Read a breakdown of 2012 Catastrophic Multiple-Death Fires By Type.
Download the full "Catastrophic Multiple-Death Fires for 2012" report.
IN 2012, FIREFIGHTERS IN THE UNITED STATES responded to an estimated 1.375 million fires, 381,000 of which occurred in residential structures, 99,500 in nonresidential structures, and 894,500 in fires outside of structures. These fires accounted for an estimated 2,855 deaths, 2,405 of which occurred in residential structures, 65 in nonresidential structures, and 385 in fires outside of structures.
Seventeen of these fires were categorized as catastrophic multiple-death fires, defined here as fires or explosions in homes or apartments that result in five or more fire-related deaths, or as fires or explosions in all other structures and outside of structures, such as wildfires and vehicle fires, that claim three or more lives.
These 17 fires killed 82 people, 16 of whom were children under age six. This accounted for 0.001 percent of the total estimated fires and 2.9 percent of the total fire deaths for 2012. By comparison, there were 24 catastrophic multiple-death fires in 2011, resulting in the deaths of 117 people, 16 of whom were children under age six.
The number of catastrophic multiple-death fires in 2012 was the lowest reported since 1987, when NFPA began using the current definition. To put this number in perspective, there were 62 catastrophic multiple-death fires in 1987, resulting in 332 deaths. Over the past 10 years, the annual average number of catastrophic multiple-death fires was 27, resulting in 160 deaths per year, with 25 of those deaths on average being children under age six.
Of the 17 catastrophic multiple-death fires that occurred in 2012, eight occurred in residential structures and resulted in 44 deaths; two took place in nonresidential structures and resulted in seven deaths; and seven were non-structure fires that resulted in 31 deaths. All of the 16 children under age six who died in multiple-death fires last year died in residential properties.
The Largest Loss-of-Life Fire of 2012
The largest loss-of-life fire of 2012 occurred on a Florida interstate on January 28, when 25 vehicles were involved in six separate crashes that claimed 11 lives. A wildfire had started near the highway at approximately 2:35 p.m. At 11:50 p.m., the highway patrol received the first call reporting that visibility on the highway had dropped to zero as a result of smoke from the wildfire and that a crash had occurred. Four minutes after that call, there was another crash, this one involving a semi-truck and several sport utility vehicles. Shortly afterward, the highway patrol closed the interstate in both directions.
The highway was reopened when visibility improved at 3:26 a.m. At 4 a.m., however, a highway maintenance worker called the highway patrol to report more thick smoke and fog, saying he could hear crashes occurring behind him. A trooper confirmed that visibility was less than 3 feet (1 meter) about nine minutes later. In all, the six crashes killed 11 motorists, many of whom were trapped in burning vehicles.
Catastrophic Home Fires
There were eight catastrophic multiple-death fires in homes in 2012, a decrease of 33 percent from the year before. Of these, four occurred in single-family homes, two occurred in duplexes, and two occurred in apartment buildings, one of which had six units and the other eight. These fires killed 44 people, 67 fewer than the number who died in 2011. Of the 44 victims, 16 were children under age six, which was the same as last year.
Seven of the eight home fires broke out between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., killing 39 people, 15 of whom were children under age six (see “2012 Catastrophic Multiple-Death Fires by Type/Residential”).
The largest loss-of-life fire in a home killed nine people, including five children. This fire, the cause of which could not be determined, broke out in the first-story living room of a two-story, single-family home of unprotected wood-frame construction. The home had smoke alarms, but the fire department report did not say why the victims were unable to evacuate safely. Only one of the 10 occupants survived.
The other seven home fires killed five people each. Among the 35 victims were 10 children under age six.
The first fire broke out in a two-and-a-half story duplex of unprotected wood-frame construction. No additional information was reported due to ongoing investigations. The second involved a one-story duplex of unprotected ordinary construction when a pot of cooking oil ignited on the stove. The home had at least one smoke alarm, but the fire department report did not say whether it activated.
The third fire broke out on the second story of a vacant six-unit apartment building of unprotected wood-frame construction and spread to an occupied building of similar construction, in which the victims lived. There was no smoke detection equipment in the occupied building, and investigators could not determine the cause of the blaze.
The fourth fire broke out when ordinary combustibles near the furnace in the basement of a two-story, single-family home of unprotected wood-frame construction ignited. There were no smoke alarms present.
The fifth fire started behind a sofa in a second-story apartment in a two-story, eight-unit building of unprotected ordinary construction. The unit was equipped with smoke alarms, but the fire department report did not indicate whether they activated. The cause of the fire could not be determined.
The sixth fire, the cause of which was also undetermined, broke out in the first-story living room of a two-story, single-family home of unprotected wood-frame construction. Again, smoke alarms were present, but the fire department report did not say whether they activated.
The last fire started in a one-and-a-half-story, single-family home of unprotected wood-frame construction when a portable electric heater ignited nearby combustibles. The house was not equipped with smoke alarms.
