Vacant Residential Building Fires Report

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) United States Fire Administration (USFA) issued a special report examining the characteristics of fires in vacant residential buildings. The report, Vacant Residential Building Fires, was developed by USFA’s National Fire Data Center and is further evidence of FEMA’s commitment to sharing information with fire departments and first responders around the country to help them keep their communities safe.

The report is part of the Topical Fire Report Series and is based on 2006 to 2008 data from the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS). According to the report, an estimated 28,000 vacant residential building fires occur annually in the United States, resulting in an estimated average of 45 deaths, 225 injuries, and $900 million in property loss. Vacant residential fires are considered part of the residential fire problem as they comprise approximately 7 percent of residential building fires. In addition, intentional is the leading cause of vacant residential building fires which are more prevalent in July (9 percent), due in part to an increase in intentional fires on July 4 and 5. Finally, almost all vacant residential building fires are non-confined and half spread to involve the entire building.

The topical reports are designed to explore facets of the U.S. fire problem as depicted through data collected in NFIRS. Each topical report briefly addresses the nature of the specific fire or fire-related topic, highlights important findings from the data, and may suggest other resources to consider for further information. Also included are recent examples of fire incidents that demonstrate some of the issues addressed in the report or that put the report topic in context.

The report, Vacant Residential Building Fires,HERE

Findings

■ An estimated 28,000 vacant residential building fires are reported to U.S. fire departments each year and cause an estimated 45 deaths, 225 injuries, and $900 million in property loss.

■ Vacant residential building fires are considered part of the residential fire problem and comprise approximately 7 percent of all residential building fires.

■ Almost all vacant residential building fires are non-confined fires (over 99 percent).

■ Intentional is the leading cause of vacant residential building fires (37 percent).

■ Half of vacant residential building fires spread to involve the entire building. An additional 11 percent extend beyond the building to adjacent properties.

■ Bedrooms are the primary origin of all vacant residential building fires (12 percent). Following closely are common rooms such as dens, family and living rooms (10 percent), and cooking areas, kitchens (9 percent).

■ Vacant residential building fires are more prevalent in July (9 percent), due in part to an increase in intentional fires on July 4 and 5.

■ January 1, July 4 and 5, and October 31 have the highest incidence of vacant residential fires.

From 2006 to 2008, an estimated 28,000 vacant residential building fires were reported annually in the United States. The number of vacant residential buildings has always been seen as an issue in our society. These buildings are rarely maintained and often serve as a common site for illicit or illegal activity. In addition, vacant residential buildings are sometimes used by homeless people as temporary shelters or housing. A major concern when a vacant building catches fire is that little is known about the building’s overall condition.

Many buildings are in disrepair and can be missing certain structures, such as staircases or portions of floors. If individuals are known to use the vacant building as a residence, the unknown condition of the building and the unknown number of people using the building as shelter can put the firefighters’ lives in danger when they enter the building to attempt a rescue during a fire. The surrounding non-vacant properties are also at risk when vacant residential buildings catch fire.

It typically takes longer for vacant residential building fires to be detected as there are no occupants to be alerted by the smell or sound of the fires or respond to an alarm and the property loss is greater. In addition, if the fire has been intentionally set, especially with multiple ignition points, the damage can be greater, placing the lives of more individuals’ firefighters, adjacent residents, and any squatters in danger.

Fires in vacant residential buildings have become an even greater issue in the past few years. Many communities have seen an increase in the number of vacant residential buildings as the economy has declined; and with that an increase in the number of vacant residential building fires. From 2006 to 2008, intentionally set fires was the main cause of all vacant residential building fires (37 percent, as discussed later in this report), posing a serious issue for the community.

These types of fires continue to be a problem and concern within our society. “Devil’s Night” in Detroit, MI, is an example of the intentional fire issue in vacant properties. Prior to the late 1970s, October 30 or “Devil’s Night,” as it has been referred to in Detroit, was full of childhood pranks and minor vandalism acts. It was not until the late 1970s that this night of mischief went from being innocent to terrifying when arson became the leading cause of fire on Devil’s Night. Devil’s Night activity peaked in 1984 when over 800 fires were set in Detroit alone.

