Author(s): Ben Evarts. Published on September 4, 2018.

Fire Loss in the United States During 2017

More than 1.3 million fires were reported by fire departments in 2017, resulting in an estimated 3,400 civilian deaths, nearly 15,000 civilian injuries, and $23 billion in property loss

BY BEN EVARTS • 11 MINUTE READ

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Every year, NFPA surveys a sample of United States public fire departments in order to project national estimates of the U.S. fire problem.

Based on the data from our 2017 National Fire Experience Survey, we estimate that public fire departments in the U.S. responded to 1,319,500 fires last year, a decrease of 2 percent from 2016.

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An overview of the 2017 U.S. fire experience

Of these fires, an estimated 499,000 were structure fires, 5 percent more than 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 multi-family housing, hotels and motels, and dormitories. “Home” encompasses one- or two-family homes, including manufactured housing, and apartments or other multifamily homes. One- and two-family and manufactured homes are much less regulated than other residential properties. Nonresidential structure properties include public assembly buildings, schools and colleges, health care and correctional institutions, stores and offices, industrial facilities, storage facilities, and other structures such as outbuildings and bridges.

In 2017, there were 379,000 residential structure fires, accounting for 76 percent of all structure fires, an increase of 7,500 fires from 2016. Of these fires, 262,500 occurred in one- and two-family homes, accounting for 53 percent of all structure fires. Another 95,000 fires occurred in apartments, 19 percent of the structure fire total. The total number of home fires for 2017 was 357,000. There were also 120,000 nonresidential structure fires in 2017, an increase of 15 percent from 2016.

The 623,000 outside fires or other non-structure, non-vehicle fires accounted for almost half (47 percent) of all reported fires. These included 283,000 brush, grass, and forest fires (22 percent of total fires); 174,500 outside rubbish fires (13 percent of total fires); 74,000 outside fires involving property of value (6 percent); and 91,000 (7 percent of total fires) other non-structure, non-vehicle fires.

Firefighters inspect the scene of a fatal fire in New York.

Firefighters inspect the scene of a fatal fire in New York in December 2017. Residential structure fires accounted for 76 percent of all structure fires int the U.S. last year and 77 percent of all civilian fire deaths. Photograph: AP Photo/Mark Leninihan

From 2016 to 2017, the number of outside or other fires decreased 6 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 million 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 2016 to 2017, brush, grass, or forest fires decreased 5 percent; outside rubbish fires increased 2 percent; fires involving property of value decreased by 16 percent; and other non-structure, non-vehicle fires decreased 13 percent.

In addition to residential, nonresidential, and outside fires, there were an estimated 168,000 highway vehicle fires in 2017, a decrease of 3 percent from the year before, and 29,500 other vehicle fires, a decrease of 5 percent.

Civilian fire deaths

The 1,319,500 fires reported by fire departments in 2017 resulted in an estimated 3,400 civilian deaths, an increase of less than 1 percent from the 2016 total. We can better understand the nature of these deaths by examining the types of properties where the deaths occurred.

The 357,000 home structure fires (which includes one- and two-family homes and apartments) caused 2,630 civilian deaths, a decrease of 4 percent from 2016. This includes 2,290 deaths (67 percent of the total number of civilian deaths) in one- and two-family homes and 340 in apartments or other multi-family housing, including condominiums. Deaths in one- or two-family homes decreased by 5 percent, while apartment deaths increased by 5 percent from 2016. Seventy-seven 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 downward until recent years, with fewer than 5,000 annual deaths since 1982, and less 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 2017 declined from 5,865 to 2,630, a drop of 55 percent. The number of home fires also dropped steadily over the same period for an overall decrease of 51 percent. However, the death rate per 1,000 home fires 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 7.4 in 2017. 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 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 2017, there were also 80 civilian fire deaths in other residential occupancies, such as hotels, motels, dormitories, and boarding houses, for an increase of 23 percent compared to 2016. In addition, 105 civilians died in nonresidential structure fires, a decrease of 30 percent from the year before.

Of the 2,820 civilian deaths in structure fires, 280 (10 percent) died in fires that were intentionally set.

