Author(s): Richard Campbell. Published on January 1, 2020.

Firewatch

Fire incidents from across the country

BY RICHARD CAMPBELL


Mercantile

IOWA
Furnace malfunction blamed for fire that destroys commercial building

Waste oil from a faulty furnace was determined as the source of a blaze that destroyed an industrial supply and repair facility.

Firefighters who responded to the early morning fire were unable to save the property. Reports indicated that the facility was fully involved with fire by the time crews reached the scene minutes after dispatch.

A passing motorist spotted the fire and called 911 at 4:09 a.m. Arriving crews reached the scene minutes later and issued a request for assistance from mutual aid companies after evaluating the extent of the fire’s development.

Firefighters fought the fire with a defensive attack from the beginning, deploying multiple hoses and two aerial devices, according to reports. News reports indicated that firefighters worked in sub-freezing temperatures and icy conditions.

Investigators determined that the fire began in a repair and storage area when waste oil from a malfunctioning furnace was ignited by heat from the waste oil reservoir. The fire department report noted that the facility was not equipped with either fire detection or suppression systems.

Two firefighters suffered strain injuries and a third suffered a knee injury from a fall.

The building was a two-story structure constructed with steel and wood materials. It occupied a ground floor area of 10,000 square feet (929 square meters).

The building, valued at $500,000, was a total loss. The contents, which were valued at an estimated $1 million, were also a total loss.

Residential

CALIFORNIA
Fire ignited by candle claims one victim, injures a secon
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One person died and a second was severely injured in an overnight house fire that investigators determined was ignited by a candle.

Firefighters were dispatched to the scene shortly after 4 a.m. after multiple callers contacted 911 to report a fire with possible entrapment. They arrived to find an injured male occupant in front of the residence and flames showing through openings on three sides of a one-story house.

Medical crews attended to the victim, who had suffered serious burn injuries, while incident command established a defensive fire attack.

Crews pulled an attack line and began extinguishing the fire at one side of the structure, then repositioned the line to a rear corner of the house, where a potential access point had been identified for entry. A line was also pulled to the opposite side of the house, where utility lines were threatened by flames.

When fire had been sufficiently suppressed to permit entry, a search and rescue team made entry through the rear, extinguishing fire but finding the immediate area empty, then continued with suppression to the front of the structure. As firefighters advanced into a front bedroom, they found a female victim on the floor, who they confirmed was already deceased.

Firefighters left the victim in place and suppressed the fire before exiting the structure in order to preserve the scene for investigators. After initial treatment at a local medical center, the injured victim was transferred via a medical flight to a burn center for long-term treatment of his injuries.

Investigators determined that the fire began in the front bedroom where the victim was found. There was no indication of the material ignited by the candle.

According to fire department reports, the property was owned by a bank. Gas and electrical utilities to the property had been secured one year earlier.

The house was a wood structure with a ground floor area of 576 square feet (53 square meters).

The house, valued at $50,000, was a total loss, as were its contents, valued at $5,000.

MASSACHUSETTS
Electrical fault in reclining chair blamed for fatal house fire

A fault in an electrically powered reclining chair resulted in fatal house fire where an off-duty firefighter rescued one occupant, but a second occupant who was pulled from the burning structure by arriving crews later succumbed to injuries at a local hospital.

Occupants of the house called 911 shortly before 7 a.m. to report the fire, but the off-duty firefighter, who smelled smoke as he left his nearby residence to report for duty, was first to reach the scene, where he learned from an evacuated occupant that two people were trapped in a rear bedroom.

The firefighter climbed onto a railing and opened a small window to the bedroom, where an elderly female and her adult son had retreated from the fire. After the son made repeated attempts to drag his mother to the window, the firefighter was forced to reach in and pull him through the opening as heat and smoke filled the room.

As responding firefighters arrived, the off-duty firefighter ran to the front to alert crews that an occupant remained inside. Two crew members made entry through the back of the residence while the off-duty firefighter pulled a hose to the open window and began to flow water on the fire to protect the firefighters and the occupant.

The interior firefighters located the occupant on the bedroom floor and carried her through the front door, where they were assisted by other crew members and began medical intervention.

The woman and three other residents of the home were transported to the hospital. The woman succumbed to her injuries in the emergency room. The injuries sustained by the other residents were not life threatening.

News reports indicated that firefighters were able to quickly bring the fire under control.

Investigators determined that the fire began when an electrical fault in a powered recliner ignited combustibles within the chair, and the fire spread to other combustibles, assisted by oxygen entering the structure through an open window.