This issue of arson was exacerbated as Detroit was seeing a decrease in real estate values, resulting in some owners of vacant residences using the fires as a means to collect insurance dollars. This situation exists currently in Detroit (as well as other cities). In the 1990s, Detroit’s mayor took a major step in fighting Devil’s Night arson by renaming it “Angel’s Night” and calling upon police, firefighters, and local citizens to help patrol vacant properties that night and by cleaning up, or in some cases, removing the property entirely.

The efforts have proved effective but there is concern that the increase of vacant property within the past few years may lead to an upswing in fires in vacant and abandoned buildings. This topical report addresses the characteristics of vacant residential building fires reported to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) from 2006 to 2008. Vacant residential building fires, as analyzed in this report, include properties where the building is under construction, under major renovation, vacant and secured, vacant and unsecured, and being demolished. The remaining building status categories (occupied and operating; idle, not routinely used; building status, other; and undetermined) are considered “non-vacant” but not necessarily occupied. For the purpose of this report, the terms “residential fires” and “vacant residential fires” are synonymous with “residential building fires” and “vacant residential building fires,” 

From 2006 to 2008, an estimated 28,000 vacant residential building fires were reported annually in the United States. The number of vacant residential buildings has always been seen as an issue in our society. These buildings are rarely maintained and often serve as a common site for illicit or illegal activity. In addition, vacant residential buildings are sometimes used by homeless people as temporary shelters or housing. A major concern when a vacant building catches fire is that little is known about the building’s overall condition.

Many buildings are in disrepair and can be missing certain structures, such as staircases or portions of floors. If individuals are known to use the vacant building as a residence, the unknown condition of the building and the unknown number of people using the building as shelter can put the firefighters’ lives in danger when they enter the building to attempt a rescue during a fire. The surrounding non-vacant properties are also at risk when vacant residential buildings catch fire.

It typically takes longer for vacant residential building fires to be detected as there are no occupants to be alerted by the smell or sound of the fires or respond to an alarm and the property loss is greater. In addition, if the fire has been intentionally set, especially with multiple ignition points, the damage can be greater, placing the lives of more individuals’ firefighters, adjacent residents, and any squatters in danger.

Fires in vacant residential buildings have become an even greater issue in the past few years. Many communities have seen an increase in the number of vacant residential buildings as the economy has declined; and with that an increase in the number of vacant residential building fires. From 2006 to 2008, intentionally set fires was the main cause of all vacant residential building fires (37 percent, as discussed later in this report), posing a serious issue for the community.

These types of fires continue to be a problem and concern within our society. “Devil’s Night” in Detroit, MI, is an example of the intentional fire issue in vacant properties. Prior to the late 1970s, October 30 or “Devil’s Night,” as it has been referred to in Detroit, was full of childhood pranks and minor vandalism acts. It was not until the late 1970s that this night of mischief went from being innocent to terrifying when arson became the leading cause of fire on Devil’s Night. Devil’s Night activity peaked in 1984 when over 800 fires were set in Detroit alone.

This issue of arson was exacerbated as Detroit was seeing a decrease in real estate values, resulting in some owners of vacant residences using the fires as a means to collect insurance dollars. This situation exists currently in Detroit (as well as other cities). In the 1990s, Detroit’s mayor took a major step in fighting Devil’s Night arson by renaming it “Angel’s Night” and calling upon police, firefighters, and local citizens to help patrol vacant properties that night and by cleaning up, or in some cases, removing the property entirely.

The efforts have proved effective but there is concern that the increase of vacant property within the past few years may lead to an upswing in fires in vacant and abandoned buildings. This topical report addresses the characteristics of vacant residential building fires reported to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) from 2006 to 2008. Vacant residential building fires, as analyzed in this report, include properties where the building is under construction, under major renovation, vacant and secured, vacant and unsecured, and being demolished. The remaining building status categories (occupied and operating; idle, not routinely used; building status, other; and undetermined) are considered “non-vacant” but not necessarily occupied. For the purpose of this report, the terms “residential fires” and “vacant residential fires” are synonymous with “residential building fires” and “vacant residential building fires,” respectively. “Vacant residential fires” is used through-out the body of this report; the findings, tables, charts, headings, and footnotes reflect the full category, “vacant residential building fires.”

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