Author(s): Ken Tremblay. Published on January 1, 2013.

NFPA Journal - Firewatch - Column Header

A man died in an early morning fire when the ceiling of his mobile home collapsed on him. His wife and children escaped unharmed. (Photo: Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

NFPA Journal®, January/February 2013


Man dies after reentering burning manufactured home
COLORADO — A family of four managed to escape from their burning manufactured home through the back door but could not leave the small fenced yard because the gate was locked. Trying get the key to the gate, the man reentered the house and was just 3 feet (0.9 meters) from the back door when the ceiling collapsed on him. He died as a result of smoke inhalation and burns.



November - December 2012
Fire spreads from balcony into concealed spaces

September - October 2012
Hot coals start multimillion-dollar fire

July - August 2012
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

The single-story, steel-frame manufactured home, which was 68 feet (20 meters) long and 14 feet (4 meters) wide, had a battery-operated smoke alarm, but the battery had been removed or disconnected. There were no sprinklers.

The man was awakened by his 43-year-old wife, who had been awakened by the smell of smoke, and the couple managed to get themselves and their 5-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter out of the house. When the ceiling collapsed, the woman tried to break several windows in the rear of the house to help her husband escape, but the added oxygen only caused the fire to burn more intensely. Eventually, she lifted her children over the fence and jumped over it herself.

The fire department received a 911 call at 2:09 p.m., and responding firefighters, who could see the fire’s glow and heavy smoke some distance away, called for additional resources. By the time fire crews arrived four and a half minutes later, the entire dwelling was involved in flames, and the fire was threatening four similar units nearby. Using multiple hose lines, they protected the exposures and tried to rescue the trapped man without success.

Investigators determined that a string of Christmas lights on one end of the home short circuited and arced earlier in the day, overloading the single outlet into which they were plugged. The family left the lights on when they went to bed, and the overloaded wiring eventually ignited exposed paneling.

The five manufactured homes sustained combined structural losses of $73,000 and combined damage to their contents estimated at $100,000. This included the complete destruction of the home of origin. The woman suffered burn and smoke inhalation injuries, and two firefighters were injured when they slipped on ice.

Holiday display starts fatal fire
MASSACHUSETTS — An 84-year-old woman died of exposure to heat and smoke when a holiday display on the deck of her third-floor apartment caught fire.

The three-story, I-shaped, wood-frame building, which was 150 feet long (45 meters) and 150 feet (45 meters) wide, housed mostly older adults in 110 units. The fire alarm system provided monitored smoke detectors in the common areas and heat detectors just inside all the units. There were no sprinklers.

The fire department received the alarm from the alarm company at 11:18 p.m. and responded as other calls reporting the fire began to come in. The first-in engine company arrived nine minutes later and reported heavy fire coming from the deck of a third-floor apartment.

As the incident commander called for additional resources, firefighters began advancing tools, a thermal imaging camera, and a high-rise pack into the building. On a second floor landing, they met police officers, who told them that someone was trapped in one of the apartments.

The officer and firefighters located the apartment and tried with to force the apartment door. After the officer finally managed to push the door open just enough to slide through, he had to move a bookcase and something else jamming the door before the two firefighters could locate the woman and bring her down to the floor below.

The fire was elevated to a second alarm, and a deputy chief soon struck a third and fourth alarm. Crews used two exterior hose lines to knock down the heavy fire on the balcony of the third-floor unit, successfully preventing it from spreading any farther.

EMS units called to the scene helped evacuate the occupants, five of whom suffered injuries including smoke inhalation and exhaustion. Once the fire was brought under control, occupants were allowed to return to undamaged units.

Investigators discovered that the victim had a holiday display on her porch that included small bales of hay or straw, LED lights, and a hot plate. Investigators could not determine whether the hot plate was plugged into a nearby electrical strip, and an extension cord that led into the apartment was not connected to any appliance. In the end, the investigators could not determine what had ignited first or what caused the fire. The extension cord was pinched by the sliding door, but investigators could not say whether that started the fire.

The building, valued at $7.4 million, and its contents, valued at $1.5 million, sustained damage estimated at $600,000 and $200,000, respectively.

Hoarding contributes to fire death
OHIO — A 68-year-old man was found dead of exposure to products of combustion in the hallway of his single-family home, which was piled 3 feet (0.9 meters) high with trash and other items.

