Author(s): Kathleen Robinson. Published on January 6, 2014.

Firewatch - January / February 2014


Smoking material fire damages apartment building
MASSACHUSETTS — A fire that started on the porch of a two-story apartment building spread into concealed attic spaces and quickly consumed the wooden roof trusses, causing the roof to collapse.

The living spaces and common hallways of the 16-unit, wood-frame apartment building, which was 200 feet (61 meters) long and 50 feet (15 meters) wide, were protected by a wet-pipe sprinkler system with water flow alarm, and each unit was equipped with battery-operated smoke alarms. Activation of the fire alarm provided notification to the fire department.

The fire department responded to a 911 call and the automatic fire alarm at 5:36 p.m., and firefighters arrived five minutes later to find heavy fire coming from the front and right side of the upper floor and roof. As the building’s occupants evacuated, firefighters entered the structure with hose lines to conduct a primary search. After crews vented the roof, the incident commander pulled everyone from the building and ordered a defensive attack and additional resources. It took approximately 75 minutes to bring the fire under control.

Local and state investigators determined that the fire started when smoking materials discarded in a planter on a second-floor porch ignited organic material in the planter. Flames spread rapidly along the building’s exterior siding and into the attic because sprinkler protection was limited to the apartment units and did not cover the porch or the attic. The fire department report did not note whether any sprinklers activated during the fire.

The building, valued at $1.75 million, and its contents, valued at $452,000, sustained a combined loss of more than $2 million. There were no injuries.

Lack of working smoke alarms delays detection of fatal fire
ILLINOIS — A fire of undetermined origin that began in the first-floor living room of a single-family house killed a 38-year-old woman, her 9-year-old daughter, and her 7-year-old son.

Although the father was overcome by smoke, he survived.

The two-story, wood-frame house, which was 50 feet (15 meters) long and 25 feet (8 meters) wide, had a single battery-operated smoke alarm with no battery and no sprinklers.

A neighbor called 911 at 2:22 a.m., and firefighters arriving four minutes later found heavy fire and smoke coming from the first floor of the house. After entering with a hose line, they rescued the father near the front door and found his son several minutes later near the back door. Crews then extinguished the remaining fire and found the woman and her daughter on the first floor.

Investigators determined the fire started on a sofa bed in the living room where the woman and her daughter were sleeping. The father and son, who were asleep on the second floor, awoke and came downstairs, where they were overcome by the smoke and heat.

Investigators could not determine the fire’s heat source.

The house, valued at $100,000, sustained $40,000 in structural damage. Its contents, which had an estimated value of $10,000, were a total loss.

Elderly woman dies when clothes ignite
SOUTH CAROLINA — A 92-year-old woman died of burns in her single-family home when the full-length nightgown she was wearing came into contact with a ceramic space heater and ignited.

The one-story, wood-frame house, which was 40 feet (12 meters) long and 40 feet (12 meters) wide, had no sprinklers. A smoke alarm was located in the den.

The fire occurred in a first-floor den, where the victim often stood near the heater to warm up.

The house, valued at $65,000, was a total loss.

Unattended cooking fire kills elderly man
VIRGINIA — A 92-year-old man, who was unable to walk without the assistance of a walker, died of burns when his clothes ignited as he tried to turn off an electric burner on the stove in his apartment after a pan of cooking oil caught fire.

The 14-story, 203-unit, steel-frame apartment building had concrete floors and walls. Each unit had local smoke alarms, and a fire detection system protected all the common areas. There were no sprinklers.

The fire began when the man overheated the oil he had put in a pan to fry a steak. When he saw the flames, he reached for the controls at the rear of the range to shut off the stove burner, and, in the process, ignited his clothes. He used water from the sink and another pan to control the flames, then removed his clothes and made his way to the foyer, where a neighbor heard him calling for help and called 911.

The victim was conscious and alert upon arrival at the hospital, but he later died. There were no structural damages to the victim’s unit. Damage to its contents, valued at $100,000, was estimated at $2,000.

Victim unable to find exit
CALIFORNIA — A 61-year-old man helped his wife escape from a fire in their single-family home through an open bathroom window, but investigators believe he was unable to fit through the window himself and died trying to find another exit.

The one-story, wood-frame house, which covered approximately 1,200 square feet (485 square meters), had three bedrooms, two baths, a family room, and a kitchen. The fire department’s incident report did not indicate whether smoke alarms or sprinklers were present.

