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December 2018: Large-Loss Commercial Fires in 2017

The National Fire Protection Association (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. Its latest report includes the following large-loss commercial fires, which are listed below in order of dollar loss.

$110 million
Massachusetts (July 2017)
This was a five-story 125,000 sq. ft. apartment complex (265 units in five buildings) of unprotected wood-frame construction that was still under construction. No one was on-site at the time. There were smoke alarms present, but they did not operate because they had not yet been activated. There was an automatic suppression system in place, but it had not yet been activated. The fire broke out on the second floor in one of the buildings and was determined to be an incendiary fire. Upon arrival, firefighters found two structures fully involved. Due in part to the lightweight construction, the fire spread rapidly throughout the five buildings. Five buildings were involved at the fire's height.

$107.3 million
Hawaii (July 2017)
This was a 36-story 569-unit apartment building of unprotected ordinary construction that covered 20,800 sq. ft. and was occupied. There was a complete-coverage smoke alarm system present that operated. There was no automatic suppression equipment present. There were standpipe connections on each floor that were used by the fire department. The fire started in the living room of an apartment on the 26th floor and the cause was undetermined. The fire spread throughout the room. Once the fire caused an exterior window to break, the wind spread the fire into the hallway and into several additional units through louvered doors, and from the 26th floor to the 28th floor in seconds.

$100 million
Maryland (April 2017)
This was a six-story, 160,000 sq. ft. apartment building of unprotected wood-frame construction that was still under construction. There were workers present when the fire broke out. The structure covered a full city block. There were smoke alarms and an automatic suppression system in place, but they had not yet been activated. The fire broke out in a fifth-floor apartment being used for trash storage. The cause was not determined. Workers attempted to extinguish the fire prior to the fire department's arrival. It was not reported if the workers' attempts to extinguish the fire delayed notification of the fire department.

$62.5 million
North Carolina (March 2017)
This was a six-story, 120,000 sq. ft., 242-unit unprotected wood-frame apartment building that was under construction. No one was on-site at the time. There was no automatic detection or suppression equipment present. The fire broke out on the second floor and involved wood structural members. The cause was undetermined.

$50 million
California (May 2017)
This was a six-story, 30,000 sq. ft., 105-unit unprotected wood frame apartment building under construction. There was no automatic detection or suppression equipment present. The fire began on the first floor. The cause is undetermined. The loss was reported as $15 million to the structure and $35 million to the contents.

$45 million
Massachusetts (June 2017)
This was a six-story, 13,000 sq. ft., 83-unit apartment building of unprotected wood-frame construction that was still under construction. Workers were on-site. There were smoke alarms present, but they did not operate because they had not yet been activated. There was an automatic suppression system in place, but it had not yet been activated. The fire broke out on the sixth floor when radiated heat from a generator vent pipe ignited wood structural members. The fire spread through void spaces. Firefighters reported that there was a 1½ hour delay from the time workers first smelled smoke to when the fire department was notified.

$35.6 million
Pennsylvania (March 2017)
This saw mill for hardwood lumber was of unprotected wood-frame construction. The height and floor area were not reported. There was a security guard at the site at the time of the fire. Neither automatic detection nor suppression equipment was present. Dry chemical extinguishers were available. The fire began in wood or sawdust in the basement at the bottom of a flight of stairs. The security guard attempted to extinguish the fire using dry-chemical extinguishers for 5 minutes before calling the fire department. The loss was estimated at $9 million to the structure and $26.6 million to the contents, including hardwoods from around the world.

$34 million
New Jersey (February 2017)
This was a 200-unit apartment building under construction. No details on height or size were reported. The fire is still under investigation.

$22 million
Texas (February 2017)
This was a 60-unit occupied apartment building. No information was reported on the height, type of construction, or floor area, and the fire is still under investigation.

$21 million
Maine (April 2017)
This was a one-story 143,875 sq. ft. food storage warehouse of unprotected ordinary construction. The warehouse was operating at the time of the fire. There was a full coverage detection system of unknown type present that operated and alerted the fire department. There was a complete coverage dry-pipe sprinkler system present that operated, opening 15 sprinkler heads. The fire began around an air conditioning unit on the roof of a trailer at the loading dock. The fire spread horizontally through the trailer, then to exposures and entered the structure at the loading dock. The sprinklers limited the fire spread in the warehouse. Smoke and heat spread throughout the warehouse, damaging food products and resulting in the large loss to contents.

