Author(s): Stephen Badger. Published on September 4, 2018.

Catastrophic Multiple death fires in 2017

Last year, 21 of these incidents resulted in 150 fatalities, topped by a series of historic California wildfires that killed 44

BY STEPHEN BADGER • 10 MINUTE READ

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Every year, NFPA reports on the most severe loss-of-life fires and explosions in the United States, referred to here as catastrophic multiple-death fires. These events are defined as fires or explosions that cause five or more deaths in a home or three or more deaths in a non-home structure, or in fires outside of structures, such as wildfires or vehicle fires. Vehicle crashes with a post-crash fire are included in this study if a fire in the vehicle caused the crash or the local coroner or medical examiner confirmed to NFPA that the victims died of thermal injuries or inhalation of products of combustion, rather than impact injuries.

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See the complete 2017 catastrophic multiple-death fires by type.

In 2017, 21 fires or explosions were considered catastrophic multiple-death fires. These fires killed 150 people, including 21 children under six years of age. Of those 21 fires, 14 occurred in homes and accounted for 84 of the deaths, including all of the children under the age of six. Three fires and two explosions occurred in non-home structures and accounted for 19 of the deaths. Additionally, two wildland fires accounted for 47 deaths.

In 2017, firefighters in the United States responded to an estimated 1,319,500 fires. An estimated 499,000 of those occurred in structures, and an estimated 820,500 occurred outside of structures or involved vehicles. These fires accounted for an estimated 3,420 deaths, 2,810 of which occurred in structures and 610 in non-structure, vehicle, or outside fires. The 21 catastrophic multiple-death fires in this report accounted for 0.002 percent of the total estimated number of fires and 4.4 percent of the total fire deaths in the U.S. in 2017.

The largest loss-of-life catastrophic multiple-death fire in 2017 was a wildfire incident in Northern California, referred to by Cal Fire as the 2017 October Fire Siege, that killed 44 people, destroyed an estimated 8,900 structures, burned 245,000 acres (99,147 hectares) or 335 square miles (868 square kilometers), forced the evacuation of over 100,000 people, and caused property damage of over $9 billion.

Leading up to that fire event, AccuWeather reported a wetter than normal winter for 2016–2017 in California, which helped end a five-year drought. The precipitation contributed to ample vegetation growth, which subsequently become fuel for wildfires in the fall. In early October, 250 wildfires broke out. At the height of this wildfire storm, in six counties in northern California, 21 fires raged out of control; it has been reported that many of the fires were caused by downed power lines, falling power poles, and limbs falling on wires as a result of high winds. During this time, winds averaged 25–35 mph (40–56 km/h), with gusts over 74 mph (112 km/h). Diablo winds—hot, dry offshore winds in north-central California—of hurricane force blew throughout the firestorm. Many of these large fires burned and merged with others to form fire complexes. One fire became the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history, killing 22 people and destroying 5,643 structures. By the time the fires were extinguished, 44 people had been killed. Victims ranged in age from 14 to 101, with 32 of them (72.7 percent) over the age of 60. People died in many different situations: in their homes, in vehicles attempting to escape, or while attempting to rescue animals. An elderly married couple died trying to escape the fire by seeking refuge in their swimming pool.

The largest loss-of-life structure fire in 2017 was in an apartment building in New York that killed 13 people, including two children under the age of six. The fire broke out at about 7 p.m. in a first-floor apartment, caused by a child playing with a stove. Once the fire was discovered, the mother grabbed the child and escaped the apartment. The apartment door remained open, either by the occupant or because the self-closer failed, allowing the fire to spread into the hallway, with smoke and flames extending upwards in the five-story, 26-unit building. Thirteen people were trapped and died in different areas of the building.

Catastrophic home fires

There were 14 catastrophic multiple-death home fires in 2017, compared to 11 the year before. Eleven fires occurred in single-family homes, of which three were manufactured homes; one each occurred in 26-unit, 9-unit, and 3-unit apartment buildings. Home fires killed 84 people, 19 more than in 2016. Of the 84 victims, 21 were children under the age of six, nine more than the previous year.

Besides the New York apartment fire that killed 13 people, one fire killed seven people, four fires killed six each, and eight fires killed five each.

The seven-fatality fire occurred at 3 a.m. in a two-story, single-family home. No information was reported on whether smoke alarms or suppression equipment were present. The incendiary fire was set in combustibles on the front porch and extended into and throughout the home.

Firefighters work on the remains of a house fire in South Dakota that claimed the lives of five children

Five children died in a residential fire in South Dakota. In 2017, 84 people died in multiple-death home fires, 21 of them children under the age of six. Photograph: Hannah Hunsinger/Rapid City Journal via AP

The four six-fatality fires broke out in single-family homes. Three of the four homes had smoke alarms. One operated and alerted the occupants and the operation of the other two was not reported. None of the homes was reported to have automatic sprinklers.

Six of the five-fatality fires broke out in single-family homes, three of which were manufactured homes. The other two fires occurred in apartment buildings. Two of these homes are known to have had no smoke alarms, and two were known to have them installed. In one of the homes with smoke alarms, the alarms did not operate because they were disconnected.

Ten of the home fires broke out between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., killing 56 people, including 14 children under age six.

The cause of six of the home fires was reported. Two fires were incendiary, one fire resulted when paper fell on a portable heater, one when a wood stove ignited stacked wood, one due to the deficient installation of a wood-burning stove, and one by a child playing with a cooking stove.