The single-story, wood-frame house, which had an asphalt-shingled roof, had no sprinklers, and investigators were unable to locate any smoke alarms.

A passerby noticed the fire and called 911 to report it at 11:24 p.m. Firefighters arriving four minutes later found smoke and flames coming from a bedroom window at the rear of the house. When neighbors told them the home’s occupant might be inside, fire crews tried to enter the building through the front door.

Unable to gain access because of the deep clutter through which there were no paths, they tried a rear door with the same result.

Crews then began forcing the doors open and put a hose line through a window into the room of origin to knock the heavy fire down.

When firefighters finally managed to enter the house, they had to climb over the clutter to find the victim, who was lying just outside a bedroom.

Investigators determined that the fire started in a bedroom, in unspecified wood or paper items, and spread to the mattress and throughout the room. Hoarding conditions prevented the occupant from escaping.

The building, valued at $90,000, sustained $60,000 in damage, and the contents, valued at $50,000, sustained $30,000 in damage.
Alternative heating source sparks fatal fire
NEW JERSEY — A 64-year-old man and a bedridden 82-year-old woman were overcome by smoke in a fire that began in their home during a power outage caused by a snow storm.

The two-story, wood-frame, single-family home had smoke alarms on the first and second floors, but they did not operate. Nor were they properly located or sufficient for the house. There were no sprinklers.

A passerby discovered the fire and called 911 at 6:19 a.m. Firefighters arriving one minute later found flames coming from several rear windows on the first floor and police officers, who had arrived at the scene before the fire company, trying to force open the back door. Firefighters advanced a hose line through the front door, which had already been forced open by someone unknown, and eventually found the man in a bedroom on the second floor. They removed him from the house but, according to the fire department report, left the woman’s body in place.

Fire investigators later determined that the fire started in a first-floor bedroom where the victims had set up a portable kerosene heater to keep them warm when the electric power went out.

The house, valued at $300,000, and its contents, valued at $150,000, were completely destroyed.

Smoke alarm works, but disabled occupant dies
COLORADO — A man managed to escape a fire in his single-family home, but his wife, who was physically disabled, was unable to get out and died of smoke inhalation and burns.

The single-story, wood-frame house, which covered 900 square feet (84 square meters), had a brick veneer and an asphalt-shingled roof. A battery-operated smoke alarm was located in the main room above the door to the master bedroom. There were no sprinklers.
Neighbors discovered the fire when they heard yelling and saw and heard the fire in the back. Several neighbors went to the house, where they found the man, who said he had been unable to rescue his wife. A neighbor stopped him from trying to enter the house again.

Firefighters responding to a 911 call at 3:28 a.m. found heavy fire coming from a corner of the home. As an engine company entered the structure with a hose line to control the flames, a ladder company conducted a primary search. They found the victim in the bedroom and took her outside, where they tried unsuccessfully to revive her. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

According to the woman’s husband, the smoke alarm in the bedroom woke the couple. He said he immediately smelled smoke and went to investigate, finding a growing fire in the living room. He tried to go back to the bedroom but was unable to locate his wife before smoke forced him out of the house through the back door.

Investigators determined that the fire started in the living room when an electrical failure of some sort in or near a power strip or the nearby outlet ignited combustibles.

The house and its contents, together valued at $250,000, sustained damage estimated at $120,000.

Sprinklers foil suicide attempt
FLORIDA — A 49-year-old woman staying at a substance abuse treatment center slashed her wrists and started a fire in her bedroom in an attempt to take her own life. However, the fire activated a sprinkler, which controlled the fire until firefighters arrived to extinguish it.

The treatment center was located in a three-story building that had concrete block walls and poured concrete floors. An NFPA 13 automatic fire sprinkler system provided full coverage, and hardwired smoke detectors had been installed both in and outside every bedroom in the facility.

Firefighters responded to the water- flow alarm from the central station alarm company at 8:45 p.m. and used a single 1¾-inch hose line to extinguish the blaze.

Investigators determined that the woman used a cigarette to start the fire in a pile of bedding she dumped on the floor next to her bed. As the fire grew, it spread to the mattress, pillow, and other bedding before the sidewall sprinkler activated. Upon hearing the alarm, occupants entered the room and dragged the woman outside to a landing, where she was treated before she was taken to the hospital. She survived her self-inflicted injuries. The fire department noted that “the sprinkler system activated properl…greatly lessening the damage to the building and contents and possibly saving the victim’s life.”