Catastrophic Non-Home Structure Fires
Two of the 17 catastrophic multiple-death fires that occurred in 2012 started in non-home structures and resulted in seven fatalities. Both the number of fires and fatalities were lower last year than the year before, when six non-home structure fires resulted in 20 deaths (see “2012 Catastrophic Multiple-Death Fires by Type/Non-Home Structure Fires”).
The first non-home structure fire broke out in a two-story residential care facility for physically disabled residents, four of whom died. The facility, which was of unprotected wood-frame construction, had smoke alarms, but they did not operate. The cause and origin of the fire were not reported.
The second fire broke out in the back room of a barbershop on the first floor of a two-story, mixed occupancy building of unprotected ordinary construction between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. The cause of the fire, which killed three people when it spread to a second-floor apartment, was not reported.
Catastrophic Non-Structure Fires
In 2012, seven non-structure fires killed 31 people. This is two more non-structure fires than occurred in 2011, resulting in 13 more deaths (see “2012 Catastrophic Multiple-Death Fires by Type/Non-Structure Fires”).
Five of these catastrophic non-structure fires involved vehicles. Vehicle crashes are included in this study if a fire in the vehicle caused the crash or the local coroner or medical examiner confirmed that the victims died of thermal injuries or inhalation of products of combustion, rather than impact injuries.
Two of the vehicle-related incidents occurred on highways. The first was the 11-fatality, multi-crash incident on a smoke- and fog-obscured interstate highway in Florida. The second occurred when the right front tire of a recreational vehicle failed as the RV was traveling on an interstate highway. When the tire blew out, the vehicle went off the roadway, through light brush, and then back onto the road. A fire broke out near the vehicle’s front exit and began to spread. The three victims, unable to escape via the door, tried to get out through a rear window but were unable to do so.
There were also three aircraft crashes with fires last year. In the first, an aircraft bounced on the runway as the pilot attempted to land; the plane banked, and a wing hit the runway, causing the aircraft to overturn, crash, and catch fire. Four people on board were killed. In the second, three people died when an aircraft caught fire after hitting the ground and colliding with a large tree.
In the third, a military aircraft being used to attack a wildfire crashed after flying through a microburst while preparing for a retardant drop, killing four of the six-member crew.
Another three people died in the sixth non-structure fire of 2012 when they tried to disconnect an obsolete flammable fluid storage tank from a pipeline. The pipe had not been purged, bonded, or blocked, and the liquid exploded, starting a fire, when one of the men cut into it with a rotary power saw.
The final non-structure fire was a wildfire that began when embers from a prescribed burn were blown outside the control lines and ignited three spot fires, one of which grew into a massive wildfire. Three people died when the wildfire spread to their homes in a nearby residential area.
Ignition factors were reported for only nine of the 17 catastrophic multiple-death fires of 2012 — three of the home fires and six of the non-structure fires.
In one home fire, combustibles were located too close to an ignition source. In the second, a heat source had been installed too close to combustibles. And in the third, the property was located too close to another building in which a fire broke out.
Three of the non-structure fires were caused by vehicles colliding or overturning. One started when equipment failed, another began when a rotary saw was used too close to flammable fluids, and another started when winds carried hot embers from a controlled fire into a residential area.
The Role of Suppression Equipment and Smoke Detection
No suppression equipment was reported to have been present in any of the catastrophic multiple-death structure fires last year. This is unfortunate, because sprinklers are proven lifesaving systems across many different kinds of properties, including homes. The risk of dying in a reported fire in your 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 firesprinklerinitiative.org.
Information about automatic smoke detection equipment was available for seven of the eight catastrophic home fires that occurred in 2012. Four homes were equipped with smoke alarms, but only one system is known to have operated. The fire department reports did not indicate whether the alarms in the other three activated. Three homes had no smoke alarms at all, and the fires in these homes killed 15 people, including one child under age six. This represents 19 percent of those killed in home fires.
Information about detection equipment was reported for only one of the two non-home structures. This structure had smoke detection equipment, but it did not operate. The reason was not reported.
Smoke alarms have 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, with alarms located outside each sleeping area, on each level, and in each bedroom. Homeowners should routinely test smoke alarms according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. NFPA recommends testing home smoke alarms at least monthly.
Batteries should also be replaced according to manufacturer’s recommendations; conventional batteries should be replaced at least yearly. When an alarm “chirps,” it is a warning that the battery is low and should be replaced right away. All smoke alarms, including hardwired 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 the alarms 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 the night. Assistance for family members who require it can also be factored into the 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 Fire Analysis and Research Division of catastrophic 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 the 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 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 would like to give a special thanks to Norma Candeloro and to his co-workers for their guidance in the completion of this report.
Stephen G. Badger, a fire data assistant with NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division, is retired from the Quincy, Massachusetts, Fire Department.