The area of origin was known in 10 of the 14 home fires. Five broke out in a living room or lounge area, two on porches, and one each broke out in a kitchen, a bedroom, and in a dining room.

Catastrophic non-home structure fires, and non-structure fires

Five of the 21 catastrophic multiple-death fires and explosions in 2017 were in non-home structures, resulting in 19 deaths. There were eight such fires in 2016, accounting for 65 deaths. In 2017, these incidents occurred in a nursing home, a homeless shelter, an assisted living facility, a paper mill, and a corn milling facility. One fire and explosion killed five people, two fires killed four each, and one fire killed three. One explosion with no subsequent fire killed three people.

In the deadliest incident, an explosion occurred at approximately 11 p.m. at a corn milling facility when corn dust was ignited by flames in an intake line in the process area. The incident is still under investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB). No information was reported on the presence of smoke alarms or an automatic suppression system.

Ariel view of the aftermath of the corn milling plant explosion and fire in Wisconsin.

Fire people died in an explosion and fire at a corn milling plant in Wisconsin. Multiple-death non-home fires killed 100 people in the U.S. in 2017. Photograph: John hart/Wisconsin State journal via AP

Four of the five non-home incidents broke out between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., killing 11 of the 19 victims. Four of the five properties were operating, two at full capacity and two at partial capacity. Cause was determined in two incidents; a fire was caused by improper disposal of smoking materials, and an explosion was caused by welding too close to an explosive atmosphere.

In 2017 there were two non-structure fires, both of which were wildland fires. (In 2016, there were also two non-home fires, with 30 fatalities.) As mentioned earlier, one of the 2017 wildfire events killed 44 people. The second wildland fire, ignited by molten metal falling on grass, killed three people on a ranch as they herded animals away from the fire.

The role of suppression equipment and smoke detection

Information about automatic smoke detection equipment was available for nine of the 11 catastrophic home fires. Six homes were equipped with smoke alarms. One system operated and another did not operate because it was disconnected. In four fires, the operation was not reported. In the fire where the system operated, the victims were trapped when the fire blocked their exit.

Information on detection equipment was reported for three of the five non-home structure fires and explosions. Two had smoke alarms, and both systems operated. In one fire, the victims died due to traumatic injuries from an explosion; in the other, the elderly and disabled victims were exposed to smoke for a prolonged period of time. One structure had no detection equipment, and no information was reported for the other two incidents.

Ten of the homes had no automatic suppression equipment, and no information was reported for the other four. Two non-home properties had automatic suppression equipment, but in both of those instances explosions occurred—one resulting in fatal traumatic injuries in the blast and the other destroying the suppression system. One non-home property had no automatic suppression equipment. No information was reported for the other two non-home structure fires.

It is unfortunate that only two of the 19 structures were known to have suppression equipment because sprinklers have been proven to save lives across many different kinds of properties, including homes. The risk of dying in a reported fire in a home decreases by about 80 percent when sprinklers are present, and sprinklers reduce the average property loss in home fires by 71 percent per fire. More information about home fire sprinklers is available at NFPA’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative, online at firesprinklerinitiative.org.

Smoke alarms have been proven effective in reducing the risk of death in home fires. The most effective arrangement is interconnected, multiple-station smoke alarms supplied by hardwired AC power with a battery backup. These should be located outside each sleeping area, on each level, and in each bedroom. Homeowners should routinely test smoke alarms according to manufacturers’ recommendations. NFPA recommends testing home smoke alarms at least monthly.

Batteries should also be replaced according to manufacturer recommendations; conventional batteries should be replaced at least yearly. If an alarm “chirps,” a warning that the battery is low, the battery should be replaced right away. All smoke alarms, including hard-wired alarms and alarms that use 10-year batteries, should be replaced when they are 10 years old, or sooner if they do not respond properly when tested.

Smoke alarms are only effective if occupants leave the building when they sound. Children should be familiar with the sound of a properly operating smoke alarm and follow a practiced escape plan that emphasizes two exits from any location, as well as a designated meeting place once they have left the structure. Exit drills in the home are part of many schools’ curricula. Practicing the plan helps families determine whether children and others readily waken to the sound of a smoke alarm if it sounds during night; that knowledge, along with assistance for family members who require it, can be factored into the escape plan. Practicing escape plans, as well as basic fire prevention principles, might have prevented many of the fires and deaths included in this report.

Where we get our data, and acknowledgments

NFPA obtains its data by reviewing national and local news media, including fire service publications. A news clipping service reads all daily U.S. newspapers and notifies the NFPA Applied Research Division of fatal fires. Once an incident has been identified, we request information from the local fire department or the agency having jurisdiction. NFPA’s annual survey of U.S. fire experience and mailings to state fire marshals are additional data sources, although not principal ones. We also contact federal agencies that have participated in the investigation of such fires.

The diversity and redundancy of these sources enable us to collect the most complete data available on catastrophic multiple-death fires throughout the United States. We understand that, in many cases, a fire department cannot release information due to ongoing litigation. In other cases, fire departments have been unable to determine the information we requested.

NFPA wishes to thank the U.S. fire service and the medical examiners for their contributions of data, without which this report would not be possible. The author also thanks Nancy Schwartz and the staff of NFPA’s Research Data and Analysis Group.

STEPHEN G. BADGER, a fire data assistant with NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division, is retired from the Quincy, Massachusetts, Fire Department. Top Photograph: PETE BANNAN/DAILY LOCAL NEWS VIA AP