal, while the interior metal-stud walls were covered with drywall. A wet-pipe sprinkler system protected the property, and its waterflow was monitored by a fire alarm system.

The alarm company notified the fire department that the waterflow alarm had activated at 11:51 p.m. Someone also called from the store to report the fire. When firefighters arrived, they found one or two sprinklers controlling the blaze in a second-floor compressor room.

Investigators could not determine the exact cause of the unintentional fire, but they believe that it started in the concealed wall space. It then broke out of the wall and spread into the compressor room where the sprinklers controlled it.

Damage to the building and contents were limited, but the fire department report did not include any estimates of the building’s value or the amount of the loss. There were no injuries.