Author(s): Richard Campbell. Published on November 1, 2016.



Electrical fire in office building causes extensive damage

An overnight fire in a four-story office building caused extensive damage and sent five firefighters to the hospital with minor injuries.

The fire department received the alarm at approximately 1:20 a.m. The fire had traveled to upper floors of the building via a stairway and then mushroomed across the top floor into the ceiling void space by the time crews were on the scene.

Crews from two ladder trucks opened the building’s skylight for ventilation, while firefighters from two engine companies ran attack lines to the front entrance. The heavy volume of fire prevented attack crews from advancing into the structure. Ground ladders were placed in alleys at the rear of the building, and crews performed a limited primary search on the second and third floors before being ordered out of the building. After the roof was opened and all firefighters had exited, incident command called a second alarm.

Attack procedures were terminated and all companies were placed in defensive operations. Incident command subsequently issued a call for third and fourth alarms. Blitz guns were set up at the front and rear of the structure, while additional hand lines were set up on the roofs of adjacent buildings on both sides.

Media reports indicated that residents were evacuated from the two adjoining buildings and waited in local buses brought in for that purpose. Those reports also noted that firefighting efforts took place amid heavy snow and wind conditions.

Investigators determined that the fire was caused by an electrical arc in a wall switch in the building’s lobby.

Two firefighters were transported to the hospital from the scene for the treatment of injuries, while three others were taken to the hospital after returning to quarters. Newspaper coverage described the injuries as minor.

The building had a ground floor area of 3,200 square feet (297 square meters). Information was not available on the presence of smoke detectors, but the building was not protected by an automatic sprinkler system.

Damage to the building and contents was estimated at $3.25 million.



Electrical malfunction causes house fire that kills resident

Firefighters reached the scene of a mid-afternoon structure fire to find a single-family dwelling showing heavy fire and dark smoke from the front, rear, and one side of the house.

A male occupant who had evacuated the residence met first arriving units and informed them that his mother was still inside, trapped in a bedroom. Crews mounted an exterior attack at the front of the house using two hand lines. The male occupant was treated for injuries and transported to the hospital.

Interior operations began as soon as the exterior attack brought conditions to an acceptable level. Crews conducting a primary search found the body of the mother in a bedroom at the rear of the house. Extinguishment was completed using two hand lines.

Investigators determined that the fire was caused by an unspecified electrical malfunction in the area of an electrical outlet in the living room at the front of the residence. The single-story house was not equipped with smoke alarms or automatic extinguishing equipment.

The ground-floor area of the house was listed as 782 square feet (73 square meters). The house and property, collectively valued at $50,000, were a total loss.


Sprinkler controls fire in homeless shelter laundry room

Firefighters were dispatched in the early morning hours to a homeless shelter following the report of a fire alarm, and crews were informed by shelter staff upon arrival that there was a fire in the laundry room with sprinkler activation. The building had been evacuated as firefighters reached the scene, and light smoke was showing from the building.

Crews entered the building and used a pre-connected hose line to extinguish a small fire in the drum of a commercial dryer. Crews found that one sprinkler had activated and controlled the fire, noting that no fire extended beyond the dryer and that there was no structural damage in the laundry room.

Crews conducted a primary search of the premises and set up horizontal ventilation. Occupants were cleared to return to the building and the staff was informed that it would have to contact a maintenance service for the sprinkler system. Investigators concluded that the fire started when the dryer overheated and ignited fabric inside.

The fire department noted in its incident report that over 50 people were staying in the shelter at the time of the fire and that the outcome could have been tragic without the alarm and sprinkler systems.

The building was a two-story structure with an additional story below grade and a total area of 50,000 square feet (4,645 square meters).

Damage was estimated at $2,000.


Candle fire extinguished when sprinkler system activates

Firefighters arrived at an apartment complex less than five minutes after being dispatched by an alarm company, but found that a fire in the bathroom of one unit had already been extinguished by an automatic sprinkler system.