The house was a one-and-a-half-story split level and occupied an area of 1,114 square feet (103 square meters) and was protected by smoke detectors.

Damage from the fire was estimated at $140,000.

MAINE
Electrical fault blamed for fatal house fire

An electrical fault in the attic was blamed for a house fire that claimed the life of an occupant, who was apparently overcome by smoke while making her way to an exit. Three additional occupants escaped.

Firefighters were dispatched to the fire at 1:48 a.m. following a 911 call by one of the escaped occupants who reported that one occupant was still inside the house.

A police officer who was first at the scene tried to enter through a side door, but was pushed back by heavy smoke and an apparent flashover. Shortly afterwards, arriving firefighters immediately called a second alarm before pulling a hose to the front entrance for fire attack. At the entrance, crews could see the victim at the top of the stairs of the two-story structure and reported that the fire was in flashover, with 50 percent involvement on the first floor. Efforts to suppress the fire were unsuccessful due to the intense heat and smoke conditions. Crews attempted to make their way to the victim, but were ordered to retreat amid rapidly changing and non-survivable conditions.

Crews then backed out of the residence and continued attacking the fire from the exterior at the front of the house. A second attack crew pulled a hose to a side entrance, but was met by hoarding conditions as they sought to open the door. Crews maintained an exterior attack until completing extinguishment.

News reports indicated that one firefighter suffered a minor burn and that the police officer who tried to enter the home was transported to the hospital for evaluation.

The state fire marshal determined that the fire began in the ceiling and attic area, likely due to an electrical fault. After igniting, the fire spread down the wall and caused the ceiling to collapse, spreading additional fire to the living space on the main floor.

Investigators believe the fire may have burned for 30 minutes before it was detected by an occupant, who smelled smoke. The residence had a single smoke alarm, but it lacked batteries and was inoperative.

The house was a split level of ranch-style construction, with a wood frame and walls and a plywood roof deck that was covered by asphalt shingles. It occupied a ground floor area of 960 square feet (89 square meters).

The house and its contents, together valued at $84,000, were a total loss.

PENNSYLVANIA
Propane heater blamed for fatal house fire that claims elderly couple

Two people died in a midday house fire that investigators indicate was ignited by a propane heater.

Firefighters were dispatched to the scene following a neighbor’s call to 911 at 3:30 p.m. Arriving crews reported heavy fire showing from front windows on the first floor of a two-and-a-half-story residence, with active fire extension on the second floor.

Crews deployed an initial attack line to the front door and were met with heavy fire upon making entry. Bystanders informed incident command that an elderly couple lived in the residence and were frequently located in rooms at the front of the house.

A search and rescue team entered the residence from the rear porch into the kitchen, where they found the male resident on the floor, showing no signs of life. Fire suppression crews entering from the front subsequently found the female in a doorway between a front living area in the kitchen.

After knocking down most of the fire on the first floor, crews pulled handlines to the second floor and were able to extinguish fire there with relative ease, but had initial difficulty gaining access to the attic area, where heavy fire was quickly spreading. Crews were able to gain access and knock down the fire after pulling second floor ceilings, with assistance from exterior crews, who opened up multiple areas at the front of the residence.

Initial overhaul efforts were kept to a minimum until the coroner arrived to take disposition of the occupants.

Fire department reports indicated that initial water supply from hydrants was delayed because the nearest fire hydrant was frozen, but crews were able to use engine water and tankers without any delay in fire attack.

Investigators determined that the fire began when a propane space heater ignited plywood wall covering on the first floor of the residence. Reports indicated that the house was not equipped with smoke alarms.

The house was a wood-frame construction, with a ground floor area of 500 square feet (46 square meters).

The house, valued at $95,000, and its contents, valued at $20,000, were a total loss.

TEXAS
House explosion kills one, injures four


A 12-year-old girl was killed in an early-morning house explosion believed to be caused by a gas leak, and four other family members were injured but survived the blast.

Firefighters were dispatched at 6:30 a.m. by a report of a structure fire. On arrival, they found a single-family home with major structural damage, but no fire. Firefighters extracted five occupants from the remains of the home.

Reports indicated that the 12-year-old girl was found unresponsive and received CPR at the scene before being rushed to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead. The remaining occupants were transported to the hospital for treatment of blunt force and burn injuries.

