NFPA Journal (Nov./Dec. 2017)
by Stephen G. Badger
Last year, 25 fires in the United States resulted in losses of at least $10 million each, for a total of $1.4 billion in direct property losses. For a bit of perspective, though, that figure was dwarfed by a single Canadian wildfire.
NFPA REPORTS ANNUALLY on large-loss fires and explosions that occurred in the United States the year before. Those fires are defined as events that result in property damage of at least $10 million. There were 25 such fires in 2016, resulting in a total of over $1.4 billion in direct property losses. In order to compare losses over the past 10 years, we adjust losses for inflation to 2007 dollars. When adjusted for inflation, the number of fires in 2016 that would have been categorized as large-loss fires—that is, fires resulting in a loss of $10 million in 2007 dollars—drops to 18, with an adjusted loss of slightly more than $1.2 billion.
In 2016, six fires—four fewer than the previous year—resulted in more than $20 million each in property damage. These fires resulted in a combined property loss of $1.2 billion, or 83.2 percent of the total loss in large-loss fires and 11.4 percent of the total fire losses in the United States in 2016.
According to “Fire Loss in the United States During 2016,” published in the September/October issue of NFPA Journal, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 1,342,000 structure and nonstructure fires, which resulted in an estimated loss of $10.6 billion. Many of these fires were small or resulted in little or no reported property damage. Although the 25 large-loss fires accounted for only 0.002 percent of the estimated number of fires in 2016, they accounted for 13.2 percent of the total estimated dollar loss. In addition, those 25 fires accounted for 14 civilian deaths, with another 183 civilians and eight firefighters injured. Last year was the eighth year out of the past 10 that a wildland/urban interface (WUI) fire topped the list of the year’s biggest large-loss fires. In three of those years, 2011, 2015, and 2016, wildfires accounted for the largest and second-largest fires, and in 2007 the three largest fires in terms of estimated loss were WUI fires. In the past 10 years, there have been 33 wildland fires that accounted for more than $10 million each in direct property losses. In human terms, these fires have been responsible for 31 deaths, 278 injuries, and $7.3 billion in loss to property.
In each of the past 10 years, at least one fire has resulted in a loss of more than $100 million, with a total of 26 such fires occurring over that period. Of these largest-loss fire events, 14 were WUI fires, 10 were structure fires, and two were vehicle fires. The two largest fires, both WUI fires, resulted in losses of more than $1 billion.
In 2016, two fires with losses greater than $100 million occurred; both were WUI fires, and one of them included losses that approached $1 billion. That fire, the Chimney Tops 2 Fire in Tennessee, occurred in November and caused $911 million dollars in damage, the third-highest damage total in NFPA records in the past 10 years and the eighth-highest in all NFPA records of U.S. fires. (Of those fires that were larger, six were wildfires and one was the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York.) The other 2016 fire that topped $100 million in losses was the Clayton Fire, a California wildfire that resulted in nearly $175 million in damage.
The Chimney Tops 2 Fire was set on Chimney Tops, a mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and was first reported about 5:30 p.m. by park firefighters who observed smoke from the top of the hills. The fire originally involved almost inaccessible terrain distinguished by cliffs and thick vegetation, so water drops were made by helicopters to assist in extinguishment. The fire burned for several days before a weather change in the early morning hours of November 28, including winds gusting to nearly 80 miles per hour (128.7 kilometers per hour), that blew the fire into residential and business areas of several communities outside the park. The National Weather Service had issued high-wind watches for the area on November 27 when the fire was at about 35 acres (14 hectares). The fire burned for several more days before it could be contained and extinguished, during which time evacuation orders were issued for the communities in the path of the fire. By the time the flames were extinguished, the fire had charred 17,140 acres (6,936 hectares) and destroyed 2,460 structures, including 2,100 homes and 60 businesses. The fire was responsible for 14 deaths and more than 150 injuries. Two juveniles were arrested and charged with arson, but the charges were later dropped.
The Clayton Fire broke out at about 5 p.m. on August 21 in Lake County, in Northern California. The fire was determined to be incendiary and a suspect was arrested. The fire was fought for several days until an increase in the wind speed and direction prevented firefighters from keeping up with the blaze, and the fire moved into residential areas. At this time, temperatures were in the 90s degrees F (30s degrees C), winds were 12 to 14 mph (19 to 23 kph) with gusts of 19 to 24 mph (31 to 39 kph), and the relative humidity dropped from 30 percent to 18 percent. By the time the fire was contained, it had charred nearly 4,000 acres (1,619 hectares) and destroyed 300 structures, damaging 28 others.
Where the fires occurred and how
Of the 25 large-loss fires in 2016, 22 involved structures and resulted in a total property loss of $348.6 million, or 24.1 percent of the combined losses for all large-loss fires. The other fires included the two WUI fires and one vehicle fire (a towboat) that resulted in combined losses of $1.1 billion, or 75.9 percent of the losses in all the large-loss fires.