The fire began at approximately 1:30 p.m. when a resident placed a paper towel on a bathroom counter, which ignited after coming in contact with a candle flame and spread to the paper towel roll and then to laundry items after the burning towels fell to the floor. The sprinkler system activated and suppressed the fire before it could spread further. The occupant sustained minor hand burns after throwing the burning materials into a bathtub.

Upon arrival, firefighters reported that there was no fire showing and that the building did not have to be evacuated. Crews assisted building management with contacting a sprinkler repair company and placing the alarm system in service.

The apartment complex was a two-story structure with a ground-floor area of 26,000 square feet (2,415 square meters). Common and private areas of the complex were protected by smoke detection and sprinkler systems.

The fire caused an estimated $1,500 in losses to the apartment contents and structure. The value of the structure was estimated at $2,500,000.


One dies when candle starts fire in single-family home

An elderly man died in a home fire that was apparently caused by a candle.

Firefighters responding to a passerby’s 911 call reached the scene of a house fire to find heavy fire conditions at 11:30 p.m. Crews began suppression efforts after being advised upon arrival that all residents had managed to evacuate the house. However, fire crews undertaking a primary search of the house while suppression was still underway located the body of an elderly male on a bedroom floor. The man was reported to be a victim of fatal smoke inhalation injuries.

Investigators determined that the fire began when a candle flame ignited a bathroom curtain on the north side of the house as wind blew through an open window. Residents located on the southeast side of the house did not notice the fire until it was well underway.

According to a newspaper report, the fire chief indicated that extensive renovation to the structure hampered the ability of firefighters to extinguish fire within the walls because shingles on the home’s exterior trapped heat inside. Reports also indicated that one firefighter suffered an elbow injury as the result of a fall.

The frame, walls, and roof deck of the house were constructed with wood, and the roof was covered with asphalt shingles. It was not protected by smoke alarms or a sprinkler system. No information was provided on the size of the house or the estimate of losses.


Christmas tree lights start fire in residence

Firefighters found the burned remains of a Christmas tree in the front yard and smoke conditions inside a home as they responded to a late afternoon house fire. Occupants of the home were also outside the home when crews arrived on the scene. Inside the residence, firefighters found some damage from the fire but no extension.

One of the home’s residents reported to investigators that he was in a bedroom when he heard popping noises and found the Christmas tree on fire when he went into the living room to investigate. The resident indicated that he grabbed the tree by the base and dragged it outside through the front door, then returned to grab burning curtains from the living room and throw them outside, as well.

Firefighters reported that the fire singed the resident’s hair but that he declined transport to the hospital.

Investigators determined the only source of ignition to be the electrical lights on the tree and noted that all the insulation had burned away from the wiring. The fire caused heat damage to a sofa and a large-screen television.

In newspaper coverage of the incident, the fire marshal cautioned residents to ensure that they keep trees properly watered and to use tree lights that had been tested and approved by an appropriate certification body.

The residence was a single-story home with a ground floor area of 920 square feet (85 square meters). There was no information available on smoke alarms or automatic extinguishing equipment.

Damage to property was estimated at $1,000, with damage to contents estimated at $8,000.


Hoarding conditions contribute to fatal house fire

Firefighters responded to a late-night house fire after a police officer on patrol spotted smoke coming from a residence and reported the fire to the dispatch center. While units were en route, the fire was upgraded to a working fire with a victim possibly inside.

Crews initiated firefighting and rescue efforts as soon as they reached the scene. The police officer who reported the fire indicated that he had kicked the front door of the house open but that smoke and fire were too intense for him to enter.

When conditions permitted entry, rescue crews found the body of a male occupant in a bedroom. Investigators described the house as filled with papers, trash, and other materials and noted that the fuel load nearly reached the ceiling in the bedroom.

Investigators identified one side of the bed at floor level as the area of fire origin but were unable to determine whether smoking materials or a power strip ignited materials that were strewn on the floor. They surmised that the victim was in bed and made an escape effort after becoming aware of the fire but fell backwards onto the bed’s foot railing after being overcome by smoke. They noted that the victim’s ability to escape was likely to have been hampered by mobility issues.

The house was equipped with a single smoke alarm, but it lacked a battery and was not operable and was also not located near the area of fire origin.

The medical examiner determined that the victim died as a result of smoke inhalation injuries.

The house was a single-story structure with a wood frame and roof deck and gypsum board walls. It occupied a ground floor area of 1,038 square feet (96 square meters). The house and contents, with an estimated value of $31,900, were a total loss.


One dies in fire caused by malfunction of portable heater

An early morning fire claimed the life of a resident in one unit of a two-family home, but three occupants from the adjoining unit were able to escape the blaze.

The fire department was notified of the fire following a 911 call by the evacuated residents. First arriving units reported heavy smoke at the front of the house and heavy fire at the rear as they reached the scene. Outside the house, the evacuated residents stated that they did not believe anyone from the neighboring unit had managed to escape. Due to weather conditions, the size of the fire, and the possibility of entrapment, the chief called for a second alarm.

Crews from the engine company established a supply line from a nearby fire hydrant and began fire attack with a hose line from the rear of the structure. The crew from a ladder company was instructed to start a primary search through the front of the building for possible entrapment.

After entering the structure and clearing two rooms on the first floor at the front of the house, the search team attempted to search the second floor but was forced to retreat by fire in the hallway. The search team then asked the engine company to attempt to knock the fire down so that the search of the second floor could continue.

Two firefighters from the engine company entered the house and began attacking the fire at the rear of the second floor while the search team began to search two bedrooms at the front. The search team located the victim on a bed in one bedroom and was assisted by one of the engine crew members in transporting him down the stairs and out of the house, where an EMS crew was waiting. The remaining engine crew member also evacuated the house after a quick search for other potential victims in the bedroom.

As the victim was transported to the hospital, a newly arrived crew was ordered to ventilate the roof, and a second engine company was ordered to lay a second supply line and advance lines in the front of the building.

Newspaper reports indicated that firefighters fought the fire during a snowstorm and that it took three hours to extinguish. The Red Cross was notified in order to provide assistance to the residents of the neighboring unit.

Investigators determined that the fire was caused by a malfunction in a portable heater in a kitchen on the first floor, but due to the extensive damage they could not determine the ignition sequence or what was first ignited. Both units of the house were protected by smoke alarms, which operated as intended.

The residence, which was two-and-a-half stories in height with a ground-floor area of 1,200 square feet (111 square meters), was constructed with a wood frame, deck, and walls, and had asphalt shingles. Damage from the fire was estimated at $125,000.


Furnace suspected in deadly fire in manufactured home

An early afternoon fire in a manufactured home claimed the life of one resident and resulted in a total loss of the residence and its contents.

Firefighters were alerted to the fire following multiple calls to 911 from neighbors at 12:52 p.m. First arriving units described seeing smoke en route and reported that the home was fully involved with fire when they reached the scene two minutes after being dispatched, with intense smoke and flames emanating from the structure.

As crews fought to extinguish the fire, they forced the door on one side of the structure and located the resident in a fetal position in a bedroom, five feet away. The resident was determined to be deceased following paramedic protocols and was placed in a rescue squad vehicle to await the coroner.

After removing the victim, firefighters performed secondary searches of the home and completed extinguishment. The fire was declared to be under control at 1:25 p.m.

Investigators determined that the fire originated in and around the furnace, with heavy charring evident just below floor level at the foot of the furnace. The investigators also reported that the furnace, described as an older model oil-burning furnace, showed obvious signs of non-professional maintenance.

The home was a single-story structure constructed with a wood and metal frame, plywood walls, and a metal roof deck and cover. It had a ground-floor area of 700 square feet (65 square meters).

The home and its contents, valued at $20,000, were a total loss.


Smoking materials cause fire in large apartment complex; one killed

Smoking materials were blamed for a fire in a 100-unit apartment complex that claimed one life, caused an estimated $120,000 in damage, and forced the temporary relocation of many building residents.

Firefighters were notified of the fire by an alarm box at 8:45 p.m. and reached the scene one minute later. While en route, crews received word of multiple calls reporting heavy smoke on the fifth floor of the nine-story structure. Crews reported that nothing was showing from the front of the building upon arrival and that evacuation was underway, but indicated that a number of residents were still inside their apartments, either due to mobility issues or because they were unaware of the fire.

