Author(s): Ben Evarts. Published on September 1, 2019.

Fire Loss in the United States During 2018

More than 1.3 million fires were reported by fire departments in 2018, resulting in an estimated 3,655 civilian deaths and 15,200 injuries

BY BEN EVARTS

Every year, NFPA surveys a sample of United States’ public fire departments in order to project national estimates of the US fire problem. Based on the data from our 2018 National Fire Experience Survey, we estimate that public fire departments in the US responded to 1,318,500 fires last year, virtually the same as 2017.

Of these fires, an estimated 499,000 were structure fires, the same as the year before. The number of structure fires has trended downward over the past 40 years, falling from a peak of 1,098,000 in 1977. From 1998 to 2008, the number of structure fires fluctuated between 505,000 and 530,500 annually. Since 2009, the estimated number of structure fires per year has been below 500,000 every year except for 2015.

We categorize structure fires as residential and nonresidential. Residential properties include one- and two-family homes, including manufactured homes, apartments or other multifamily housing, hotels and motels, dormitories, and boarding houses. “Home” encompasses one- or two-family homes, including manufactured housing, and apartments or other multifamily homes. Homes are much less regulated than other residential properties. Non-residential structure properties include public assembly, schools and colleges, health care and correctional institutions, stores and offices, industrial facilities, storage facilities, and other structures such as outbuildings and bridges.


In 2018, there were 387,000 residential structure fires, accounting for 78 percent of all structure fires, an increase of 8,000 fires from 2017. Of these, 363,000 were home fires: 276,500 occurred in one- and two-family homes, accounting for 55 percent of all structure fires, and another 86,500 fires occurred in apartments, for 17 percent of the structure fire total. There were also 112,000 nonresidential structure fires in 2018, a decrease of 7 percent from 2017.

The 607,000 outside fires or other non-structure, non-vehicle fires accounted for almost half (46 percent) of all reported fires. These included 270,000 brush, grass, and forest fires (20 percent of total fires); 169,000 outside rubbish fires (13 percent of total fires); 70,500 outside fires involving property of value (5 percent of total fires); and 97,500 (7 percent of total fires) other non-structure, non-vehicle fires.

From 2017 to 2018, outside or other fires decreased 3 percent. Outside and other fires peaked in 1977 at 1,658,500. The number of such fires then decreased steadily, to 1,011,000 in 1983, and remained relatively flat through the 1980s. By 1993, the number of outside fires dropped to 910,500 and remained near the 1,000,000 level for the next three years. In 2013, outside and other fires dropped to a record low of 564,500, the only year these fires have dropped below 600,000. From 2017 to 2018, brush, grass, or forest fires decreased 5 percent; outside rubbish fires decreased 3 percent; fires involving property of value decreased by 5 percent; and other non-structure, non-vehicle fires increased 7 percent.

In addition to residential, nonresidential, and outside fires, there were an estimated 181,500 highway vehicle fires in 2018, an increase of 8 percent from the year before, and 31,000 other vehicle fires, an increase of 5 percent.

Civilian fire deaths

The 1,318,500 fires reported by fire departments in 2018 resulted in an estimated 3,655 civilian deaths, an increase of 8 percent from the 2017 total. This is partially driven by the 86 deaths attributed to the Camp Fire, a wildfire that struck Northern California in November. We can better understand the nature of these deaths by examining the types of properties where the deaths occurred.


Residents of Paradise, California, return to the remains of their home destroyed in the Camp Fire. Of the $25.6 billion in losses attributed to fire in the US last year, more than $12 billion was the result of wildfires in California. (JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

The 363,000 home structure fires (which includes one- and two-family homes and apartments) caused 2,720 civilian deaths, an increase of 3 percent from 2017. This includes 2,360 deaths (65 percent of the total number of civilian deaths) in one- and two-family homes and 360 in apartments or other multifamily housing, including condominiums. Seventy-four percent of civilian fire deaths resulted from home fires.

