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The U.S. Fire Problem Overview Report, Leading Causes and Other Patterns and Trends


Marty Ahrens
Fire Analysis and Research Division #1 Batterymarch Park, Quincy, MA 02269 April 2000

The U.S. Fire Problem Overview Report is the most complete overview of U.S. fire patterns and trends available anywhere. This report addresses trends in all measures of fire loss since 1980. It covers patterns and trends in fire and non-fire calls, patterns and trends by region and community size, numbers of fires and associated losses for each of nearly a hundred property classes and cause profiles, areas of origin and trends for all major classes of structures. Home fires by time of day and month of year are also included.

The following is an excerpt from the above referenced report. To order the complete report please contact Nancy Schwartz at NFPA's, One-Stop Data Shop at or 617-984-7450 (phone). There is no charge to the fire service.


Fire in 1998: The Big Picture

Fires and most associated losses hit a record low in 1998. In 1998, U.S. municipal fire departments responded to an estimated 1,755,500 fires. These fires killed 4,035 civilians and caused 23,100 reported civilian fire injuries. This was the smallest number of reported fires, deaths and injuries since the NFPA began collecting data in 1977. Direct property damage was estimated at $8.6 billion dollars. When adjusted for inflation, this was also a record low. Ninety-one firefighters died while on duty. Firefighter deaths have been hovering around 100 per year for the past few years after dipping into the seventies in 1992 and 1993. The table compares the fire experience in 1998 to the problem seen one year earlier in 1997, ten years earlier in 1988 and 20 years earlier in 1978. The graphs on the following pages show loss trends from 1977 (the first year of available data) through 1998 for fire incidents, civilian fire deaths, civilian fire injuries, and firefighter deaths. Firefighter injuries, direct property damage and outdoor fires are shown for 1988 to 1998 only.

Structure fires caused largest share of fire losses. During 1998, the 517,500 structure fires accounted for 29% of the reported fires. These fires caused 3,420, or 85%, of the civilian fire deaths, 19,425, or 84%, of the civilian fire injuries, and $6.7 billion in direct property damage or 78% of the total direct property loss. Reported structure fires fell 53% from 1,098,000 in 1977 to 517,500 in 1998. From 1997 to 1998, they fell 6%. According to NFPA 901, Uniform Coding for Fire Protection, 1976 edition, (the data classification system used by NFIRS) any fire in or on a structure is considered a structure fire, even if only the contents were involved and there was no structural damage.

Home fires dominate the structure fire problem. Seventy-four percent (381,500) of the 517,500 structure fires occurred in residential properties, including homes, hotels, motels, rooming houses and dormitories; 71% (369,500) occurred in homes. (Homes include one- and two-family dwellings, apartments and manufactured housing.) Home fires fell 49% from the 723,500 reported in 1977. The 7% drop from 395,500 in 1997 to the record low in 1998 was consistent with structure fires overall.

Fifty-five percent (283,000) of all reported structure fires occurred in one- and two-family homes, and 17% (86,500) occurred in apartments.

Four of every five fire deaths occurred in home structure fires. Eighty percent (80%) of the 4,035 total civilian deaths occurred in home structure fires. Although only 16% of all reported fires occurred in one- and two-family structures, these fires caused 69% (2,775) of the fire deaths. Apartment fires accounted for 5% of all reported fires, but resulted in 11% (445) of the deaths. Home fires are covered in more detail in the residential section of this report.

Fire deaths continued their downward trend. Total civilian fire deaths and home fire deaths specifically both fell 45% from 1977 to 1998. From 1997 to 1998, total civilian fire deaths fell very slightly (rounds to 0%) while home fire deaths fell 4%. Fire deaths followed a generally downward trend since 1977. The graph shows that the lines for home fire deaths and overall fire deaths closely resemble one another.

Vehicle fires are also a significant cause of fire deaths. During 1998, the 381,000 reported vehicle fires caused 575 civilian deaths, 2,225 civilian injuries, and $1.3 billion in direct property loss. These fires accounted for 22% of the reported fires, 14% of the civilian fire deaths, and 15% of the total direct property damage. The 480 civilian fire deaths accounted for almost three times the 170 deaths reported in non-residential structure fires and more than twice the 200 fire deaths occurring any type of building other than a home. During 1998, almost 14% of all civilian fire deaths were in highway vehicles; less than 1% occurred in non-highway vehicles such as planes, trains, ships or boats or construction equipment. Vehicle fires fell 25% from 508,000 in 1977. From 1997 to 1998, highway vehicle fires fell 5%, while Mrnon-highway vehicle fires rose 13%. A detailed report describing vehicle fires categorized by mobile property type category may be ordered from NFPA's One-Stop Data Shop.

Almost half of the reported fires were considered "outside or other." Eight hundred and fifty-seven thousand (857,000), or 49%, of the 1,755,500 total reported fires were considered outside or other. These fires caused 40, or 1%, of the civilian deaths, 1,450, or 6%, of the civilian injuries and $575 million, or 7%, of the direct property damage. These fires rose 1% from 1997 to 1998, but have fallen 60% from 1977 to 1998.

These outside and other fires include: 62,000 outside fires involving property of value; 424,000 brush, grass, or wildland fires; 229,000 outside rubbish fires; and 142,000 other fires including outside spills or leaks with ensuing fires, explosions with no after-fire, and unclassified or unknown-type fires.



The U.S. Fire Problem - 1998
Reported to Fire Departments
Civilian Deaths
Down 0%*
Down 35%
Down 48%
Firefighter Deaths
Down 6%
Down 33%
Down 47%
Civilian Injuries
Down 3%
Down 25%
Down 23%
Firefighter Injuries
Up 2%
Down 15%
Down 13%

Direct Property Damage

Adjusted for Inflation*


Up 1%

Down 0%

Up 3%

Down 26%

Up 92%

Down 27%

Civilian Deaths per Thousand Fires
Up 2%
Down 10%
Down 16%
Civilian Deaths per Million Population
Down 2%
Down 41%
Down 53%

Property Damage per Fire

Adjusted for Inflation*


Up 3%

Up 2%

Up 43%

Up 2%%

Up 68%

Up 17%

* Using the consumer price index on the Inflation Calculator at on 12/1/99 and 4/14/00.


Sources: 1988, 1997 and 1998 NFPA surveys, Fire Incident Data Organization (FIDO).

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