Fire department investigators were advised by the incident commander that the structure was unsafe for entry. The investigators reported that the majority of the damage was located at a front corner of the structure, where a brick exterior had been blown off and an adjoining wall blown out. The roof on the same side was also damaged and had collapsed. Portions of wall had also been blown out on the opposite side of the house.

The father told investigators that family members were sleeping at the time of the blast and found themselves amidst fallen debris and wreckage after the explosion. He reported that one day earlier, he heard a loud popping noise from the kitchen area, but neither he nor his son smelled gas or discovered anything amiss when they tried to identify the source of the noise. Investigators reported that fires of a similar nature had taken place in nearby residences in each of the two days prior.

Because of the explosion and the earlier incidents, emergency response personnel evacuated more than 300 residences in the neighborhood, and the local gas utility shut down the main natural-gas pipeline serving area homes. Several days later, the utility shut down its natural gas distribution system, affecting approximately 2,800 homes, for over three weeks.

Following the explosion, a team from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) evaluated pipeline operations and integrity management and identified three sections of pipe that failed a pressure test. A preliminary report by the NTSB indicated that the fatal explosion was a natural-gas-fueled explosion. The agency was investigating whether the other two incidents were related. Fire department investigators concluded that the explosion was due to the ignition of natural gas by a spark from the heating system.

The house was a single-story structure occupying a ground floor area of 1,900 square feet (176 square meters). The house was constructed with a wood frame, with walls covered by a brick veneer and siding.

The explosion caused approximately $81,000 in damage to the house, valued at $105,000. Damage to the contents, valued at $15,000, was estimated at $12,500.

LOUISIANA
Open flame from propane tank starts fatal trailer fire


One man died when fire ignited by flame from a propane tank swept through the camper trailer that he was using as his residence.

The fire department was called to the scene shortly after midnight by a report of a fire with possible entrapment. Upon arrival, crews found a trailer fully involved with fire. As they began attacking the fire with two preconnect hoselines, firefighters paused to remove two portable propane tanks found just inside the front door, then shut off a propane gas line and removed an additional propane tank before they could complete extinguishment.

After crews extinguished all fire, they found the victim’s body just inside the front door. They then secured the scene and requested that dispatch notify the local coroner.

Investigators learned that the victim was renting the trailer and were informed by its owner that the victim used an open-flame propane burner inside the residence for warmth. The investigators determined that the fire started when propane flame ignited cabinetry in the kitchen area.

News reports indicated than no working smoke detectors were found inside the trailer. Noting the occurrence of several heating-related fires in recent weeks, an assistant fire chief encouraged the public to install and inspect smoke detection systems and to use caution with the use of space heaters.

The trailer had an area of 288 square feet (27 square meters). The trailer and its contents, valued at $2,300, were a total loss.

GEORGIA
Electric space heater ignites fatal house fire


One person died and a second was injured in an early morning house fire that began when a space heater ignited bedding materials.

Firefighters were dispatched to the scene at 3:15 a.m. following a cell phone call to 911 by the injured occupant.

Arriving crews reported smoke and flames showing from a one-story residence. They encountered an injured occupant at the front entrance, who, before being transported to the hospital, indicated that other people were still inside the house.

A rescue team was formed and went in the front entrance, but crew members were unable to advance down a hallway due to high heat conditions. Incident command assigned members of an engine company to ventilate the room while interior crews backed out and extinguished the majority of the fire from the exterior.

Crews reentered the residence and found the deceased occupant in a rear bedroom. A subsequent primary search of the entire structure revealed that no one else remained inside. A third occupant who was able to evacuate the residence was located across the street.

Investigators determined that the fire originated in the deceased victim’s bedroom, where an electric space heater ignited bedding and ordinary combustibles. The residence was equipped with smoke detectors in a common hallway and dining room and successfully operated.

The house was of wood construction and occupied a ground floor area of 2,526 square feet (235 square meters). The fire caused an estimated $45,000 in damage to the house, valued at $82,800. The contents of the house, valued at $25,000, were a total loss.

PENNSYLVANIA
Hoarding conditions contribute to fatal house fire


Large amounts of material stored inside a home contributed to a heavy fuel load and complicated rescue efforts in a mid-afternoon house fire that claimed the lives of two occupants.

A 911 call from neighbors brought firefighters to the scene at 2 p.m. Crews arrived to find the entire front of the house engulfed in flames and called for a second alarm upon learning of possible entrapment.