Home fire deaths reached their peak in 1978, when 6,015 people died in such fires. The number has trended downwards until recent years, with fewer than 5,000 annual deaths since 1982, and fewer than 4,000 deaths since 1991, with the exception of 1996. Since 2006, home fire deaths have remained below 3,000 per year. Overall, home fire deaths over the period 1977 to 2018 declined from 5,865 to 2,720, a drop of 54 percent. The number of home fires also dropped steadily over the same period.

At the same time, however, the death rate per 1,000 home fires has fluctuated considerably during that period, from 8.1 in 1977 to a high of 9.7 in 1996 and a low of 6.5 in 2006. The death rate per 1,000 home fires was 7.5 in 2018. This suggests that, while the number of reported home fires and home fire deaths both declined during the period, the fire death rate risk has remained relatively unchanged. That is, given a home fire serious enough to report to the fire department, the risk of dying in that fire has not decreased significantly over the past 40 years.

In 2018, there were also 100 civilian fire deaths in other residential occupancies, including hotels, motels, dormitories, and boarding houses, for an increase of 25 percent compared to 2017. In addition, 90 civilians died in nonresidential structure fires, a decrease of 10 percent from the year before.

Of the 2,910 civilian deaths in structure fires, 350 (12 percent) died in fires that were intentionally set.

With 2,720 home fire deaths accounting for 74 percent of all civilian fire deaths, fire-safety initiatives targeted at the home remain the key to any reductions in the overall fire death toll. There are five major strategies for reducing the death toll in home fires. First, more widespread public fire safety education is needed on how to prevent fires and how to avoid serious injury or death if a fire occurs, and information on the common causes of fatal home fires should be used in the design of fire safety education messages. Second, people need to install and maintain smoke alarms and develop and practice escape plans. Third, wider use of residential sprinklers must be aggressively pursued. Fourth, additional ways must be sought to make home products safer from fire; regulations requiring child-resistant lighters are a good example, as are fire-safe cigarettes. Finally, the special fire safety needs of high-risk groups such as African-American children, older adults, the poor, and people with disabilities need to be addressed. As indicated above, there has been significant success in reducing the number of reported home fires, but once a serious fire starts, deaths are almost as likely to occur in a home fire as they were 40 years ago.

In the highway vehicle fires category, the number of civilian deaths rose from an estimated 400 in 2017 to an estimated 490 in 2018. These numbers exclude deaths due to trauma if the fire was not a factor in the death. Between 1980 and 2009, the number of highway vehicle deaths decreased by 60 percent. Since a low of an estimated 260 deaths in 2009, the number of deaths has fluctuated, getting as high 490 in 2018.

Civilian fire injuries

In addition to the 3,655 civilians who died in fires in 2018, there were an estimated 15,200 civilian fire injuries. This is an increase of 4 percent over 2017. Since civilian fire injuries are not always reported to the fire service, estimates of civilian fire injuries may be lower than actual levels. For example, many injuries occur at small fires to which fire departments do not respond, and even when fire departments do respond, they may be unaware of injured persons they did not transport to medical facilities themselves.

Of the 15,200 civilians injured in 2018, we estimate that 12,700 civilians were injured in structure fires, and of those, that 11,200 were injured in home structure fires, an increase of 6 percent over the previous year. Of these injuries, 7,800 occurred in one- and two-family homes and manufactured homes, and 3,400 occurred in apartments. An additional 1,100 civilians were injured in nonresidential structure fires in 2018, a decrease of 12 percent from the year before. Additionally, 1,300 civilians were injured in highway vehicle fires, a 5 percent decrease from 2017. Fires in other vehicles (including airplanes, trains, ships, construction vehicles, and farm vehicles) caused 200 civilian injuries in 2018.

Between 1977 and 2018, the number of civilian injuries ranged from a peak of 31,325 in 1979 to a low of 14,660 in 2016, a decrease of 53.2 percent. Since 1997, civilian injuries have remained below 35,000 per year, below 19,000 since 2002, and below 16,000 since 2013.
Property loss

NFPA estimates that the 1,318,500 fires to which the fire service responded in 2018 caused $25.6 billion in property damage, an 11 percent increase over the $23 billion in 2017. It is worth noting that the $25.6 billion figure includes major wildfires in California in 2018, which caused over $12 billion in direct property damage.