The building, valued at $333,000, sustained damage estimated at $10,000. Its contents, valued at $1,332,000, sustained $30,000 in damage.

Smoking around oxygen ignites fatal fire
KANSAS — A 59-year-old physically disabled man who used a wheel chair and home oxygen died of smoke inhalation and burns when the cigarette he was smoking ignited his clothing, bedding, and other oxygen-rich combustibles in his room.

The fire occurred in a single-family, wood-frame house that covered 1,200 square feet  (111 square meters). It had a smoke alarm in the main hallway. There were no sprinklers.

The man’s sister, who had fallen asleep in the living room, was awakened by the smoke alarm and her brother’s shouts for help. When she entered his bedroom, she saw her brother’s bed in flames. Following his directions, she switched off the oxygen generator and pulled the plastic tubing from the device in an effort to starve the fire of oxygen. She left to call 911 at 2:18 a.m., but smoke and flames prevented her from reentering her brother’s room.

Firefighters arrived four minutes after the 911 call to find smoke coming from the house. At some point, they removed the victim and arranged to transport him to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The sister told investigators that the victim often smoked in bed while on oxygen and kept late hours, sleeping during the day.
They determined that a burning cigarette in the oxygen-enriched environment ignited the available combustibles.

The house, valued at $50,000, and its contents, valued at $20,000, sustained a combined loss of $25,000.

Unattended candle ignites fatal fire
MARYLAND — A 30-year-old man and his 60-year-old mother died in a fire started by an unattended candle in the bathroom of their single-family house.

The three-story, wood-frame house had brick walls. Investigators found a smoke detector mounting bracket on the wall in the first-floor stairwell, but the smoke alarm had been removed before the fire. There were no sprinklers.

Firefighters were called to the home at 3:39 p.m. and found the man kneeling under the window, dead as a result of smoke inhalation and burns. His mother was lying on the floor near another window, also dead of burns and smoke inhalation.

Investigators interviewed a 16-year-old girl who was on the first floor of the house when the fire started. She said that she had looked up the stairs and seen light from the fire in the bathroom. She alerted the man, who went upstairs to rescue his mother, but neither was able to escape.

The investigators discovered a tea light, a disposable lighter, and a makeshift ashtray on top of a small refrigerator in the second-floor bathroom. The girl told them that the bathroom light fixture did not work and the tea light was used for illumination. The investigators determined that the candle ignited a blanket hung over a window as a curtain and that the fire spread to wood paneling and other combustibles in the room. It then spread out of the room into the hallway and the other rooms on the second and third floors. The fire also spread out of several windows, damaging the houses on either side.

The house sustained $15,000 in damage, and its contents sustained $5,000. The homes on either side of the fire building had estimated damages of $500 each.

Man dies when exterior light ignites siding of home
OREGON — A porch light installed too close to siding ignited the exterior wall of a single-family house, and the resulting fire spread into the home through an open door, killing the 72-year-old occupant.

The two-story, wood-frame house, which covered an area of 900 square feet (83 square meters), had balloon-frame construction that allowed the fire to spread between floors through non-firestopped concealed wall spaces. The house had no smoke alarms or sprinkler system.

Firefighters responding to a 9:34 p.m. call reporting a house fire found flames in the rear of the building near the porch on the first floor. They tried an interior attack, but the incident commander withdrew them as the fire spread to the second floor. News accounts say the victim’s adult son helped the victim escape from the house, and the firefighters performed CPR outside without success. After conducting a primary and secondary search, firefighters confirmed that no one else was in the house.

Witnesses told investigators that the rear porch light sensor was not working and that the occupant had rigged an extension cord with a 150-watt bulb that he could plug in and unplug to replace it. Unfortunately, the light bulb was placed within an inch (2 centimeters) of the exterior wooden siding. The investigators determined that the bulb heated the siding until it ignited and that the fire spread into the house through the open door. Two portable fire extinguishers and a bucket of water had been used to try to put out the fire, but the investigation report did not say whether the victim or someone else had used them.

The fire damaged an estimated 80 percent of the house and its contents, valued at $38,000.

Fire blocks exit, trapping victim
CALIFORNIA — A 60-year-old woman who lived in a senior housing apartment building died of smoke inhalation when a fire blocked the only exit from her unit to the hallway.