Crews entered the building and made their way to the fifth floor, where they found heavy smoke conditions banked down to the floor on the south side and reported that fire doors had activated and an alarm was sounding. Crews initiated a search of apartments on the fifth floor and located the victim in a fetal position approximately three feet into his unit. The victim, who was not responsive, was transported out of the building via a fifth-floor stairwell and was later pronounced dead at the hospital.

There was no visible fire inside the victim’s apartment, but there were obvious indications of burn and high heat, as well as smoke conditions. A sprinkler in the hallway outside the unit had been activated by the heat conditions.

The interior crew on the fifth floor was joined by a newly arrived crew, and all personnel began to search floors and assist with evacuating building residents, who were turned over to the care of EMS personnel outside the building. All off-duty personnel were requested to report to the scene to assist with evacuation efforts.

Newspaper reports indicated that police and firefighters went through the building three times to ensure all residents were evacuated, carrying some of the residents down the stairs on their backs.

Crews set up positive pressure ventilation to clear smoke and heat from the fifth floor. Due to the cold temperatures, the county public safety department was activated to arrange for warming buses to be brought to the scene to shelter the evacuated residents. Residents of several floors of the building could not return to their apartments due to smoke and water damage and were transported to temporary shelter.

Investigators determined that the victim, who had a mobility disability, was smoking in bed when his smoking materials ignited bedding.

The nine-story building had a ground floor area of 8,000 square feet (743 square meters). The building was constructed of brick, with concrete walls and floor framing and steel roof framing. It was protected by automatic detection equipment and a sprinkler system in the hallways only.

Losses from the fire included $20,000 to the structure, which was valued at $14 million, and $100,000 in building contents.


One dies in apartment fire after candle ignites bedding

An elderly woman with a mobility disability died in an apartment fire that began when a candle ignited bedding materials as she lay in the bed.

The fire department was dispatched to the scene at 9:35 p.m. following a 911 call from a passerby. Smoke was showing from the roof and rear windows of the structure upon arrival and a neighbor advised crews that there was a possible victim inside.

The crew of an engine company was assigned to undertake interior operations at the scene with the objective of search and rescue, while a second engine crew provided reinforcement with a back-up line.

The search-and-rescue team made a forcible entry through a locked front door and advanced a quick-attack hose line into the apartment. Crews located the victim on the floor by her bed during the primary search and carried her out the front door to a safe area for the administration of critical care before she was transported to the hospital, where she was later pronounced dead as a result of burns and smoke inhalation injuries.

While rescue efforts were underway, crews attacked the fire, which was contained to a rear room and adjoining attic, and also conducted an expanded primary search. After the fire was knocked down, crews initiated a secondary search and then secured the scene.

Investigators determined that the fire originated on the bed in the victim’s bedroom. Based on physical evidence and an interview with a friend who had helped the victim into bed that evening, investigators concluded that the victim had used a candle that was inside a glass container to light smoking materials and had placed or dropped it on her bedding, causing the fire. Once the bedding ignited, the fire spread vertically and horizontally to nearby common combustibles in the room. The victim was unable to escape before becoming overcome by smoke and flames due to her mobility limitations.

Smoke alarms located in the apartment hallway reportedly were disabled.

The apartment building was one story in height, but no information was available on its size. The structure was constructed with a wood frame and stucco exterior, with concrete floor framing and asphalt shingles.

The apartment and its contents, valued at $55,000, were a total loss.


Man dies in house fire started by space heater

After carrying his wife from their burning home, an elderly man with a history of heart and respiratory problems died at the scene as a result of medical complications.

One of the home’s occupants discovered the fire and called 911 at 1:05 p.m.

Arriving firefighters reported that the home’s occupants were outside and smoke and fire were showing as they reached the scene eight minutes after the alarm. Crews determined that the fire was in a room at a front corner of the house and placed a positive pressure ventilation fan in the doorway before beginning interior attack. A second crew attacked the fire from the home’s side gable.