Six fires each broke out in storage properties and special properties. Of those, four were warehouses (one containing textiles, one with store merchandise, one with miscellaneous equipment, and one with unreported contents), one was a pallet storage yard, and one was a mini-storage facility. The combined losses in storage properties was $115.5 million. In special properties, four fires occurred in structures that were under construction, including three apartment buildings and a hotel, and two occurred in properties that were under renovation, including an apartment building and a mixed-use property. The combined losses in special properties was $87.2 million.
Four fires occurred in manufacturing plants—the facilities produced, respectively, baby food, chemicals, and vehicle parts, and one was a recycling plant—causing a combined loss of $57.1 million.
Three large-loss fires occurred in stores and office properties, including two stores with losses totaling $31.9 million and one office building with a loss of $17.2 million, for a combined loss of $49.1 million.
Two fires occurred in the WUI, resulting in combined losses of nearly $1.1 billion, and two fires occurred in public assembly properties (both were restaurants), with total losses of $25.5 million.
One fire each occurred in a residential property (an apartment building, with losses of $14.2 million) and a vehicle (a towboat, with losses of $10.2 million).
The cause and origin of fires was undetermined or reported as unknown in 17 of the fires. In several cases, the destruction was so massive that investigators could not make a definitive cause determination or could not rule out several possibilities. Other fires are still under investigation. Cause was reported for eight of the 25 fires, including six of the structure fires. Three of the structure fires were due to a mechanical failure of some sort, two were caused by torch operations too close to combustibles, and one structure fire was reportedly due to an electrical failure of unknown type. The causes of the two WUI fires and one structure fire were listed as incendiary. The property loss in the three incendiary fires totaled almost $1.1 billion, or 76.2 percent of the losses in the 25 large-loss fires.
Operating status was reported for 14 of the 22 structure fires and the towboat fire. In 10 cases, the facility was open and operating, with eight at full operation and two in partial operation. Four were closed and the properties were unoccupied, accounting for $69 million in losses. Five of the fires broke out between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. These fires had a total direct property loss of $83.5 million.
Smoke detection and automatic suppression equipment
Information about automatic fire or smoke detection equipment was reported for 15 of the 23 large-loss structure and towboat fires. Of those 15 fires, nine occurred in properties that had no automatic detection equipment installed. Six properties had smoke alarms present. Five of the systems operated as designed, and the operation in one fire was not reported.
Information about automatic suppression equipment was reported for 17 of the 23 structure and towboat fires. Of those 17 fires, seven properties had systems present and 10 had no systems. Four of the seven had wet pipe systems, one had a dry pipe system, one had a carbon dioxide system, and the type of system in the seventh fire was not reported. In three cases, the systems operated. In one of those three cases, the fire department reported that the system was ineffective due to a lack of water resulting from a pump failure during an electrical outage at a well that supplied the area. In another fire, five sprinklers operated and controlled the fire. In the third, the sprinkler system was not in the area of origin but when it operated, it did extinguish fire in its coverage area. In two fires, the systems did not operate, in one case it had been shut down prior to the fire and the other the system was installed but not completed when the fire broke out. In the remaining two incidents, the operation of the suppression system was not reported.
Of the 15 fires for which information on the presence of both detection and suppression equipment was reported, eight had neither an operational detection system nor an operational suppression system. Both types of systems were available in five incidents, and one property had only suppression equipment and one had only detection equipment.
What we can learn, where we get our data, and acknowledgements
Adhering 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 U.S. Proper construction, proper use of equipment, and proper procedures in chemical processes, storage, and housekeeping will make fires less likely to occur and help limit fire spread should a fire occur. Proper design, maintenance, and operation of fire protection systems and features can keep a fire that does occur from becoming a large-loss fire.
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 NFPA’s Research Division of major large-loss fires. NFPA’s annual survey of the U.S. fire experience is an additional data source, although not the primary one. Web searches have proved useful in several cases where fire department and government reports have been released and published.
Once a fire has been identified, the NFPA requests information about it from the fire department or agency having jurisdiction. We also contact federal agencies that have participated in investigations, as well as state fire marshals’ offices and military sources. The diversity and redundancy of these data sources enables NFPA to collect the most complete data available on large-loss fires.
NFPA would like to thank the U.S. fire service for its contributions of data, without which this report would not be possible. In some cases, the fire department, forestry officials, or government officials were unable to contribute complete details to NFPA because legal action is pending or ongoing, the incident was of a sensitive nature, or the size of the situation was overwhelming. The author also wishes to thank the staff of NFPA’s Research Division for providing the support this study requires.
This report includes only fire incidents for which NFPA has official dollar-loss estimates. There are other fires that may have large losses but no official information has been reported to NFPA.
STEPHEN G. BADGER s a fire data assistant in NFPA’s Applied Research Group and a retired firefighter from the Quincy, Massachusetts, Fire Department. Photographs: Getty Images