Author(s): Richard Campbell. Published on September 4, 2018.

Firewatch

Fire incidents from across the country

BY RICHARD CAMPBELL

Residential

MASSACHUSETTS

Smoldering pile of wood pellets kills occupant

A female resident died in a house fire that began in a basement and was believed to have burned for hours before it was detected by a neighbor, who alerted the fire department with a phone call to 911.

Firefighters were dispatched at 7:40 a.m. for a reported building fire with people trapped inside. Upon arrival, units observed heavy smoke conditions with no visible fire showing from the two-story residence.

Incident command directed crews from two engine companies to prepare for search and rescue. As one crew pulled a hose inside through the front entrance, the second crew began searching the first floor and found an occupant on a couch in the living room at the front of the house. Crews pulled the occupant outside and transported her to a local hospital by ambulance, where she later succumbed to smoke inhalation injuries.

Crews located the fire in the basement and news reports indicated that they managed to knock it down within minutes. Following extinguishment, crews vented the structure and performed overhaul activities.

Investigators determined that the fire was caused when wood pellets stored in the basement for a wood stove fell onto a water heater and ignited. Investigators indicated that the fire never extended beyond the pile of pellets, which weighed an estimated two tons. A glazed coating found on surfaces throughout the structure was believed to be a sign of long-term smoldering and heat.

The house was not equipped with working smoke alarms. It was a wood construction with a slate roof and occupied a ground floor area of 1,800 square feet (167 square meters).

The fire caused an estimated $20,000 in damage to the house, valued at $80,000. There was an additional $15,000 in damage to its contents, valued at $35,000.

MICHIGAN

Man dies in rural house fire that originated in kitchen

Firefighters from four communities responded to a house fire in a rural area that took three hours to bring under control and claimed the life of a lone male occupant.

The fire department was initially notified of the fire at 8:30 p.m. by a 911 call reporting a fire of unknown type. While en route to the scene, the fire chief received an updated report of a house fire with possible entrapment, leading the chief to request full assistance from a neighboring fire department. Upon arrival, the chief reported a structure fire with heavy flames through the roof at the back side of the house and heavy interior smoke conditions. The chief contacted dispatch with a request for an additional tanker and personnel from the next closest fire department.

From the front threshold, the chief used his flashlight to examine the interior, where he noted smoke approximately two feet above floor level. He called inside and heard no response, then moved to the rear after ceiling materials started falling near the front entrance. At the back of the house, the chief was able to open the door and observe heavy smoke and flames, but saw no sign of the home’s occupant.

With the arrival of the first engine company, the chief assigned teams to undertake suppression and primary search operations from the front and rear entrances. Firefighters at the front of the house moved in through the living room and began suppressing fire in the kitchen and dining room, where they reported heavy fire and smoke, leading the fire chief to request dispatch of an additional fire department. Crews at the back entrance were also able to reach the kitchen area, but conditions led to an order to evacuate and instead attempt entry through a bedroom window at a rear corner of the house.

Crews were met with moderate smoke conditions upon entering through the rear window. After finding the bedroom empty, they moved through the hallway to an adjacent bedroom, where they found heavier smoke conditions but were still able to navigate for a primary search. They were joined by firefighters from a newly arrived company who assisted with the search while crews pulled a third hose to attack the fire at the rear. Search crews reported that they were unable to locate a victim at approximately the same time that the first interior attack team indicated that the major fire had largely been knocked down.

Three teams were assigned to undertake a secondary search of the residence, including firefighters from a fourth company. During the search, the body of the victim was found in a hallway adjacent to the bedroom and determined to be deceased. A firefighter was assigned to guard the body, while suppression crews resumed extinguishing the remaining fire. Incident command requested that a medical examiner and an investigator from the state fire marshal’s office report to the scene. The body of the victim was later removed by a local funeral home.

The house was a single-story wood structure. Investigators were unable to determine whether it was equipped with smoke detectors due to damage. The house and contents, collectively valued at $70,000, were believed to be a total loss.

