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Reporter's Guide: The consequences of fire

Fire in the United States
Every 24 seconds, a fire department responds to a fire somewhere in the United States. Once a minute, a fire occurs in a structure. Although fire's toll has declined steadily over the past two decades, fire continues to cause major losses.

When people fear death by fire, they typically imagine the cry of “fire!” in a place crowded with strangers, perhaps a movie theater or restaurant. But of the 10 deadliest fires through 1999, only two were in such settings: the Iroquois Theater in Chicago in 1903 (PDF) and the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston in 1942 (PDF). Throughout history the big fires have more commonly engulfed cities or forests, or have involved steamships, airplanes, and industrial settings such as mines or chemical plans.

And those conflagrations have become less common. From 1900-1954, there were 44 fires with death tolls of 100 or more. But from 1955 to present, there have been just five:

  • a Southgate, KY, restaurant fire in 1977
  • the Oklahoma City office building bombing in 1995
  • the Florida in-flight fire in 1996
  • the World Trade Center attack in 2001
  • the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island in 2003

Today, people who die in fires typically die in ones and twos, in their own homes and vehicles.

Fire in the home

Home is the place people feel safest from fire, but it’s actually the place they’re at greatest risk. Approximately 80% of all U.S. fire deaths occur in the home; an average of seven people die in home fires every day.

According to NFPA’s latest reports, home fires and home fire deaths declined by about 50% since 1980. However, the 7.8 deaths per 1,000 reported home fires reflects a 10% increase over the 7.1 rate in 1980.  In other words, while the number of U.S. home fires and home fire deaths has significantly declined over the past few decades, the death rate per 1,000 reported fires is actually a little higher. These numbers show that while we’ve made strong progress in preventing fires, mitigating their effects when they do happen remains a challenge.

Today’s homes burn faster than ever. Experts say you may have a little as two minutes (or even less) to safely escape a typical home fire from the time the smoke alarm sounds. Modern home furnishings, along with the fact that newer homes tend to be built with more open spaces and unprotected lightweight wood construction, all contribute to the increased rate at which home fires burn.

The death toll of home fires can be reduced through:

Following are some of the leading causes of home fires and areas of concern:

  • Cooking. Cooking is by far the leading cause of home fires and injuries in the U.S. each year, and is the second-leading cause of home fire deaths. Unattended cooking represents the leading cause of these fire. People get distracted by children, pets or visitors, sometimes forgetting that they left food cooking. There is no safe period of time to leave cooking unattended. Almost two-thirds of home cooking fires involve the range, especially the cooktop. A 1999 CPSC study found that about two-thirds of home range fires started within the first 15 minutes of cooking; this increased to 83% for frying fires.
  • Heating equipment. Heating equipment is the second leading cause of home fires, and third leading cause of home fire deaths. Most heating-related fire deaths can be traced to space heaters—a category that includes fixed and portable space heaters, including wood stoves. Space heaters (excluding fireplaces and chimney) most often caused fires when something that could catch fire was left too close. Most fireplace and chimney fires were caused by creosote buildup. These can be prevented by regular cleaning.
  • Electrical. Flipping a light switch. Plugging in a coffeemaker. Charging a laptop computer. Electricity is such a ubiquitous part of our daily lives that it’s easy to overlook its power and potential for fire-related hazards. In fact, electrical distribution and lighting equipment represents the third-leading cause of fires. Wiring and related equipment was involved in 70 percent of these incidents; cords or plugs were involved in only 10 percent of the electrical distribution or lighting fires, but these fires caused more than one-quarter (28 percent) of the associated deaths.
  • Smoking materials. Lighted tobacco products — almost always cigarettes — are the leading cause of fatal fires in the home, causing an average of 560 deaths per year. Typically, abandoned or discarded smoking materials ignite trash, mattresses and bedding, or upholstered furniture, with the majority of fatal smoking-related fires starting in the bedroom, living room, family room or den.
  • Wildfires. While wildfires have traditionally been considered a concern only in the western half of the U.S., hotter temperatures, severe drought and a growing number of people living in the wildland-urban interface have played a role in increasing the risk in states all across the country. And with some of the hottest summers and winters on record in recent years, wildfires are burning larger than ever before and destroying twice as much land area each year as they did 40 years ago, and the threat continues to increase.
The killing fumes

Most fire deaths are not caused by burns, but by smoke inhalation. Often smoke incapacitates so quickly that people are overcome and can’t make it to an otherwise accessible exit. The synthetic materials commonplace in today’s homes produce especially dangerous substances. As a fire grows inside a building, it will often consume most of the available oxygen, slowing the burning process. This “incomplete combustion” results in toxic gases.

Smoke is made of components that can each be lethal in its own way:

particles: Unburned, partially burned, and completely burned substances can be so small they penetrate the respiratory system’s protective filters, and lodge in the lungs. Some are actively toxic; others are irritating to the eyes and digestive system.

vapors: Foglike droplets of liquid can poison if inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

toxic gases: The most common, carbon monoxide (CO), can be deadly, even in small quantities, as it replaced oxygen in the bloodstream. Hydrogen cyanide results from the burning of plastics, such as PVC pipe, and interferes with cellular respiration. Phosgene is formed when household products, such as vinyl materials, are burned. At low levels, phosgene can cause itchy eyes and a sore throat; at higher levels it can cause pulmonary edema and death.

In addition to producing smoke, fire can incapacitate or kill by reducing oxygen levels, either by consuming the oxygen, or by displacing it with other gases. Heat is also a respiratory hazard, as superheated gases burn the respiratory tract. When the air is hot enough, one breath can kill.

When oxygen levels are at...

...a person experiences:

21 percent

Normal outside air

17 percent

Impaired judgment and coordination

12 percent

Headache, dizziness, nausea, fatigue

9 percent

Unconsciousness

6 percent

Respiratory arrest, cardiac arrest, death

 


 

For more information, contact NFPA's Public Affairs office: