A home in the hills above Santa Barbara, California, succumbs to a wind-whipped brush fire. Wildfires in the area accounted for an estimated $100 million in damages. (Photo: AP/Wide World)
U.S. Large-Loss Fires in 2009
A $340 million casino fire and a $100 million California wildland fire top the list of costliest large-loss fires in 2009
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2010
By Stephen G. Badger
Download the full "2009 Large Loss Fire" report (PDF, 128 KB)
Each year, NFPA reports on large-loss fires and explosions that occurred in the United States the year before. Such fires and explosions are defined as any event that results in property damage of at least $10 million.
In 2009, according to Michael J. Karter, Jr. in “U.S. Fire Loss For 2009,” published in the September/October issue of NFPA Journal®, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 1,348,500 fires—480,500 structure fires and 868,000 non-structure fires—which caused an estimated loss of $12.5 billion. Many of these fires were small or resulted in little or no reported property damage. However, 24 of them resulted in losses of $10 million or more each, for a total of roughly $940 million in direct property losses. Although these fires accounted for only 0.002 percent of the estimated number of fires in 2009, they accounted for 7.5 percent of the total estimated dollar loss.
NFPA tracks and tries to verify loss information for all large-loss fires reported in the media or by other sources. These 24 large-loss fires are those fires for which an official dollar loss was obtained.
The number of large-loss fires annually has ranged over the past 10 years from 16 to 45, with an average of approximately 25 fires per year. When adjusted for inflation to 2000 dollars, the number of fires in 2009 that could be categorized as large-loss fires—that is, fires resulting in a loss of $10 million in 2000 dollars—drops to 17, with an adjusted loss of $693 million in 2000 dollars.
In 2009, 14 fires resulted in more than $20 million each in property damage. These costliest 14 fires, which include 10 structure fires, 3 wildland fires, and 1 vehicle fire, resulted in a combined property loss of $813.2 million, which represents 86.5 percent of the total loss in large-loss fires and 6.5 percent of the total fire losses of 2009. Two fires alone resulted in losses of over $100 million each. The combined loss for these fires was $440 million.
The largest of the large
The largest-loss fire in 2009 occurred in the pavilion of a riverboat casino that was being renovated and caused an estimated $340 million in damage. The one- and two-story facility covered 118,000 square feet (11,000 square meters) and was of protected noncombustible construction. The one-story pavilion, which housed shops, restaurants, and a large ballroom, was connected by an aboveground walkway to a two-story casino that sits on two barges in the river. The fire destroyed the pavilion, but the casino was untouched.
While welding new ductwork into an older ductwork system in the kitchen, a welder saw smoke coming from an area in which he had just been working. He went to get a fire extinguisher, but it was no longer where he had seen it earlier. Meanwhile, the surveillance department discovered the fire and sent someone to investigate; the method of discovery was not reported. The investigator confirmed the fire, having seen a hole burned through the ductwork in the ceiling, and the premises were ordered evacuated. At the same time, the fire alarm sounded.
The fire spread to the ballroom, then to the hallway and throughout the structure. Arriving firefighters found that the fire had spread through the roof of the new construction area of the pavilion and started an interior attack. They also made trench cuts in the roof to stop the fire’s spread. As conditions deteriorated, however, the incident commander ordered the firefighters who were inside and on the roof to evacuate, and a defensive attack was begun with master stream appliances.
During the fire, water availability became a problem; no cause was reported. Thirty extra tankers were requested from nearby communities to start a tanker shuttle of water to the scene. It was not reported if the river was used as a water supply.
Where fires occurred
Nineteen of the 24 large-loss fires of 2009 occurred in structures, resulting in a total property loss of $716.8 million. Another three were wildland fires that resulted in a total property loss of $169 million, and two more were vehicle fires that resulted in a total loss of $54.5 million. The vehicles involved were a tractor-trailer truck with television broadcasting equipment and a cargo plane.
Six of the structure fires occurred in buildings that were under construction or being renovated, with a total loss of $429.8 million. The structures included three apartment buildings under construction. The buildings being renovated included the casino pavilion mentioned earler, a middle school, and a block of stores. Four fires occurred in manufacturing properties—a meat preparation plant, a machinery parts manufacturer, a truss and beam lamination plant, and a saw mill—and resulted in a total loss of just over $102.5 million. Three fires occurred in storage properties—a produce warehouse, a chemical waste facility, and a book storage warehouse—and resulted in losses of $70 million.
Two more structure fires each involved residential properties, both single-family homes, and two basic industry facilities, an 11-barn egg farm and a transformer next to an electric power generating plant, for a total loss of $40 million and $32 million, respectively. There was one fire each in a college classroom building and a furniture store, resulting in losses of $22.5 million and $20 million, respectively.
Information on operating status was reported for 17 of the 19 structure fires. Six were at full operation or occupancy, and three had some construction workers at the site. Eight properties were closed when the fires broke out.
Information on the cause of the fire was reported for 10 of the structures, all 3 wildfires, and 1 vehicle fire. Two of the structure fires and one wildland fire were incendiary. The resulting losses in these fires were $83 million, or 8.8 percent of the fire loss in large-loss fires.
Seven of the fires, five in structures and both vehicle fires, broke out between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.
Detection and suppression systems
Information about smoke detection equipment was reported for 16 of the 19 structure fires. Eleven of the 16 fires, or 69 percent, occurred in properties that had no automatic detection equipment. The other five structures had some type of automatic detection equipment. One had complete coverage smoke and manual alarms, and the coverage of the other four systems, which included three smoke detection systems and one unreported type of system, was not reported. Four of the five systems operated effectively, while the operation or effectiveness of the other system was not reported.
Information on automatic suppression equipment was reported for 18 of the 19 structure fires. Eleven structures had no suppression equipment, and seven had some type of system. Three had wet-pipe sprinklers; two provided partial coverage and the coverage of the other was not reported. Two had dry-pipe systems, both with unreported coverage. And two others were reported simply as suppression systems. One was still under construction, and the coverage of the other was not reported.
Three of the seven systems operated, and four did not. One of the systems that operated effectively controlled the fire, but two did not, one because the fire broke out above the covered area and the other because the water available was insufficient. Of the four systems that did not operate, one was not yet operational, the backflow device of another was turned off, and no reason was given for the other two.
Complete information on both detection and suppression equipment was reported for 15 of the 19 large-loss structure fires. In three structures, only detection equipment was present. In three more, only suppression equipment was present. In one fire, the structure had both detection and suppression systems, and eight properties, or 53 percent of all structures for which information was reported, had no coverage.
What we can learn
This study reports on the small share of fires that account for major losses. The number of fires in 2009 that resulted in losses of at least $10 million decreased by almost 31 percent from the total in 2008, and the associated property losses decreased by more than $1.4 billion. That difference in dollar loss can be accounted for by a large decrease in manufacturing property fires and wildfire losses. In 8 of the past 10 years, at least one fire has resulted in a loss of more than $100 million, and in at least four years, there was one loss of more than $1 billion. In 2009, two fires did more than $100 million in damage.
Adherence to the fire protection principles reflected in NFPA’s codes and standards is essential if we are to reduce the occurrence of large-loss fires and explosions in the United States. Proper design, maintenance, and operation of fire protection systems and features can keep a fire from becoming a large-loss fire. Proper construction, storage, and housekeeping will make fires less likely and help control or limit the fire spread should a fire occur.
Where we get our data
NFPA identifies potential large-loss incidents by reviewing national and local news media, including fire service publications. A clipping service reads all U.S. daily newspapers and notifies the NFPA of major large-loss fires. NFPA’s annual survey of the U.S. fire experience is an additional data source, although not the principal one.
Once an incident has been identified, we request information about the fire from the fire department or agency having jurisdiction. We also contact federal agencies that have participated in investigations, state fire marshals’ offices, and the military. The diversity and redundancy of these data sources enable NFPA to collect the most complete data available on large-loss fires.
The results in this report are based on injuries that occurred during incidents attended by public fire departments. No adjustments were made for injuries that occurred during fires attended solely by private fire brigades, such as those at industrial or military installations.
Data collection for the selected incident summaries was enhanced by a form sent to departments requesting information. The form includes questions on the type of protective equipment worn, the age and rank of firefighters injured, and a description of the circumstances that led to the injury.
NFPA thanks the U.S. fire service for its contributions, without which this report would not be possible. In many cases, fire departments were unable to contribute complete details on these larger-loss incidents because legal action is pending or ongoing, or they could not determine many pieces of information we need to make our study as complete as possible. The author also wishes to thank Norma Candeloro for providing the support this study requires.
Stephen G. Badger is a fire data assistant in NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division and is a retired firefighter from the Quincy, Massachusetts, Fire Department.