Fires in structures not related to wildfires resulted in $11.1 billion in property damage, an increase of 3 percent from 2017. Each structure fire resulted in an average property loss of $22,176, an increase of 3 percent from the previous year. From 1977 to 2018, excluding the events of September 11, 2001, the average loss per structure fire was $3,757 in 1977 and $22,176 in 2018, for a nearly sixfold increase. When property loss is adjusted for inflation in 2018 dollars, however, the increase in the average structure fire loss between 1977 and 2018 is 43 percent.

Of the 2018 property loss in structures, $8 billion occurred in home structures, an increase of 4 percent from 2017. An estimated $6.5 billion of this loss occurred in one- and two-family homes, an increase of 6 percent. An estimated loss of $1.5 billion occurred in apartments or other multifamily housing including condominiums, a decrease of 4 percent.


Boston firefighters at the scene of a blaze that damaged condominium residences in the city. Of the 499,000 structure fires in the US in 2018, 363,000, or 73 percent, occurred in home structures, which include one- and two-family homes, manufactured homes, and apartments. (John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Other property damage results for 2018 include $778 million in store and office properties, an increase of 2 percent; $508 million in industrial and manufacturing properties, a 1 percent increase; $1.4 billion in highway vehicles, virtually unchanged from last year; and $473 million in other vehicles, a 20 percent decrease.

It should be kept in mind that property loss totals can change significantly from year to year due to the impact of occasional large-loss fires. NFPA provides an annual analysis of such fires in the November/December issue of NFPA Journal.

Intentionally set fires

NFPA estimates that 25,500 structure fires were intentionally set in 2018, an increase of 13 percent from the year before. These fires resulted in an estimated 350 civilian deaths, an increase of 25 percent from the previous year. These fires resulted in $593 million in property loss, an increase of 
2 percent compared to 2017.

In 2018, there were also an estimated 9,500 intentionally set vehicle fires, an increase of 12 percent compared to the year before. These fires resulted in $65 million in property loss, a decrease of 13 percent from 2017.

Estimates of intentionally set fires do not include fires where the cause is unknown or unreported.

Description of the NFPA survey and acknowledgements

NFPA annually surveys a sample of US public fire departments, stratified by the size of the communities they protect, to project national estimates of the fire problem. All public fire departments that have fire response and reporting responsibilities and protect communities of 5,000 or more are included in the sample. For departments that protect populations less than 5,000, a sample is selected and stratified by the size of the community protected. A total of 2,631 fire departments responded to the 2018 fire experience survey.

Our national projections are made by weighting the sample results according to the proportion of the total US population accounted for by communities of each size. Point estimates are presented in this article, and there is a range associated with each estimate.

The data and information included in the full US Fire Loss report are only part of the fire loss picture. A more detailed and complete report on the overall patterns and trends of 2018, available from NFPA’s Research, Data, and Analytics Division, includes patterns by region and size of community, as well as a more complete description of survey methodology. The full report, including additional information like the number of fire department responses by type of call, will be available online in October at nfpa.org.

These results are based only on fires attended by public fire departments. No adjustments were made for unreported fires and losses, such as might occur when an occupant extinguishes the fire. Nor were adjustments made for fires attended solely by private fire brigades such as those at industrial and military installation fires, or for fires extinguished by fixed suppression systems to which no fire department responded.

NFPA is grateful to the many fire departments that responded to the 2018 National Fire Experience Survey for their continuing efforts to provide the data necessary to make national projections. The author would also like to thank the members of NFPA staff who worked on this year’s survey, including Steve Belski, Frank Deely, and Jay Petrillo for editing the survey forms and making follow-up calls to fire departments. 

2016 Fire Loss update

NFPA has identified an issue with the dollar loss numbers for 2016, which were included in the summary of the annual Fire Loss report that appeared in the September/October 2017 NFPA Journal. The dollar loss is higher than originally reported. This issue does not affect the 2018 report that appears here. The figures have been corrected in the 2016 and 2017 Fire Loss reports and are available, along with errata, at nfpa.org/fireloss.

BEN EVARTS is data collection & research manager in the Data & Analytics Department at NFPA. Top photograph: Getty Images