$15 million
Massachusetts (September 2017)
This was a four-story, 37,500 sq. ft., 50-unit apartment building of unprotected wood-frame construction that was still under construction. No one was on-site. There were smoke alarms and an automatic suppression system in place, but they had not yet been activated. A fire of undetermined cause broke out in a second-floor apartment. The fire burned up to the roof within voids, then burned across the roof and down into the fourth floor. Water supply was a problem for fighting this fire, as was the involvement of lightweight construction and a floor collapse.

$15 million
North Carolina (March 2017)
This was a one-story 150,000 sq. ft. chicken processing plant of unprotected noncombustible construction. The plant was operating at the time. There was a smoke detection system present. Its coverage was not reported but the system did operate. There was no suppression equipment present. The fire began in a machine room and involved natural gas. When firefighters arrived, the fire had already burned through the roof. The loss was estimated at $10 million to the structure and $5 million to the contents.

$12 million
Indiana (May 2017)
This was a six-unit three- and four-story apartment building of unprotected wood-frame construction that was still under construction. Workers were on-site at the time. There were detectors present but not yet in operation due to construction. A sprinkler system had been installed but had not been activated. The fire broke out in the ceiling of a second-floor mechanical room. The fire was ignited during welding operations around a copper pipe when the insulation caught fire from direct flame from the torch. The welder unsuccessfully attempted to extinguish the fire with multiple fire extinguishers. He then cut a larger hole around the pipe and attempted to extinguish the fire. The worker believed the fire was out and did not contact the fire department, resulting in a 45-minute delay.

$12 million
Missouri (February 2017)
This was a two-story 36,000 sq. ft. country club of unprotected wood-frame construction. The club was unoccupied at the time of the fire. There were smoke detectors present and they operated, notifying an alarm company that in turn called the fire department. There was no automatic suppression system present. A discarded cigarette ignited peat moss and dry vegetation in a large planter on an exterior deck. The fire extended to a deck and into the structure. The estimated damage to the structure was $8 million with an additional $4 million to the contents.

$12 million
Michigan (July 2017)
Automobile sales. No additional information was reported.

$10 million
Michigan (August 2017)
This was a one-story 12,000 sq. ft. wood-product manufacturing plant of unprotected noncombustible construction. The plant was closed for the night, but one person was in the building. There was no detection or automatic suppression equipment present. The fire was first discovered in the area of a wood lathe and involved wood or wood dust. The ignition source was not determined. Arriving apparatus found a dry hydrant not working. Water was brought to the scene by 12 tanker trucks over the course of 8 hours.

$10 million
West Virginia (October 2017)
This warehouse stored plastic goods and recycled plastic. It was of multiple construction types, one and two stories in height, and covered 400,000 sq. ft. The building was closed for the night. There were detectors present, but the type and coverage were not reported. The system did not operate; the reason was not reported. There were both wet- and dry-pipe sprinklers in the building. It was not clear if there were two suppression systems or a combination system, but the sprinklers did not operate because they had been shut off prior to the fire.

$10 million
Texas (January 2017)
This was a 12-story hospital of unprotected ordinary construction that covered 34,700 sq. ft. The hospital was operating but construction was underway in the area of fire origin. There was a full-coverage detection system present and it operated. There was a sprinkler system present; its type was not reported. It was not located in the area of origin and it was not clear if the system operated. This fire was incendiary and was set in a second-floor waiting area. The fire was confined to the area of origin. Heavy black smoke spread throughout the building via stairways and elevator shafts.

You can see a theme to these large losses of 2017. Most losses contained combustible construction and the fire protection was out of service. It is imperative that automatic sprinkler protection be activated before combustible contents are brought on site. At Risk Logic we can assist you in several property loss prevention measures that could have helped mitigate or eliminate these large losses. Having basic Property Conservation programs in place, such as Hot Work and Fire Protection Impairment procedures, would have prevented several of these fires. A combination of effective management programs and the installation of automatic sprinkler protection go a long way in providing adequate fire protection for large commercial property.

*Information courtesy of NFPA's News & Research Division (www.nfpa.org/News-and-Research)