At the time of the fire, the couple was asleep in their master bedroom. When the man awoke to find the house on fire, he roused his wife, and the two tried to open the shutters on the bedroom window. When they were unable to do so, they went into the bathroom, where the man opened the window and helped his wife out. She called out to her husband to follow her, but he had already left the room in search of another exit. She called 911 from a neighbor’s house at 1:15 p.m.

Investigators determined that the fire started in the family room near a freestanding, wood stove, but they did not know what item was first ignited.

Damage to the structure and its contents was not reported. Information on the cause of the victim’s death was not available, either.

Man dies trying to fight fire
MICHIGAN — A 62-year-old man died of smoke inhalation when he was overcome by a fire that started in or near a toaster oven in the kitchen of his single-family home.

The two-story, wood-frame house, which was 35 feet (11 meters) long and 20 feet (6 meters) wide, had neither smoke alarms nor a residential sprinkler system.

The fire department received a 911 call from a neighbor reporting the fire at about 10:20 p.m.

Investigators found evidence that the victim, who had a blood alcohol level of 0.34, tried unsuccessfully to control the fire.

Damage to the house, valued at $154,000, was estimated at $13,000. Damage to its contents, valued at $8,000, was estimated at $1,500.

Batteries in suitcase start fire in hotel room
NEVADA — Several 9-volt batteries stowed among clothes in a suitcase in a hotel room overheated and started a fire that was extinguished when the room’s single sprinkler activated.

The two-story, wood-frame hotel was protected by a wet-pipe sprinkler system that provided full coverage. The water flow alarm was connected to a fire alarm system, which also provided detection and notification.

Investigators determined that the batteries, which were stored loose in the suitcase, which lay on a bed, overheated when they came in contact with each other, providing enough heat to ignite the suitcase’s contents.

The building, valued at $1.75 million, sustained approximately $15,000 to $20,000 in damage. Damage to its contents was estimated at $3,000. There were no injuries.

Home oxygen contributes to fatal fire
NEW HAMPSHIRE — A 48-year-old man on oxygen therapy died in a fire that started when a cigarette he was smoking ignited bedding material and spread to the entire bedroom and throughout the home.

The single-story, metal-frame manufactured home, which was 10 feet (3 meters) wide and 60 feet (18 meters) long, had no sprinklers. However, hardwired and interconnected smoke alarms in the bedrooms and living room operated and alerted two other occupants of the home, who were able to escape.

The fire department received a 911 call at 6:03 a.m., and responding firefighters found the home fully involved in fire. The incident commander ordered hose lines to two sides of the building to knock down the fire and protect the exposures.

Firefighters knew about the victim, but the fire prevented them from rescuing him. Once they brought the blaze under control, they found the man, who had limited mobility due to a chronic medical condition, lying over the edge of the bathroom tub with the water running. The woman who lived in the house was taken to the hospital for evaluation.

The house, which was valued at $40,000, and its contents, valued at $20,000, were destroyed.

Smoking materials start fatal fire
VIRGINIA — A 69-year-old woman with a history of dementia and mobility problems died in a fire that was started by discarded smoking materials in her bedroom and spread throughout the single-family home.

The unsprinklered, two-story, wood-frame house, which was 51 feet (16 meters) long by 72 feet (22 meters) wide, had ionization smoke alarms in the stairwell and in the hallways on both floors.

The fire was reported to the fire department at 6:53 p.m., and firefighters arrived seven minutes later to find heavy smoke and flames coming from the rear of the house. The first-due engine company advanced a 13⁄4-inch hose line through the front door and began to search the first floor for the trapped woman, but the fire began to compromise their egress point, and they had to back out before they found her. They assumed a defensive attack until more resources arrived.

Investigators determined that the fire started in the woman’s first-floor bedroom when smoking materials ignited combustibles. The fire activated the smoke alarms, alerting the woman’s grandson on the second floor. He went down to his grandmother’s room, where he saw the fire, and told her to come with him out of the house. Once he was outside, he realized his grandmother was not with him, but smoke, heat, and flames prevented him from reentering the house. Firefighters found the victim not far from the bedroom door.

The fire destroyed the house, which was valued at $172,000, and its contents, valued at $125,000.

Upholstered sofa fire leads to death
WISCONSIN — A 64-year-old woman with physical disabilities died of burns and smoke inhalation in a fire in her first-floor apartment.

The two-story, wood-frame, apartment building, which was 140 feet (43 meters) long and 50 feet (15 meters) wide, had 16 units divided into two fire divisions by a firewall. Each apartment had local, battery-operated smoke alarms, and pull stations had been installed in the building’s common spaces. The smoke alarms were not part of a monitored system. There were no sprinklers.