Firefighters laid a supply line to the nearest hydrant and stretched a hose to the front of the house, where they made an initial attack through a window to the right of the front door. Crews were unable to make entry through the front entrance due to accumulated material behind the door inside the structure, so they continued attacking the fire through the windows. As additional units arrived, crews were deployed on each side of the house to protect neighboring structures and attack the fire where possible. Arriving crews also added a ladder pipe and ground monitor to the exterior attack.

Firefighters continued to seek entry into the house and made limited progress through a rear entrance, but had to retreat when the floor became unsafe. An attempt to enter through a door on the second floor was also unsuccessful due to untenable interior conditions, and crews maintained an exterior attack for the remainder of the operation.

Once most of the fire was extinguished, crews entered the structure through a corner window at the rear of the house and were able to access an interior stairway to the second floor, where neighbors had indicated that the occupants were likely to be located. Crews found the bodies of the occupants shortly afterward and removed them through a side window. The last units cleared the scene shortly before 9:30 a.m.

Investigators believe that the fire may have begun on a front porch, but were unable to determine the cause of ignition or whether the residence was equipped with smoke detectors.

The house was a two-story wood structure occupying a ground floor area of 1,200 square feet (111 square meters).

The house, valued at $60,000, was a total loss, as were its contents, whose value was estimated at $50,000.

OHIO
Space heater suspected in blaze that kills a man and his dog

An early morning fire that may have been started by a space heater claimed the life of a male resident and his dog.

Firefighters were dispatched to the scene at 12:43 a.m. after a neighbor spotted the fire and called 911.

On arrival, crews reported that an active fire had already caused the roof of a single-family residence to collapse and that only the walls remained standing. Crews conducted a search of the house following extinguishment and found the body of the occupant in his bedroom.

Reports indicated that the residence lacked a working furnace and was cluttered with possessions left by a prior occupant. The occupant, who had a motor disability, moved into the house in order to live independently and because a local apartment building wouldn’t allow him to live with his dog.

The victim was heating the house with space heaters, which investigators suspect may have ignited the fire.

The house was a wood structure and occupied a ground floor area of 1,440 square feet (134 square meters). It did not have working smoke alarms.

The fire destroyed the house, valued at $10,000, and its contents, with an estimated value of $3,000.

Storage

CALIFORNIA
Sprinkler credited with preventing large loss in arson fire


The sprinkler system in a storage facility of a nonprofit organization was credited by fire authorities with extinguishing an early morning fire and preventing significant damage.

Firefighters were dispatched to the scene following a 911 report of a commercial building fire at 4:19 a.m. Crews arrived five minutes later and were met by facility personnel, who directed them to a corner of the building where a door stood open. Looking inside, crews could see slow-moving, light-gray smoke throughout the ceiling area of the single-story building.

Firefighters forced entry at rear and side gates to the property and through a roll-up door at the rear of the building. Inside, they found two activated sprinklers keeping a small fire in check. Crews completed extinguishment with a hose connected to a nearby hydrant, then completed overhaul of damaged materials before returning control to facility management.

Investigators determined the fire was intentionally set along an exterior wall of the building. The investigation report found that the fire would likely have resulted in a total fire loss without a functional sprinkler system.

The building was constructed with cinder block walls and had a flat roof constructed with heavy timber with an asphalt cover. It occupied a ground floor area of 18,000 square feet (1,672 square meters).

The fire caused $10,000 in damage to the building, valued at $500,000, and $2,000 in damage to its contents, valued at $650,000.

NORTH DAKOTA
Sprinkler system limits storage facility fire started by hot work


An after-hours fire in a work area of a storage facility was controlled by the building’s sprinkler system until firefighters arrived to complete extinguishment.

Firefighters were summoned to the facility at approximately 6 p.m. when passers-by noticed smoke and called 911. Crews could hear the sprinkler alarm sounding upon arrival. After finding all doors locked, they forced entry through the front entrance.

Once inside, crew members were met with heavy smoke conditions. In a shop area at the center of the building, they found that a sprinkler had activated above a workbench, but a fire was still burning underneath. Crew members were able to extinguish the remaining fire relatively quickly.

Investigators determined that welding had been performed late in the day and determined that the fire began when hot metal slag ignited a cardboard box, then spread to nearby shelving and other combustibles.

The building was a single-story structure constructed with concrete walls and roof framing and occupied a ground floor area of 8,500 square feet (790 square meters). The fire caused an estimated $5,000 in damage to the building contents, valued at $500,000. There was no damage to the building, which had an estimated value of $1.5 million. 

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. Top Photograph: DAVE KETTERING/TELEGRAPH HERALD