The two-story, wood-frame building, which was 100 feet (30 meters) long and 80 feet (24 meters) wide, contained 16 apartments. It was divided into 2-hour-rated compartments containing less than 3,500 square feet (325 square meters), and the apartments were further divided into 1-hour-rated compartments. There were local hardwired smoke detectors in the hallways and bedrooms. The apartment building was not sprinklered.

The woman’s daughter found her mother in the kitchen of her second-floor apartment when she went to check on her and called for emergency medical aid at 4:52 p.m. Firefighters arrived to find the woman dead and evidence of a fire involving a reclining chair, a lamp, and a couch. The fire, which investigators believe started eight to twelve hours before the woman’s daughter discovered her body, had completely extinguished itself due to lack of oxygen in the apartment. At least one occupant of the building heard smoke alarms operating early in the morning but did not call the fire department.

Investigators determined that the woman had placed a kerosene lamp on the seat of a chair and that the lamp tipped, spilling fuel onto the chair near the entry door to the apartment. The kerosene ignited, and the fire spread to a lamp and a couch.

The building, valued at $1.3 million, sustained $80,000 in damage. Its contents, valued at $25,000, had an estimated $15,000 in damage.

Home fire sprinkler controls fire started by child
MARYLAND — A residential sprinkler system in a second-floor apartment extinguished a fire that an 8-year-old boy started while playing with matches.

The fire occurred in a 12-unit, wood-frame apartment building, which was 50 feet (15 meters) long and 110 feet (33 meters) wide, and had a brick exterior and an asphalt-shingled roof. The three-story building’s sprinkler system provided coverage in living spaces, and smoke alarms had been installed in each apartment.

The fire department received a 911 call reporting the fire at 3:34 a.m., and responding firefighters were told en route that they were responding to a waterflow alarm. When they arrived eight minutes later, they found that a single sprinkler, which was still operating in the dining area of a second-floor apartment, had extinguished the fire. Firefighters controlled waterflow to the sprinkler to limit water damage to the unit of origin and the one below it, and called EMS in to care for a man who had burned the soles of his feet as he dealt with the emergency.

Investigators determined the 8-year-old boy started the fire by igniting bedding in the dining room with matches. The child, who was not injured during the fire, was referred to juvenile services.

Damage to the building was estimated at $10,000, while damage to its contents was estimated at $1,000.

Propane heater starts deadly fire
NEW YORK — A 73-year-old man died and his wife and son were injured when a portable, propane-fired heater ignited the contents of a bedroom in their manufactured home, which had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.

The man’s son was having his morning coffee when he heard a thump and thought his father had fallen at the other end of the home. He went to see what was wrong, but smoke and flames prevented him from reaching his father, who was trapped in his bedroom. Unable to rescue him, the son got his mother and both left the home.

Firefighters arrived six minutes after the 8:25 a.m. 911 call to find a portion of the home fully involved in fire. By the time they extinguished the blaze, the trapped man had succumbed to smoke inhalation.

Investigators determined that a propane heater connected to an 8-foot (2-meter) hose and a 20-pound (9-kilogram) tank in the bedroom started the fire when it ignited some of the room’s contents, either because combustibles were too close to the heater or because the heater had been knocked over.

The home and its contents, valued at $45,000, were destroyed. The victim’s son suffered burns to his upper body when he tried to rescue his father.

Battery in trash starts fire
NEW HAMPSHIRE — A sprinkler extinguished a fire that began in an apartment when a 9-volt battery that had been thrown in the trash came into contact with metal foil and created enough heat to ignite other combustibles in the plastic wastebasket.

The three-story, 18-unit, wood-frame apartment building was 90 feet (27 meters) long and 32 feet (9 meters) wide. Each unit had smoke alarms and NFPA 13R sprinklers, and the building’s common areas were protected by a monitored fire alarm system.

The fire department received an automatic alarm at 10:49 a.m., and responding firefighters encountered smoke on the second floor. In a second-floor apartment, they discovered a sprinkler operating in the kitchen and found the trash can melted to the floor.

There was also evidence that the fire had spread to the walls next to the trash can before the sprinkler activated.

Investigators determined that the fire was unintentional. Although the occupant was not at home when the fire started, his cats were, and they all survived without apparent injury.

The building, valued at $379,100, sustained damage estimated at $1,500. Damage to its contents came to $500.