A neighbor on the first floor heard a smoke alarm operating in the adjacent apartment and opened the door to the hallway, where he noticed smoke. He called 911 at 1:25 a.m., then went down the hall banging on apartment doors to wake other building residents, all of whom except the victim escaped without incident.

When firefighters arrived, they forced open the door to the woman’s apartment, where they found a smoldering fire filling the unit with heavy smoke. During a primary search, they found the victim’s body on the floor of the kitchen in a fetal position.

Investigators determined that the fire began in the living room when an upholstered sofa ignited. However, they could not confirm the heat source. The blaze consumed the entire fuel load in the room before it died down and began smoldering. Investigators also noted that the woman was intoxicated at the time of the fire.

The building, which was valued at $655,900, sustained $75,000 in structural damage. The contents of the victim’s apartment, valued at $10,000, were destroyed.

Sprinkler controls fire in garage
WASHINGTON — A single sprinkler in a three-car garage attached to a single-family home controlled a fire that started when a heat lamp fell into a chicken brooding pen and ignited wood shavings.

The two-story, wood-frame house, built in 2005, had an NFPA 13D sprinkler system, and single station smoke alarms were located throughout the structure. The sprinkler system operated as designed, as did the fire detection system, but the residents were not at home at the time of the fire.

A neighbor called 911 to report the blaze at 3:45 p.m., and arriving firefighters found light, white smoke showing from the garage doors. Once inside, they discovered that a single sprinkler had activated and confined the fire to the garage. When they forced the front door open, they found light smoke inside the house and heard the smoke alarms sounding.

The house, valued at $304,000, sustained $62,000 in damage. Its contents, which were valued at $228,000, sustained an estimated loss of $46,000. There were no injuries. However, a few young chickens died in the fire.

Sprinklers control fire in hotel laundry
MISSOURI — Two sprinklers activated over a burning cart in the laundry room of a resort, controlling the blaze until firefighters arrived to extinguish it.

The two-story, steel-frame building, which was 160 feet (49 meters) long and 50 feet (15 meters) wide, had a dry-pipe sprinkler system that provided partial coverage and was connected to a fire alarm system providing an automatic water flow alarm.

The fire alarm activated at 7 a.m., and responding firefighters arrived to find two sprinklers operating in the laundry room, confining the blaze to two carts, one of which was filled with dirty sheets. Fire crews removed the two carts from the building and extinguished the fire after unloading them and wetting their contents.

Investigators could not determine the cause of the fire.

The building sustained smoke and water damage estimated at $100,000, much of it confined to 14 industrial washers and dryers. The fire department report stated that "…the sprinkler was effective in limiting fire growth." There were no injuries.

Sprinkler controls fire in group home
MINNESOTA — A group home sustained only minor damage when a sprinkler activated and controlled a fire that started in a clothes dryer in the basement laundry room.

The two-story, wood-frame house, which covered an area of 1,779 square feet (165 square meters), had an NFPA 13D residential sprinkler system. Smoke alarms were also present, although the type and coverage was not reported.

When firefighters arrived three minutes after the 10:53 p.m. 911 call, they found that the staff and the four residents had already evacuated the building without injury. Entering the smoky basement with a 13⁄4-inch hose line, they found that a sprinkler had prevented flames from spreading from the clothes dryer to any other combustibles nearby.

Investigators determined that clothing in the dryer ignited, but their report did not provide any details as to what might have caused the ignition.

The fire caused an estimated $10,000 in structural damage to the property and $2,000 in damage to its contents. Some of the home’s residents were relocated to temporary housing, while others were sent to stay with their relatives.

Sprinkler extinguishes cooking fire
ILLINOIS — A single sprinkler extinguished a fire in a high-rise apartment building that started when a pan of cooking oil left heating unattended on the stove ignited.

The 17-story, steel-frame high-rise, which was 325 feet (99 meters) long

and 125 feet (38 meters) wide, was protected by a wet-pipe sprinkler system. A monitored fire detection system that included smoke detectors and manual pull stations had been installed in the common hallways, and there were heat detectors and local smoke alarms in each unit.

The fire department received the water flow alarm at 9:45 a.m. While firefighters were en route to the address, dispatch received a 911 call from the apartment of fire origin and heard an occupant yelling to others to get out of the apartment. By the time fire crews arrived, the sprinkler had extinguished the blaze, which had spread from the stove to a microwave and cabinets overhead. The firefighters helped control the water flow to the sprinkler and placed salvage covers in units below the fire to prevent damage.