An EMS crew arrived and checked the occupants as firefighters completed extinguishing the fire. The husband at some point was placed in a lawn chair, and he was pronounced dead at the scene by a representative from the coroner’s office.

Investigators determined that the fire started in a bedroom when heat from a space heater ignited clothing that was draped over an adjacent ironing board, which then burned upwards and spread through the structure. Firefighters saw no signs of smoke alarms in the house.

The house was a block construction with brick walls and wood roof and floor framing, with asphalt shingles. Information was not available on the size of the house.

The fire caused an estimated $12,000 in damage to the house, valued at $45,000, as well $5,000 in damage to the contents, which were valued at $15,000.


Stovetop mishap starts house fire that kills female occupant

An elderly female with limited mobility died in a house fire that began when she turned on the wrong burner to heat a tea kettle on her stove, setting fire to a decorative tray and causing a blaze that spread to cabinets and into attic space.

The fire department was alerted to the fire after a neighbor smelled smoke and called 911 at approximately 10:50 p.m. When firefighters reached the scene, they observed fire in the kitchen area, with heavy smoke discharging from eave vents. They also reported that neighbors were attempting to extinguish the fire with a garden hose.

Firefighters entered the house through a rear door to attack the fire and were able contain the fire within minutes of arrival.

Neighbors had already pulled the resident from the kitchen and taken her outside prior to the arrival of firefighters. Medics relocated her farther away from the structure as they attempted to revive her, but she was pronounced dead at the scene.

The house, with an area of 1,000 square feet (93 square meters), was a single-story structure constructed with a wood frame and walls and a composite-on-plywood roof deck. It was not protected by smoke alarms or a sprinkler system.

The house, valued at $80,000, had losses estimated at $60,000, with an additional $15,000 in losses to its contents, which were valued at $25,000.


Propane leak results in house explosion that kills one

Firefighters responding to a report of a structure fire with possible entrapment were notified while en route to a reported explosion, leading to a call for a second alarm. As crews reached the scene, they found that a single-family home had been leveled to the ground, with pockets of fire showing throughout the debris.

Incident command issued requests for a third alarm and for an investigator from the state fire marshal’s office within minutes of arrival. Crews from engine and tanker trucks were assigned water supply and suppression responsibilities, and a responding ambulance was diverted to a nearby intersection, where an occupant who had managed to escape before the explosion was located.

After the main bodies of fire had been extinguished, crews began to search for a resident of the house who was not accounted for. Incident command requested assistance from a mutual aid company in searching for the missing resident. Crews extinguished hot spots as they continued their search efforts. Approximately one and a quarter hours after arrival, crews located the body of a female resident at the east end of the home. The victim was transported from the scene by a local funeral home after approval by the county coroner, who had been summoned by incident command.

Inspectors determined that the explosion was caused when a pilot light ignited propane gas, which was believed to have built up underneath the home, according to news accounts. The fire chief indicated in news reports that the explosion was powerful enough to lift the house off its foundation and blow the walls out, resulting in the collapse of the roof.

The resident who managed to escape the house was reported to have been treated at the hospital for non–life threatening injuries. The fatally injured resident died of blunt trauma injuries.

The single-family home was one story in height and had a ground floor area of 1,440 square feet (134 square meters). It was constructed with a wood frame, wood and stucco walls, and a metal roof.

The house and its contents were a total loss, estimated at $175,000.


Electrical fire in home’s attic kills couple

A mid-morning fire that started in the attic of a single-family home claimed the lives of a married couple, both of whom succumbed to smoke inhalation injuries.

Firefighters were dispatched following a 911 call from the couple’s adult daughter, who returned home after running errands and found the house on fire. Upon arrival, firefighters found that the residence was fully involved, with fire showing from all sides and the roof.

Newspaper reports indicated that several engines and tankers responded to the fire. After bringing the fire under control, crews conducted a primary search of the house and found the victims near a rear bedroom. The bodies were turned over to the county coroner.

Investigators determined that the fire originated in the attic and had an unspecified electrical cause. They noted the presence of multiple extension cords throughout the attic space. Fire officials also indicated that the absence of smoke alarms allowed the fire to progress to the point that the residents were unable to escape.

