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Where most home fires really live: the anatomy of a house fire

A look at where in the home fires start and why


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Where most home fires really live: the anatomy of a house fire

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The following is paid content sponsored by Vinyl Siding Insitute

By FireRescue1 BrandFocus Staff

It’s a homeowner’s nightmare, and another day on the job for a firefighter: a house consumed by flames, surrounded by trucks and first responders.

A house with vinyl siding (Photo Credit: ntm1909 via Compfight cc)
A house with vinyl siding (Photo Credit: ntm1909 via Compfight cc)

The visuals when pulling up to an active fire, as well as those splashed across local news, can’t help but convey the impression that the exterior of the home – engulfed by fire – is the cause. But we’ve learned a lot more about where home fires originate in recent years, and the reality of home structure fires can be very different than the perception.

When the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) did a survey of the origin and effects of house fires across America in an April 2013 report entitled Home Structure Fires, they came up with some interesting results about how fires actually start – and spread.

By the numbers

Each year, more than 360,000 home structure fires occur in the United States, causing an average of 2,570 deaths and 13,210 injuries. That means that in the United States, seven people die each day in a home fire.

The good news is that that the trend is toward fewer fires, deaths, and less damage each year. In fact, from 1980, the first year national estimates of this kind were made, to 2011, the number of home fires fell 50 percent from 734,000 to 370,000. Deaths fell by 52 percent per year from 5,200 in 1980 to 2,630 in 2011. This is due to many factors, including better wiring and fire safety in households and improved practices and technology used by firefighters.

Where fires really begin

The vast majority of fires begin inside the home. Only 3 percent of all home fires start on the exterior wall surface, and  the exterior wall covering contributed most to flame spread in only 4 percent of fires.

Almost 80 percent of deaths were caused by fires in three specific areas: the kitchen, the living room, and the bedroom. While fires can and do spread beyond their room of origin, the majority did not. Fifty-eight percent all home fires are confined to their object of origin. Only a quarter of home fires spread beyond the room of origin.

When fires spread beyond their room of origin, it is most likely to be a result of structural members or framing catching fire. In more than 25 percent of home fires and 17 percent of civilian deaths, this was the item contributing most to the flame spread.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the leading cause of home fires is cooking equipment – close to half (42 percent) of all home fires start in the kitchen. Cooking equipment was also the leading cause of fire-related injuries. However, only 12 percent of deaths were attributed to fires starting in the kitchen.

The next biggest cause of home fires was heating equipment, which includes central heating units, portable heaters, fireplaces, chimneys and heat transfer systems as well as things like hot water heaters. This type of equipment caused 16 percent of home fires and resulted in 19 percent of the deaths (an average of 400 per year) associated with home fires.

While only 7 percent of reported fires occurred in the bedroom, fully one quarter of all deaths from home fires resulted from those fires that started in a bedroom.

Despite a drastic reduction in the number of fires, injuries, and deaths (see sidebar), home structure fires remain a complex and dangerous aspect of modern life. However, it is important to note that while these fires can cause a great deal of damage, the majority remain contained to their room — and object — of origin. The subset of fires that do spread are typically associated with houses that don’t have proper smoke detector coverage.  

While the big, all-consuming blazes of average family homes stick out in our minds, they are not the statistical reality that the report shows. Properly educating the community about the dangers of home fires and where the danger most likely lies will do a great deal to further reduce these numbers. 

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