Investigators determined that the fire began in the kitchen area and noted that a kettle on the stove had melted to the point of being melded with the burner, but reports did not indicate the cause of the fire.

TENNESSEE

One dies in boarding house fire

An early morning fire of unknown cause claimed the life of one occupant of a residential boarding house. Newspapers reported that the residence had no working smoke detection equipment.

Firefighters responded to the fire following a 911 call at 1:09 a.m. Upon arrival, crews reported heavy smoke showing from the rear and right side of the structure. Crews were able to enter without forcing the door and immediately initiated fire and rescue operations.

News reports indicated that crews brought the fire under control in less than one hour. During a primary search of the structure, firefighters found an unconscious and unresponsive male occupant in a downstairs kitchen area. Crews transported the occupant outside and immediately began full resuscitation efforts. Efforts to revive the occupant were unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead at the scene.

Investigators determined that the fire began in a first-floor bedroom, where it spread upward and outward to the ceiling area, filling the structure with high temperatures and heavy smoke and penetrating the ceiling into the second floor. The fire completely destroyed the bed and all available combustibles in the room of fire origin. Investigators were unable to determine a cause in their initial investigation.

The residence was described in news reports as a two-story wood-frame home. The reports stated that damage to the structure was estimated at $78,000 and damage to contents at $25,000.

OHIO

Woman dies, firefighters injured in early morning house fire

Firefighters responding to a report of a structure fire with possible entrapment were able to evacuate the victim in difficult conditions, but the female occupant later succumbed to smoke inhalation injuries.

Firefighters were dispatched to the fire following a 911 call at 2:28 am. Upon arrival, crews reported that the first floor of a two-story residence was fully involved with fire, with fire venting from windows on three sides of the structure. Bystanders told firefighters that a female occupant was trapped in a second-floor bedroom at one corner of the building and that she had disappeared after being encouraged to jump from the window.

Firefighters pulled a hose into a front-side door in order to reset the fire and allow entry from the window of the occupant’s room. Crews used a second hose to attack the fire from the second-floor window, then made entry into the room from a ground ladder. Crews located the occupant two to three feet from the window and removed her through the window and down the ladder to waiting medical personnel.

After the occupant was evacuated, all firefighters were pulled out of the house and conducted an exterior attack until the fire was extinguished. Crews performed overhaul and the state fire marshal’s office was contacted to assist with the investigation. The cause of the fire had not been determined at the time reports were filed.

Three firefighters were injured battling the blaze.

Firefighters reported that there was likely a delay in detecting the fire because the house was not equipped with working smoke alarms.

The house was a two-story wood construction with asphalt shingles. It occupied a ground floor area of 600 square feet.

The house and contents, collectively valued at $59,000, were a total loss.

TENNESSEE

Residents urged to check smoke alarms after fatal apartment fire

One man died in a late-night fire that broke out in his upstairs apartment in a three-unit building. The fire was discovered by a neighbor who called 911 at 11:40 p.m. Crews reported smoke and flames showing from the front of the building upon arrival.

As an engine company established water supply at a nearby hydrant, incident command was informed by a neighbor that a resident was still inside one of the apartments. Reports indicated that the living room and kitchen of the apartment were fully involved with fire at that point.

Crews deployed two hoselines and made entry into the apartment, knocking down enough fire to permit a search of the residence. Firefighters located the occupant on the floor of a bedroom and immediately transported him outside, where he was placed in the care of emergency medical services personnel.

Crews resumed firefighting operations and were able to quickly bring the fire under control. A check for fire extension in an adjacent apartment found considerable smoke, but no fire. Crews set up a smoke ejector and cut a hole in the roof to help with ventilation.

Following an initial walk-through and secondary search, incident command issued an all-clear signal and crews began overhaul operations.

The evacuated resident died as a result of smoke inhalation injuries.

Investigators determined that the fire originated in the kitchen, where a pot left heating on the stove eventually ignited nearby groceries and packages, then spread to cabinets.