Investigators examine the scorched remains of a house following a fatal fire in Mississippi

Investigators examine the scorched remains of a house following a fatal fire in Mississippi. Photograph: John Surratt/The Vicksburg Post via AP

With 2,630 home fire deaths accounting for 77 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. 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. The regulations requiring more child-resistant lighters are a good example, as are fire-safe cigarettes. Finally, the special fire safety needs of high-risk groups such as 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 280 in 2016 to an estimated 400 in 2017. 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 445 in 2015.

Civilian fire injuries

In addition to the 3,400 civilians who died in fires in 2017, there were an estimated 14,670 civilian fire injuries. This is an increase of less than 1 percent from 2016 and is the second lowest since 1977. 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 14,670 civilians injured in 2017, we estimate that 12,160 civilians were injured in structure fires, and of those, that 10,600 were injured in home structure fires, a decrease of 1 percent from the previous year. Of these injuries, 7,470 occurred in one- and two-family homes and manufactured homes, and 3,130 occurred in apartments. An additional 1,250 civilians were injured in nonresidential structure fires in 2017, a decrease of 24 percent from the year before. Additionally, 1,370 civilians were injured in highway vehicle fires, a 27 percent increase from 2016. Fires in other vehicles (including airplanes, trains, ships, construction vehicles, and farm vehicles) caused 240 civilian injuries in 2017.

Between 1977 and 2017, 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 1,319,500 fires to which the fire service responded in 2017 caused $23 billion in property damage, a very large increase over the $10.6 billion in 2016. It is worth noting that the $23 billion figure includes major wildfires in Northern California in 2017, which caused $10 billion in direct property damage.

Fires in structures not related to wildfires resulted in $10.7 billion in property damage, an increase of 35 percent from 2016. Each structure fire resulted in an average property loss of $21,463, an increase of 29 percent from the previous year. From 1977 to 2017, excluding the events of September 11, 2001, the average loss per structure fire was $3,757 in 1977 and $21,462 in 2017, for a nearly six-fold increase. When property loss is adjusted for inflation in 2017 dollars, however, the increase in the average structure fire loss between 1977 and 2017 is 36.4 percent.

Of the 2017 property loss in structures, $7.7 billion occurred in home structures, an increase of 56 percent from 2016. An estimated $6.1 billion of this loss occurred in one- and two-family homes, an increase of 25 percent. An estimated loss of $1.6 billion occurred in apartments or other multifamily housing including condominiums. Over $400 million of this loss came from major fires in apartments that were under construction at the time of the fire.

Other property damage results for 2017 include $763 million in store and office properties, an increase of 75 percent; $503 million in industrial and manufacturing properties, a 20 percent increase; $1.4 billion in highway vehicles, a 55 percent increase; and $594 million in other vehicles, a 40 percent increase.

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 the NFPA Journal.

Intentionally set fires

NFPA estimates that 22,500 structure fires were intentionally set in 2017, an increase of 13 percent from the year before. These fires resulted in an estimated 280 civilian deaths, a decrease of 10 percent from the previous year. These fires resulted in $582 million in property loss, an increase of 23 percent compared to 2016.

In 2017, there were also an estimated 8,500 intentionally set vehicle fires, a drop of 10.5 percent compared to the year before. These fires resulted in $75 million in property loss, an increase of 88 percent from 2016.

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 U.S. 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 2,592 fire departments responded to the 2017 fire experience survey.

Our national projections are made by weighting the sample results according to the proportion of the total U.S. 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 U.S. Fire Loss report are only part of the fire loss picture. A more detailed and complete report on the overall patterns and trends of 2017, 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 such as the number of fire department responses by type of call, will be available in October at nfpa.org/fireloss.

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 2017 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, including Steve Belski, Frank Deely, and Jay Petrillo, who worked on this year’s survey, including editing the survey forms and making follow-up calls to fire departments.

BEN EVARTS is data collection & research manager in the Data & Analytics Department at NFPA. Top Photograph: RONEN TIVONY/SIPA USA/AP Wide World