Sprinkler limits damage in manufacturing plant fire
IOWA — A single sprinkler activated and controlled a fire at a food product manufacturing plant until firefighters arrived to extinguish it. The fire detection system alerted all seven occupants of the building, who safely evacuated.

The three-story building, which contained equipment used to manufacture food ingredients, had a fire alarm and wet-pipe sprinkler system.

The fire department received a report of smoke in the building at 10:17 p.m. When firefighters arrived seven minutes later, employees directed them to an entrance and told them the fire was on the third floor. Once inside the building, they found a sprinkler confining the blaze to the inside of a mill sifter and used water from their hose line to complete extinguishment.

Investigators determined that the fire started in the grinding mill filter system, where dust particulates are captured in polyester filter bags, but they could not determine what started it.

Damage to the building’s contents was limited to $1,000, and there was no damage to the building itself.

Sprinkler controls fire in manufacturing plant
MAINE —  A sprinkler controlled a fire that started in a food additive manufacturing company when alcohol leaking from a pump ignited.

The three-story, steel-frame plant had metal walls and a metal roof. The building was equipped with an automatic sprinkler system and fire alarm system, a waterflow alarm system, and manual pull stations.

The fire occurred on the first floor in an area containing circulator pumps lined up along an open trench covered by fiberglass grate covers. A leaking pump allowed alcohol to spill onto electrical equipment and collect in the trench until the equipment ignited the alcohol, causing a sprinkler to operate.

An employee noticed the fire, activated a manual pull station, and called 911 at 6 a.m. Firefighters used a 1¾-inch hose line to extinguish the remaining fire.

Although the estimated loss was not reported, damage was limited to the circulator pump and two fiberglass floor grates. There were no injuries.

Industrial oven starts fire
FLORIDA — A building used to manufacture aluminum furniture sustained a significant loss when heat from a powder-coating oven overheated.

The single-story, wood-frame building, which was 160 feet (48 meters) long and 60 feet (18 meters) wide, had a wood-and-steel-frame roof covered with a metal roof deck that had a built-up tar-and-gravel covering. It had no fire detection or suppression systems.

Firefighters received a 911 call from an occupant of the building at 1:11 p.m. As firefighters left the fire station, they noted heavy smoke coming from the area where the fire was reported and found smoke and flames venting from one side of the building when they arrived three minutes later. A driveway 25 feet (7 meters) wide separated the plant from another building, and firefighters placed several hose lines between the two structures to prevent the fire from spreading to the adjacent property. When the incident commander noted that the fire was impinging on a 1,000-gallon (3,785-liter) propane tank, firefighters used another hose line to cool the tank.

Five minutes after fire crews arrived, the roof over the center of the building collapsed, and all firefighting was confined to the exterior to prevent the blaze from spreading to exposures.

Investigators determined that heat from the oven, which had been installed too close to wooden roof framing, overheated when a vent was closed to increase the temperature to the design level. They also discovered that the equipment and propane had been installed without a permit or an inspection, as had the electrical work.

The fire destroyed the building, valued at $250,000. Its contents, valued at $500,000, sustained an estimated $300,000 in damage. One firefighter was injured during extinguishment.


Sprinkler controls records room fire
NEBRASKA — A single sprinkler limited fire growth and damage in a records room at a large county office building. The building’s fire alarm system also operated as designed.

Firefighters responding to a 12:33 p.m. fire alarm firefighters arrived at the building three minutes later to find its occupants evacuating. Although they could see nothing showing from the outside, the firefighters found that the fire alarm control panel was reporting a waterflow and the detectors were operating on the lower level.

The first-in engine company was sent to investigate the alarm. When the firefighters reached the lower level, they saw smoke, and the incident commander ordered a full first-alarm assignment. Two engines were sent to attack the blaze, and two ladder companies were assigned to ventilation.

Firefighters used a 1¾-inch hose line to extinguish the remaining fire the sprinklers were controlling. The limited number of doors and the fixed windows made it difficult for the ladder companies to ventilate the smoke, so they used fans to help them out.

Additional companies conducted primary searches and helped shut off electrical power to the affected area. Radio traffic was so high that the senior officer with the companies on the first floor proposed and was given the authority to operate as local supervisor.

The reports provided to NFPA did not include a final determination of the fire’s cause, which involved cardboard boxes filled with paper files.

The building, valued at $370,000, sustained damage estimated at $50,000, and its contents, the value of which was not reported, sustained an estimated $10,000 in damage.