The apartment was not equipped with smoke alarms. In a newspaper report of the fire, the deputy fire chief urged all community residents to make sure that their residences were equipped with working smoke alarms, noting that a common denominator in his experience with fatal fire incidents was the absence of working smoke alarms.

The structure was described in news reports as a converted single-family home. Two of the three units were occupied, and the building occupied a ground floor area of 1,090 square feet (101 square meters). The home was of wood construction covered by asphalt shingles.

The fire caused $36,000 in damage to the building, valued at $48,000, and $18,000 in damage to its contents, valued at $24,000.

INDIANA

Fire claims life of one occupant, injures a second

A female resident died in an early morning house fire that also sent a second occupant to the hospital for fire-related injuries, according to news reports.

Firefighters were dispatched to the fire at 12:55 a.m. by a cell phone call to 911.

The fire department indicated that the fire was discovered when a male resident returned home and found blackened windows and smoke coming from the eaves. Upon unlocking the front door, he found his mother unconscious at the doorway on the floor and a minor, described as conscious and alert, lying beneath her.

The news reports indicated that the two occupants were pulled from the house by family members before firefighters arrived. The female victim succumbed to smoke inhalation injuries.

Investigators determined that the fire started when bare wires from an old extension cord came in contact with a wooden bed frame in the master bedroom. The minor reported that the female victim was unable to find the key to unlock deadbolt locks at the front entrance to the house.

The house was not equipped with smoke alarms.

The single-story home was a wood construction with asphalt shingles and occupied a ground floor area of 750 square feet (70 square meters).

No estimates were available on losses from the fire.

MICHIGAN

Overheated air filter sparks fatal fire

An early morning house fire linked to an overheated mechanical air filter claimed the life of a female resident.

The fire department was sent to the scene after a neighbor spotted the fire and called 911 at 12:30 a.m. Crews were advised while en route of possible entrapment inside the structure.

Upon arrival, crews reported that a one-and-a-half-story residential structure was showing heavy fire at one side, with exposure to a neighboring residence. An engine company dropped a supply line at the nearest hydrant while crews pulled a hose to knock down the exterior fire at the side of the house.

While attacking the exterior fire, crews discovered that a natural gas meter was compromised and that leaking gas was sending six- to eight-foot flames up the side of the structure, prompting an urgent request for assistance from utility companies.

An additional hose was stretched to the front of the house, where crews forced open the front door. Crews reported high heat and zero visibility inside, with an active fire in a bedroom adjacent to the exterior gas meter and heavy fire showing at the top of the stairs on the second floor. Crews partially extinguished the fire in the bedroom and then began extinguishing the fire on the second floor with an additional attack line.

Interior crews were advised to check for a victim in a rear bedroom, but a primary search of rooms at the back of the home proved negative. As flames and heat continued to prevent entry at the side bedroom, one crew member resumed fire attack while other search team members resumed searching at the front of the house. The search team was able to locate the occupant on the living room floor and immediately moved her outside, where EMS personnel initiated advanced life support efforts before transporting her to the hospital. Crews then continued suppression efforts and brought the fire under control.

The occupant was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital.

Investigators determined that a mechanical air cleaner located in the side bedroom overheated, causing plastic housing to ignite. The fire then spread to nearby clothing and advancing up the wall and out of the bedroom. A battery-operated smoke alarm in the rear bedroom activated during the fire, but investigators could not determine whether a second alarm located in the living room was operational due to fire damage.

The house was a wood structure and occupied a ground floor area of 1,085 square feet (101 square meters).

The house and its contents, collectively valued at $125,000, were a total loss.

COLORADO

Pot left on stove blamed for fire that claims life of occupant

One man died in a late-night residential fire that started in his kitchen after water boiled off a pot that was left heating on the stove.

Firefighters were dispatched after a neighbor detected the fire and called 911 at 10:40 p.m.

News reports indicated that firefighters found heavy smoke coming from the house upon arrival and forced their entry, locating the occupant inside and extinguishing a small fire in the kitchen. Crews removed the occupant, but efforts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful, and he was later pronounced dead as a result of smoke inhalation injuries.