The house was a single-story structure constructed of wood, with a ground floor area of 1,398 square feet (130 square meters).

The house, with an estimated value of $45,300, was a total loss. No information was available on losses to the contents.



Sprinklers extinguish fire at manufacturing plant

Firefighters were summoned to a manufacturing plant in the early morning hours by an automatic alarm after heat from a butane torch ignited a plastic storage shelf, but crews found that the facility’s sprinkler system had already extinguished the fire prior to arrival.

The fire department reported that a worker had used the butane torch before storing it on a plastic shelf in the facility’s tool crib. The hot parts of the torch ignited and melted the shelf, setting off the fire alarm and sprinkler system. The worker, who also used a fire extinguisher to douse the fire, suffered smoke inhalation injuries and was transported to the hospital for treatment.

Newspaper reports indicated that several workers were evacuated from the facility.

The facility was protected throughout by heat detectors with sprinklers. The plant, which manufactured filters for automobiles, was a single-story structure constructed with block and steel walls, concrete floors, a steel roof deck, and rock and tar walls. The size of the facility was listed as 595,200 square feet (55,296 square meters).

Damage to the structure, which was valued at $100 million, was estimated at $10,000, while its contents, valued at $50 million, experienced $30,000 in losses.



Sprinkler system extinguishes office fire

A fire that started in the ceiling of an equipment closet in a four-story office building was knocked down by a single sprinkler by the time firefighters responded to the scene, just four minutes after being dispatched by an alarm company.

The fire began at approximately 7 p.m. in the area of a fan located in the ceiling of the closet, which was being used as a computer room. When firefighters arrived, no signs of fire were visible from the exterior of the building, but smoke could be seen banked down to four feet from ground level inside.

Crews laid a hose to the front entrance and an interior crew entered the building, where it determined that the fire had been extinguished and advised that they could perform overhaul with a pressurized water extinguisher. Firefighters shut down the sprinkler system and used fans for ventilation while checking for extension inside the building.

Investigators were unable to determine whether the ceiling fan malfunctioned and started the fire or whether network wires fell on the fan and caused it to overheat. Media coverage indicated that the assistant fire chief said that the fire would have been much worse if the sprinkler system had not worked as intended.

The four-story building had a ground-floor area of 5,000 square feet (465 square meters) and was protected by an automatic sprinkler system and smoke detectors on all floors.

Damage to the building, which had an estimated value of $3.7 million, was estimated at $20,000.


Sprinkler douses spontaneous combustion blaze

A late-night fire in a commercial establishment undergoing interior renovation was extinguished by an automatic sprinkler system before firefighters arrived at the scene.

The fire department was alerted to the fire by a water flow switch alarm at 10:08 p.m. and was on the scene within five minutes. There were no signs of fire upon arrival. After gaining entry to the building, firefighters observed a smoky haze and found that a sprinkler had activated over an area of wood that was still smoldering. Crews ensured that the fire was out and secured the water flow from the suppression system.

The fire originated near the south wall of the building, where a display case was being constructed with wood panels in the area below the activated sprinkler. Investigators learned that panels had been treated with varnish earlier in the day and noted that the fired burned upwards and outwards from ground level between wooden panels, which bore distinct “V” patterns on the inside. Investigators also noted the presence of open cans of wood varnish and rags soaked with varnish and oil throughout the store. The investigation concluded that a reaction between incompatible products or the spontaneous heating of rags and materials containing organic oils had ignited surrounding combustibles.

No details were available on the size of the building. The fire caused no damage to the structure, valued at $500,000. The loss to contents, valued at $10,000, was estimated at $50.

FIREWATCH is a compilation of fire incidents involving a variety of occupancies and fire types. The intent of Firewatch is to illustrate the range of fire scenarios encountered by the fire service, present the challenges contained in those incidents, recount how the fire service addressed those challenges, and record the effectiveness of fire protection systems, where such systems exist. The incidents are identified by NFPA’s Research Group from fire reports submitted to NFPA by responding fire departments. Some of the fire incidents that appear in Firewatch are augmented with details provided by media accounts.