Damage to the $20 million building came to $5,000. EMTs evaluated the unit’s residents at the scene, but the three did not require any treatment.


Sprinkler controls fire in hospital
SOUTH CAROLINA — A single sprinkler prevented a fire that started in mattresses and chairs stored in a vacant wing of a hospital from spreading any further than the room of origin.

The nine-story, steel-and-concrete-frame hospital, which was 500 feet (152 meters) long and 500 feet (152 meters) wide, was protected by a monitored wet-pipe sprinkler system, as well as a fire detection system that included smoke detectors in the corridors and some rooms.

Firefighters were notified that a water flow alarm tripped the fire alarm system at 6:25 p.m. When they arrived two minutes later, maintenance personnel told them that there was a broken sprinkler on the eighth floor. Upon reaching the eighth floor, crews found water coming from a former office and opened the door to find heavy smoke and low heat. Using a thermal imaging camera, they located the seat of the fire and quickly extinguished it.

The value of the building and contents was not reported, but the loss was estimated to be approximately $25,000. There were no injuries.


Compressor motor sparks fire
MONTANA — A spark from the electric motor of an air compressor ignited paper dust at an insulation manufacturing plant, starting a fire that destroyed the building.
The two-story, wood-frame building, which covered an area of approximately 6,000 square feet (557 square meters), had no sprinklers or fire detection equipment. The plant was closed for the night when the fire broke out.

The fire department received the alarm at 2:41 a.m., and firefighters arrived 9 minutes later to find flames shooting from all the second-floor windows. Fire crews fought the blaze from the exterior of the building, using several hose lines and a deck gun to bring it under control in an hour and a half. Two walls collapsed during suppression operations.

Investigators determined that the fire began in the compressor motor on the first floor near the loading dock. They discovered that the motor was not intrinsically safe.

The building, valued at $400,000, and its contents, valued at $900,000, were destroyed. No one was injured.

Soiled linens ignite in laundry
PENNSYLVANIA — A single sprinkler controlled a fire that began spontaneously in a soiled linen bin delivered to a cleaning company a day or two earlier, despite a significant delay in activation due to the height of the ceiling and the location of the fire.

The single-story, steel-frame building was 450 feet (137 meters) long and 250 feet (76 meters) wide, with a ceiling height of 35 feet (11 meters) above grade. It had a steel truss roof, metal walls, and a metal roof. The building had a wet-pipe sprinkler system with a water flow alarm monitored by a central station alarm company that also monitored the smoke detectors.

The fire department received the alarm at 7:28 a.m. Initially, responders did not see smoke or fire coming from the building. As they began working on a door, however, a maintenance man opened it from the inside and told them there was a fire somewhere in the building, which was filled with medium smoke. Because the facility was so big and the location of the fire was unknown, the incident commander ordered additional resources.

As firefighters began their investigation, they found a sprinkler operating over a laundry bin in the soiled linen room on the main level. They extinguished the blaze, which appeared to have damaged part of a conveyor used to transfer linen through the facility.

Investigators determined that the fire started in the bin and burned until it produced enough heat and smoke to activate the suppression and detection systems. The open structure allowed the heat and smoke to disperse, delaying the activation of the equipment.

Losses to the building, valued at $1.25 million, and its contents, valued at $5 million, were estimated at only $2,000. The fire department report noted that the building owner intended to install heat and smoke detectors above the storage areas to provide earlier warning in the future.


Fire destroys furniture store
CALIFORNIA — A fire that was deliberately set in three separate areas destroyed a one-story furniture store and warehouse.

The steel-frame building, which covered approximately 45,000 square feet (4,180 square meters), was divided into a showroom in which furniture was sold and a warehouse at the rear of the building. There was a mezzanine, an office, and bathrooms, but most of the building was open throughout. There were no sprinklers or fire alarms.

Firefighters arrived at the scene seven minutes after the 4:55 a.m. alarm to find flames at the edges of the metal siding in one part of the building and fire burning in the center of another. As crews advanced hose lines into the warehouse, they saw flames spreading overhead and noted that interior conditions were deteriorating. The incident commander decided to pull the crews out to mount a defensive attack.

Investigators determined that the fire, which caused a portion of the roof to collapse, had three points of origin, one in the loading dock and two further inside the warehouse. They concluded that someone had used an open flame device to ignite cardboard boxes and stored furniture and that the fire spread vertically and horizontally to nearby combustibles.

The blaze destroyed the building, which was valued at $1 million, and its contents, valued at $2 million.

There were no injuries.