Investigators indicated that after the water had boiled out of a pot on the kitchen stove, the heated pot ignited cardboard boxes that were located nearby.

The single-story residence was not equipped with smoke alarms.

The house was constructed with a wood frame and brick exterior and occupied a ground floor area of 800 square feet (74 square meters).

The fire caused $15,000 in damage to the house, valued at $258,000, and $5,000 in damage to its contents, valued at $25,000.

TEXAS

Sprinklers limit fire damage at apartment complex

An early morning fire that broke out on the exterior porch of a third-floor apartment was contained by the unit’s sprinkler system until firefighters arrived to complete extinguishment.

Firefighters responded to the fire following a phone call from a neighboring resident who spotted the fire at 5:30 a.m.

The site of the fire was a 24-unit residential complex.

Investigators determined that the fire started when discarded smoking materials ignited a plastic container on the unit’s balcony, then spread to an outdoor couch and upward and laterally along the balcony before activating a sidewall mounted sprinkler.

The building was protected with a 13R wet-pipe sprinkler system. Units were also equipped with interior smoke alarms, but these were not activated by the exterior fire.

The building occupied a ground floor area of 10,000 square feet (929 square meters). The walls were constructed of cement board with a brick veneer, with stud and joist floor framing, and a roof of composite shingles over plywood decking.

The fire caused $40,000 in damage to the building, valued at $1 million, and $10,000 in damage to its contents, valued at $250,000.

WEST VIRGINIA

Cigarette blamed for starting fatal house fire

A cigarette was blamed for starting an intense house fire that claimed the life of a female resident.

A neighboring resident called 911 to report the fire at 7:11 a.m.

Firefighters reported that fire was venting through a large front window and the front door of a single-family residence upon arrival. Neighbors at the scene advised crews that an elderly woman with a mobility disability was possibly still inside the structure.

A search team entered the house in a rescue effort but was forced to evacuate due to extreme fire conditions in a front bedroom. Crews then began attacking the fire with handlines at the front and rear of the residence, bringing it under control within 15 minutes.

When the fire was brought under control, crews were able to complete their search of the property and found the body of the female resident on the floor beside her bed in a prone position. Firefighters speculated that the victim was trying to evacuate with the assistance of a walker before she was brought down by smoke and heat. The coroner was summoned to the scene, and the victim was transported to the office of the state medical examiner.

Investigators indicated that a cigarette had been placed in an ashtray on the victim’s bed and ignited bedsheets and covers. Oxygen from a nearby oxygen concentrator then hastened the fire spread.

The house was equipped with smoke alarms in the kitchen and in the hallway outside the bedroom, and firefighters reported that the alarms were audible during search and extinguishment activities.

The residence was a single-story structure with a wood frame and walls and a metal roof covered by shingles. It occupied a ground floor area of 4,000 square feet (372 square meters).

The house, valued at $75,000, was a total loss. Damage to the contents was estimated at $30,000.

CALIFORNIA

Fire started by burning paper kills occupant

A house fire that started in a second-floor fireplace claimed the life of one resident, but a second resident was able to escape without injury.

Firefighters were dispatched to the scene after a neighbor spotted the fire and called 911.

Upon arrival, crews reported that the second story of a two-story residence was fully involved with heavy fire and thta neighbors were attending to a female who was lying in the roadway. A medic determined that the female was not injured and had been helped out of the house by a neighbor.

As firefighters prepared to set up for a defensive attack, incident command was advised that a female occupant was potentially trapped upstairs in the house, information that resulted in a request for assistance from two mutual aid fire departments.

Crews entered the house and performed a quick primary search of the first floor, which was free of smoke and fire, and found it clear of any occupants. A second team was assigned to access the second floor via a stairwell, where fire was pushing down nearly to the first floor. The team was met with extreme fire conditions as it advanced an attack line to the top of the stairs on the fire floor.

Following an extensive fire attack, the team was able to knock down a large portion of the fire and undertake a partial primary search upstairs, which was unsuccessful, then had to evacuate as air supplies ran low. A second attack team was briefed on the situation before making entry to resume the search. Upon reaching the second floor, the team requested positive pressure ventilation. The majority of remaining fire was extinguished and conditions improved, allowing the team to locate the body of a female victim in a second-floor bathroom. Crews notified incident command and a coroner was requested, while crews completed a secondary search and found no additional occupants.

Fire crews assisted in removing the body of the victim following the arrival of the coroner.

Investigators determined that the fire originated next to a fireplace in a bedroom on the second floor, where the victim had been disposing of papers by burning them in the fireplace. The fire was believed to have spread to combustibles near the fireplace while the victim was in the bathroom, and it was able to grow undetected due to the absence of smoke alarms. The fire’s location subsequently blocked egress from the bedroom.

The residence was a single-family residence with a two-story addition and occupied 1,900 square feet of living space (177 square meters). The walls were ordinary wood frame construction, with a gypsum board cover on the interior and wood siding on the exterior. The roof was covered with asphalt and had solar panels located at the front of the house.

The fire caused an estimated $175,000 in damage to the residence, valued at $550,000, and $60,000 in damage to the contents, valued at $125,000.

Health Care

FLORIDA

Hospital evacuated after lightning strike causes power outage, roof fire

A lightning strike ignited a fire on a hospital roof, resulting in a power outage that forced a massive evacuation of patients and staff.

Firefighters were dispatched to the scene after a hospital employee made a call to 911 at 6:15 p.m. Upon arrival, firefighting crews reported smoke coming from the roof of the three-story structure. After entering the building to investigate, the crews found that there was an electrical fault in the main power feed on the roof of the hospital, and that power from a generator was creating a backfeed to the facility’s power room.

Crews shut down the power generation units to eliminate the backfeed. They then extinguished a small fire in the main power line utilizing dry chemical agents. Firefighting crews then checked for fire extension and found no additional fire.

Due to the loss of power throughout the facility, incident command issued a statewide request for mutual aid to assist with the evacuation and relocation of nearly 300 hospital patients. Approximately 70 ambulances, three medical buses, and four additional buses responded to the scene, and news reports indicated that dozens of firefighters from three counties worked with hospital staff to evacuate and relocate the patients. The news reports stated that patients were relocated to seven hospitals and that the operation required approximately six hours to complete.

The lightning strike caused an estimated $175,000 in damage to the building, valued at $300 million, and an additional $10,000 in damage to building contents, valued at $100 million.

Institutional

MISSOURI

Sprinkler controls fire caused by dryer in county jail

Firefighters responded to a county jail after the facility’s smoke alarms activated at 10:54 p.m.

An engine company was first to reach the scene and reported that there were no exterior signs of smoke or fire. Crews entered and located the fire in the laundry room, where a sprinkler was activated and controlling a fire that had started inside a commercial clothes dryer.

Crews quickly extinguished the remaining fire and found no extension. Crews used a wedge to shut off the sprinkler head and performed ventilation operations to remove smoke. The incident was not determined to require evacuation.

Investigators noted that the dryer in which the fire originated had sustained heavy fire damage and that the glass on the machine’s door had shattered and was lying on the floor. Surveillance video showed combustion of wool blankets and cleaning rags that had been placed inside the dryer, with subsequent damage as the fire breached the machine’s door.

The cause of the fire was determined to be combustible contents coming in contact with the heated dryer drum.

Crews cleared the scene approximately 20 minutes after arrival.

The facility was a single-story structure and occupied a ground floor area of 54,000 square feet (5,017 square meters). The facility was protected by a wet-pipe sprinkler system.

Damage to the facility from the fire was estimated at $500, with another $3,500 in damage to its contents.

Under Construction

COLORADO

Welding equipment causes fire in hotel under construction

Firefighters were able to extinguish a fire that broke out in a high-rise hotel under construction before it caused extensive damage.

Workers discovered the fire in the bathroom area of a hotel room at 10:30 a.m. and called 911. Responding crews reported that suppression efforts were delayed because they were initially unable to get water to the floor of the fire after hooking up to a temporary standpipe.

News reports indicated that firefighters were able to quickly extinguish the flames. The facility’s sprinkler system was not yet operational.

Investigators determined that the fire started when workers ignited spray-on insulation on an interior wall while welding a bracing system in the hotel bathroom. The workers who were involved in the welding operation were apparently unaware of the fire, which was discovered shortly after it ignited and while the workers were on a lunch break.

The hotel was a 22-story structure with a ground floor area of 8,000 square feet (743 square meters). The building was constructed with a steel frame and concrete walls, with a metal roof deck and built-up roof cover. Reports did not indicate the floor of the hotel on which the fire originated.

The fire caused an estimated $10,000 in damage to the structure and $3,000 in damage to its contents.

Manufacturing

WISCONSIN

Worker injured in grain facility blast

Crews responded to a dust explosion and fire at a grain processing facility that injured one worker and caused substantial property damage.

Firefighters were dispatched to the scene at 7:20 a.m. following a 911 call from workers at the site. Crews found one employee with multiple burn injuries and immediately arranged his transport to the hospital.

Incident command then instructed an engine company crew to enter the facility to begin an interior fire attack. Inside the facility, crews reported light smoke with little structural damage, except for an upper portion of a grain elevator.

A ladder truck was positioned to access to the upper levels of the building, which stood 100 feet (30.5 meters) in height. A crew was directed to lay a supply line and assist interior attack efforts, as well as act as a rapid intervention team.

As additional units arrived, a staging area was established and incoming crews were assigned responsibilities for water supply, securing gas and electrical supply until the arrival of utility companies, and assisting with a search for hot spots after initial extinguishment was complete.

The injured employee was treated at the hospital for burns. An update on his condition was not available.

Investigators determined that heat from a piece of malfunctioning equipment had ignited a dust explosion and traveled through pipes until it caused a larger secondary dust explosion.

The facility was a three-story structure with a ground floor area of 10,000 square feet (929 square meters). The building was constructed of heavy timber, with wood walls and a metal roof deck.

The fire caused an estimated $300,000 in damage to the building, valued at $1 million, and an additional $75,000 in damage to its contents, whose value was listed as unknown.

Vehicle

TEXAS

Gas leak blamed for fatal car fire

The female driver of a passenger vehicle died when she was unable to escape a fire that was ignited by leaking gasoline.

According to news reports, the driver pulled off the road after having problems with the vehicle, and leaking gasoline started a grass fire where she stopped. Fire eventually engulfed the vehicle. Reports said the driver’s-side door was obstructed, preventing escape.

Crews put out the fire shortly after being dispatched at 10:47 p.m. An accident investigator was summoned.

No information was available on the cause of the gas leak.

Vehicle Storage

ILLINOIS

Sprinkler limits fire in garage

Fire officials credited a sprinkler with limiting damage from a fire that broke out in a large public works garage.

A private alarm company dispatched fireighters to the scene at 4:27 p.m. Crews found heavy smoke inside the facility and discovered the fire in a storage room in the garage. Most of the fire had been extinguished by an activated sprinkler, but crews used a fire extinguisher to douse a small fire that remained on shelves.

Following extinguishment, crews shut down the sprinkler system and set up fans to clear smoke from the interior. Crews inspected the roof with a thermal imaging camera but found no additional signs of fire.

Investigators determined that the fire started in the storage room near an air-powered saw, but were unable to specify a heat source or point of origin.

Damage to the structure, valued at $6 million, was estimated at $5,000, with an additional $15,000 of damage to the contents, valued at $1 million.

Newspaper reports indicated that the building housed a number of vehicles and equipment, including dump trucks, backhoes, front end loaders, and sewer vac trucks. In reports, the fire chief praised the decision by administrators to retrofit the garage with a sprinkler system a few years earlier, crediting the sprinklers with limiting losses.

The garage was a single-story structure with a ground floor area of 30,000 square feet (2,787 square meters). It was constructed with concrete walls, a brick exterior, and a wood roof covered by asphalt shingles.

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: JIM MARABELLO